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The Olympics Have Been a Raging Success — for China

The Olympics Have Been a Raging Success — for China

Thursday, 17 February, 2022 - 05:30

The most notable record at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics won't be recorded by a skier or skater. Instead it'll be set by NBCUniversal. When the flame goes dark, the US network will likely have recorded the most poorly viewed Winter Games in history.

Covid, half-empty stadiums, human-rights concerns and boycotts have depressed viewers and ratings. They've also battered China's image overseas and led to questions about whether the Olympics themselves are in terminal decline.

That's how the games look from the US, at least.

In China it's a different story. Television ratings are strong, and social-media discussion is pervasive. Amid omicron threats and fears, the Chinese people as well as the government are reveling in their athletes and their achievements, as well as in the successful pandemic-era staging of the world's biggest athletic event.

That surge in popularity was hard won. Beijing's winters are cold and dry. Winter sports, long a passion of wealthier countries that can afford them, have never enjoyed much popularity in China.

So when China was narrowly awarded the Games in July 2015, the Chinese public's response was ambivalent, at best (especially compared with the nationwide celebrations that followed the award of the 2008 Summer Games). Undeterred, the authorities quickly went to work building a winter sports movement that could entertain while promoting patriotism, national unity and other political goals.

The inevitable starting point was new and renovated infrastructure, such as the high-speed rail line connecting Beijing to Zhangjiakou's ski slopes. So, too, was a national program to build out hundreds of new ski resorts, ice rinks and other winter sports and tourism sites.

The investments have proved popular: The government claims that more than 346 million Chinese have participated in winter sports since 2015. Even if the numbers are exaggerated, the growth in the seasonal sports business is not. In the month before the 2022 opening ceremonies, Alibaba reported that sales of winter sports gear surged 107%.

The authorities recognized early on that winter sports success wouldn't be built on ice rinks and ski slopes alone. They would also need winter sports stars. Flush with cash, the government has spent handsomely on training athletes. It has also naturalized already successful athletes to fill the considerable holes in its national team roster.

Eileen Gu, the American-born champion freestyle skier, is the prime example. Not only has she won two medals (so far), but she's become the face of the 2022 Games. By choosing to represent China instead of the US, she's also become a patriotic icon for a confident, young Chinese generation keen to push back against suggestions that their country isn't worthy of the respect accorded its rivals.

Something else China has done right, at least in the eyes of the government and many of its citizens, is Covid Zero, its zero-tolerance approach to outbreaks. For two years, any hint of Covid has been met with mass testing, often of entire cities, and swift quarantines and isolation.

To newly arrived foreigners unaccustomed to such strictures, Covid Zero smacks of authoritarianism. But in China, these measures are often (though not always) viewed as the reasonable cost of maintaining the country's low reported infection, hospitalization and death rates. The approach hasn’t suppressed the Games, it has enabled them, and it’s widely cited as evidence of China's superior approach to public health.

Ordinarily, China's near-decade of effort to build support for the games would pay off with crowded venues filled with flag-waving fans and Olympic parks packed with sports-mad locals. Covid restrictions have largely prevented those gatherings, but they haven't suppressed the nationwide enthusiasm for the Games.

Nearly 600 million Chinese have tuned in at some point, and the opening ceremony was reportedly the country’s most watched broadcast in a decade. At Beijing's flagship Olympics merchandise store, lines run hundreds deep to buy souvenirs (in particular, stuffed versions of the 2022 games mascot). All the while, Olympics-related topics have dominated the trending topics lists on social media for weeks, often accounting for half of the top 10 most-discussed or searched topics.

China isn't oblivious to the overseas critiques of the games, its human-rights record and the calls for a boycott. But rather than address the reasons for the criticism, discussion in traditional and social media focuses on the point that foreigners with their own human-rights issues have the gumption to criticize China at all, especially as it successfully holds a pandemic Olympics. Amid that nationalist surge, few are willing to speak up, while others are simply focused on the unifying triumph that the event represents for China.

That pride may not interest or even register with American and other overseas viewers. But for China, outsiders were never the intended audience, anyway. These Olympics were intended to entertain and benefit the hosts.


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