Image courtesy of Giovana Fleck

While China is drawing pride from hosting its second-ever Olympic Games in February 2022 and sees this as an opportunity to remind the world it is now a superpower, the international gathering has turned out to be much more than a sports event: it is now an arena for competing narratives about public health, environmental sustainability, human rights, diplomatic relations, the role of sponsors. And in the cacophony, few voices are in favor of Beijing. 

When Azerbaijan was scheduled to host the European games in 2015, fans and activists all over the world protested in light of the nation’s alleged human rights violations, rigged elections, and history of torturing dissidents. Many accused the nation of attempting to draw attention from controversy over its atrocities by putting on a fun-filled, nationalistic European games. Thus the term “sportswashing” was born — when a  government, company, or body attempts to improve its reputation through sporting events. While the term may be new, the practice has been occurring as long as there has been money, power, or prestige associated with athletics — always.

This term is particularly relevant this year as Beijing gears up to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, running from February 4 to February 20. The event will be held barely six months after the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which took place in July 2021 with no spectators allowed, due to COVID delays and precautions. This will be China’s second time hosting the Olympics and first-ever winter Olympics — making it the only city on earth to host both the Summer and Winter Games. 

The upcoming games will take place on a backdrop of vast human rights violations in China including the continued suppression of Uyghur and other Muslim communities, environmental exploitation in water-starved Northern China, and increased free speech suppression amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

There is already evidence that Beijing is attempting to draw attention from these issues before the February opening ceremony. And the world is taking notice. So far, several nations announced they will boycott the games in some form. Some nations, like the US and Australia, are refusing to send diplomatic officials to the game, while other countries are barring their athletes from participating altogether. Some athletes themselves are also individually boycotting the games, using their platforms to protest apparent injustices.

China is also drawing controversy and ire from athletic bodies. When Chinese Olympic tennis star Peng Shuai publicly accused China’s former Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault, she disappeared from public view for two weeks, and then resurfaced under suspicious circumstances, leading some to believe she was being threatened by the Chinese government. This incident caught international attention and led the International Women’s Tennis Association and a number of world-famous athletes to condemn the Chinese government and call for an independent investigation into the allegations. 

A worsening COVID-19 outbreak in China, spurred by the highly contagious Omicron variant, is also raising safety concerns in the lead-up to the games. The games may likely complicate China’s “Zero-COVID” policy, which includes strict lockdowns and quarantine measures for anyone who is sick, in order to achieve 0 community transmission. Some athletes have pulled out of the event and North Korea has said it will not participate at all due to COVID concerns. 

Regardless of the medal count of the games, the 2022 Olympics will undoubtedly be a point of political and social turmoil. See below for Global Voice’s breakdown of this historic event. 

Stories about When sports are political: The other side of Beijing 2022 from January, 2022