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A city apart, Beijing steels itself for the Winter Olympics

by Emmanuel Ogundele
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Back in July 2021 the International Olympic Committee announced a change to the Olympic motto, adding the word “Together” to its old 125-year-old “Faster, Higher, Stronger” banner.  It was meant to signify the importance of standing together in solidarity.  But as Beijing readies itself to host this year’s Winter Olympics, its focus is on keeping people apart.

Landing in Beijing right now is like entering a fortress. At the Capital International Airport – the only port of entry permitted for athletes, Games personnel, and media – all Olympic participants will be kept totally apart from the general population. In the terminal designated to handle Olympic traffic a high wall snakes throughout, guaranteeing physical separation from the moment participants arrive until they depart for their home countries.

Once outside the airport, Olympic participants will enter what organisers are calling the “Closed Loop System”, which is not so much a bubble as a series of bubbles, connected by dedicated shuttles.  These vehicles will whisk them between approved hotels and venues, as well as to the Olympic village, all accessible only to credentialed participants.

Those traveling to the mountain venues away from Beijing will do so via high-speed trains and pristine new highways, freshly built for this giant, complex event.  The trains even have designated carriages only for the Olympic crowd, while closed-loop buses will travel back and forth in specially marked lanes.  Unaccredited drivers who encroach into these dedicated spaces will face fines.

The rules are so extreme that if a vehicle from an Olympic convoy should be involved in an accident, locals have been told not to approach it; instead, a special unit of medics has been set up to respond to such incidents.

All those coming here have already been obliged to download an official app, through which they must monitor their health, beginning 14 days before their arrival.  Such strict surveillance and contact tracing measures are familiar to anyone living in China, but they are making visitors uneasy.

Cybersecurity experts have warned that the app has serious encryption flaws, meaning personal health data could be compromised.  China and the IOC have dismissed these concerns, but athletes from Team USA and other countries have been advised to bring along disposable ‘burner’ phones, rather than risk their personal devices.

The fact that these Olympics are taking place so close to the anniversary of the lockdown of Wuhan, which marked the beginning of this gruelling pandemic, looms over the occasion.  Back then, the world watched as a city of more than 11 million was sealed off, the streets were emptied, people were confined to their homes, and hospitals quickly filled up with panicked patients.

Rather like these Olympics, Wuhan’s lockdown was a demonstration both of China’s ability to control and mobilise.  Giant field hospitals and quarantine centres appeared within days to isolate the infected, and Wuhan’s strictest of lockdowns lasted 76 days before it was relaxed.

The brutal and painful episode foreshadows China’s current rigid Covid policies, some of the most stringent anywhere in the world.  Two years ago, China told the United States it was overreacting when it cut off flights from the country; but today Beijing has virtually closed off its borders and works hard to portray the virus as an imported threat.  A 21-day quarantine period is already standard here for international arrivals, while some cities require additional isolation on top of that.

The Olympics add another layer to this desire to control, especially given the backdrop of increasingly frosty relationships with the West.  Scrutiny of human rights issues in China has become more intense than ever, while tensions in Hong Kong and Taiwan have increased.  All of this has come in tandem with international frustrations over China’s opacity around the origins of the Covid outbreak. 

Beijing has hosted the Olympics before, in August 2008, making it the only city to host both the summer and winter games.  It has changed dramatically in the ensuing 14 years.

Back in 2008, China wanted to portray itself as the emerging world power, with a ‘coming out party’ on a global stage. The Chinese government put English-language signs up throughout the city and embarked on an enthusiastic programme to teach its citizens English.

This time around, officials have ordered the removal of English signs at subway stations, replacing them with Pinyin, the country’s own system of Romanising Chinese characters.  Public sentiment is taking a cue from this official messaging.  Now the pervasive feeling is one of rising resentment toward the West, and the country appears to be increasingly looking inward.

China wants this Olympics to be a demonstration of its ability to stage a high-profile global event despite Covid.  It also wants to show the superiority of its methods of containing the virus and, by extension, its authoritarian political system.  There is no question that both will be tested to the extreme.

With an estimated 11,000 international arrivals expected here, shuttling through three competition zones up to 111 miles apart, this is arguably the most ambitious quarantine project ever undertaken.  But there is no doubting China’s determination to make it work.  Whether Beijing 2022 will be remembered as an event that lives up to the spirit of the Olympic movement, and its newly revised motto, is another matter entirely.

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