On the way to the Beijing Winter Games six months after the end of the Tokyo Olympics
A sigh of relief reverberated in Tokyo on Sunday, signaling the end of the Summer Olympics which some thought would never take place due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But the hangover of hosting the toughest Olympics in history will not end quickly. In six months, the International Olympic Committee will move its marquee to Beijing for the controversial 2022 Winter Games which will open on February 4.
While the President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, nicknamed Tokyo “the Olympic Games of hope, solidarity and peace”, some observers are already questioning the merits of the next step.
“The twin debacle of Tokyo and Beijing raises serious questions about the entire Olympic project,” said Jules Boykoff, Olympic Games historian at the University of the Pacific in Oregon.
The global pandemic that ravaged the Tokyo Games will follow the Winter Olympians to Beijing. This is not the only problem that has gained ground.
As Beijing is set to become the first city to host a summer and winter Olympics, it faces growing calls to boycott human rights violations, questions about how it will manage the coronavirus and the aesthetics of competition on artificial snowfields.
Politics will come to the fore as it did 14 years ago when Beijing hosted the Summer Games.
The Chinese government has faced international criticism for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. The leadership has also come under scrutiny due to the crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong and its policies regarding Tibet and Taiwan.
Human rights groups have claimed that more than a million Uyghurs have been placed in internment camps. Beijing said the camps are training centers designed to stop Islamic extremism.
Beijing won the Winter Games in 2015 when its only competition was Almaty, Kazakhstan. It became one choice or the other after Oslo, Norway withdrew due to escalating costs to host the competition.
While a full-scale boycott is unlikely, Western activists and lawmakers have called for a diplomatic snub by refusing to send official government officials to the Beijing Games.
Beyond the political arena, other questions are emerging. One of the most important is whether spectators will be allowed at the venues, some 120 miles from Beijing. Chinese leaders last week temporarily closed airports among other travel restrictions to slow the spread of the COVID Delta variant.
Then there’s the weather, which hit 78 degrees last February during a heat wave in the middle of winter. At least the artificial snow on the slopes won’t melt.
Despite the problems, the Winter Games promise to feature the biggest names in snow and ice: figure skater Nathen Chen, skier Mikaela Shiffrin and snowboarder Shaun White – if they qualify.
The Beijing Games are expected to host a total of 109 events in the sports of biathlon, bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating and skiing. The IOC plans to introduce seven new events, including men’s and women’s big air freestyle, women’s solo bobsleigh and mixed team competitions.
Here’s a look at some of the top athletes to watch out for:
Shiffrin, 26, has the chance to become the most decorated American skier in history. She is a two-time gold medalist, three-time overall champion of the World Cup and four-time world champion in slalom.
The French Mathieu Faivre and Alexis Pinturault are among the best in men with the Austrians Vincent Kriechmayr and Matthias Mayer and the five-time medalist Kjetil Jansrud of Norway.
Bryce Bennett and Travis Ganong of Lake Tahoe could challenge them in the speed trials.
Eileen Gu, a teenager from Stanford, is an aspiring X-Games star in downhill skiing while representing China to help develop the sport in her mother’s homeland. The San Franciscan learned to ski in Tahoe.
Canada’s Mikael Kingsbury is looking to defend his mogul ski title against Pyeongchang. He also won a silver medal in Sochi in 2014. Kingsbury has won the most freestyle skiing world medals of all men in history.
Nathan Chen struggled on his Olympic debut in 2018 to place fifth. Since then, the Yale student has been unstoppable as the reigning three-time world champion. Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, reigning two-time Olympic champion, is his closest competitor.
Vincent Zhou of Palo Alto has been Chen’s finalist at the US Championships for two of the past three years.
Russians Anna Shcherbakova and teenager Kamila Valieva are favorites in the women’s competition. Bradie Tennell is America’s most consistent skater, but 16-year-old Alysa Liu of Richmond is making her senior debut with a lot of promise. Karen Chen of Fremont could also be part of her second Olympic team.
Reigning halfpipe champion Chloe Kim of Orange County and Mammoth Lakes is one of the biggest stars in her sport. Kim, 21, took a year off the slopes to attend Princeton. But now she’s back.
The same goes for White, who is aiming for his fourth Olympic title at 34. But he could meet stiff competition from Truckee’s protÃ©gÃ© Toby Miller.
NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid lead the Canadian squad, which is expected to reign on the ice as the reigning world champions.
The women’s ice hockey tournament is set to be another North American showdown between Canada and the United States. The United States has University of Wisconsin goal scorer Abby Roque – coached by former Sharks player Tony Granato – making his long-awaited Olympic debut.