The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games was perhaps the most unusual in decades owing to a fraught political atmosphere—the pandemic, press restrictions, human rights violation in Xinjiang, crackdowns in Hong Kong, and the threat of war at the Ukrainian border (which has now come to pass) all hovered in the background. It took place under intense political scrutiny and came to a muted end. After 16 days and 109 events, Norway harvested the largest number of medals, followed by Germany, China, the United States, and Sweden. The games, which were often criticized for being tone-deaf to China’s various alleged human rights abuses and authoritarian rule, followed a system of political neutrality and a rigorous system of controlled messaging within China that made it difficult for participants, athletes, and media to make statements of a political nature or offer criticisms of China in any form.
From Beijing’s perspective, the games appear to have been successful and reporting on the Olympics bears testament to that success. The games offered China the opportunity to show the rest of the world just how far they had come from the Summer 2008 Olympics games. With the deployment of a wide range of technologies— artificial intelligence, 5G, augmented reality, naked eye 3D, and cloud computing among others— it was a chance for China to showcase its technological sophistication, advancement, and vision for the future. The use of clean energy to light the Olympic torch was also an opportunity to showcase China’s commitments to its carbon emission goals. Renewable energy powered the game venues, with solar and wind as the primary energy sources—the first of its kind for the Olympic games. As Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee said, “The Olympic Villages were outstanding. The venues – magnificent … the organization – extraordinary”, all thanks to the Chinese government who curated an “unforgettable experience” for all participants.
The opening ceremony of the games also displayed deepening Russia—China ties. Although Russia is not officially allowed to compete in the Olympic games owing to the 2014 Sochi doping scandal, its athletes still competed under the acronym ROC, Russian Olympic Committee. Putin, who had earlier criticized the Biden Administration’s diplomatic boycott of the games, attended the opening ceremonies armed with a deal to supply China an additional ten billion cubic meters of natural gas. With a five-thousand-word joint statement from both leaders affirming their deepening relationship, they presented a unified effort against Western containment efforts. Their joint statement reiterated support for multilateralism in the international arena, coordinated pandemic response, possible linkage of the Eurasian development plan and the Belt and Road Initiative, and joint efforts against climate change. The statement also expressed worries on “attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent region…” and their resolve to jointly combat such forces.
Nonetheless, Beijing was the target of very serious criticisms during the games. Its effort to deflect criticisms on Xinjiang by trotting out a Uyghur cross-country skier as the final torch bearer drew derision (the skier never competed despite Beijing’s claims that they were selected due to their athleticism). The disappeared athlete Peng Shuai who had previously accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault was carted from interview to interview to prove that all was well in China. This PR campaign did not seem to achieve much in improving China’s image. A member of China’s Olympics organizing committee also warned foreign athletes against making statements or exhibiting behaviors that may be in violation of Chinese law as said statements or behaviors would be punished. Even the largely well-maintained neutrality of the host was pierced when the host’s spokeswoman Yan Jiarong responded to questions surrounding Taiwanese athletes and the Xinjiang human rights crisis by saying that Taiwan is an indivisible part of China, and reports on forced labor and China’s treatment of the Uyghurs were “based on lies.” To a certain extent, Beijing was a wounded host with a lot to brag about the structure of games but ultimately obtained very little in improving its image.
In response to alleged human rights violations in China, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the games. A few American allies, including Britain, Japan, Germany, and Australia, supported the boycott. However, this effort was largely symbolic because boycotting countries still sent athletes to the games. About twenty countries sent their heads of state to the opening ceremonies. Both secretaries general of UN and WHO were among the VIPs that were subsequently received by either President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang. The diplomatic boycott of the games was an effective shaming tactic, but it achieved little other than aligning China with Russia. The Atlantic put out a scathing article on the hypocritical Western attitudes regarding human rights violations. The article called out prominent voices like Tucker Carlson, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Mike Pompeo for pointing out human rights violations by China not because they cared deeply about such violations but because it presented them an opportunity to cast China in a negative light. The article also called out US organizations like the National Basketball Organization (NBA) for staying silent on violations by China for fear of repercussions like the 2021 ban on the Celtics star, Enes Kanter, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.
For Western media outlets, covering the game was a challenge. Balancing moral criticisms, business interests, and journalistic ethics during the games was a delicate dance. The U.S.-based National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was at the forefront of this balancing act. NBC, which also has a Beijing office, has exclusive broadcast rights to the Olympics through 2032. Acknowledging the less-than-ideal atmosphere surrounding the games, and the political pressure to cover the games within the context of the allegations against China, NBC made a statement saying they would cover the games, US athletes, as well as the pressing issues clouding the games. True to their word, NBC coverage of the games has included stark discussions about human rights and commentary from U.S.-based China experts on these issues. Sports networks like ESPN declined to send reporters to cover the games as messaging considered critical to the Chinese government was said to be met with swift repercussions. Although many say the games had a largest viewership across social media platforms, its television rating was the lowest in years.
Multinational sponsors did not give up the opportunity to advertise despite tremendous pressure from human rights organizations demanding them to back out. Sponsors like Visa and Coca-Cola elected to stay silent and displayed unusually muted marketing in the run-up to the games. In the battle between morality and business interests, these companies chose to remain quiet rather than draw the ire of China. Compared to the benefits of business with China, the rights and freedoms of the Uyghurs seemed a less urgent price to pay.
China did not win a decisive public diplomacy battle as host of the games. The pandemic restricted the number of people that could physically attend, and the diplomatic boycott led by the US added to the atmosphere of notoriety surrounding the games. Media companies and advertisers were still using their pre-pandemic marketing strategies but will have to update said strategies as the public’s viewing habits change. Coupled with the overwhelming political backlash surrounding the games, companies like NBC lost considerable viewership and revenues.
The sure winners of the games were the almost three thousand athletes who participated. It was their moment to shine after years of hard training. Their spirit of comradery was a joy to behold and one that nations should learn and adapt — to compete according to the rules of the game and accept defeat without anger but with a determination to excel next time around. The athletes laughed, cried, and celebrated together. They attended the opening ceremonies passionately and participated enthusiastically in the closing ceremonies. Most enjoyed the facilities and were grateful for the organizing committee’s careful planning and meticulous effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Despite distractions caused by moments like the doping controversy, athletes like Erin Jackson, Nathan Chen, Eileen Gu, Elena Myers Taylor, to name a few, seized the moment. Countries would do well to emulate the single-minded determination of these athletes in presenting the best version of themselves and adhering to the rules of the games without guile to promote peace and unity within the international system.