On the eve of these Olympics, which have been scarred by more controversy and tone-deafness than any since Moscow in 1980, Thomas Bach was asked a simple question. What was his message to the Uyghur population of China, who believe they are being repressed?
Say what you want about the president of the International Olympic Committee. But 46 years after he won a fencing gold medal, he retains an uncanny ability to parry and evade.
“With regards to the Uyghur population, the position of the IOC must be to give political neutrality,” said Bach, before offering a history lesson on how the ancient Games in Greece came to an end after a thousand years because of Roman interference. “We are not commenting on political issues because … if we get in the middle of intentions and disputes and confrontations of political powers, then we are putting the Games at risk.”
Bach was aiming for realpolitik, and also not to upset his hosts. The problem with his strategy, though, was that it was bound to upset everyone else.
To claim an equivalence between the Chinese Communist party and the Uyghur Muslims, the powerful and the powerless, the elite and the damned, was damning enough. But when set against the backdrop of harrowing stories of millions of Uyghurs being forced into re-education camps, where some claim they have been raped or sterilised, his comments felt as cold as the tip of his old foil blade.
Human rights groups, some of whom have dubbed these the “Genocide Games”, will attempt to keep the world’s attention on the issue by protesting outside the White House on Saturday. But in China, which denies any abuses in Xinjiang and calls the allegations the “lie of the century”, such criticism is an irrelevance. For them the focus of these Olympics is on delivery and glory.
China Daily, the official English-language mouthpiece for the Chinese government, said on Thursday that the excitement for the Winter Games has already “hit fever pitch” in Beijing. They might be right. But what might be an iron truth could also be rampant propaganda; the sporting equivalent of reporting record grain harvests in a famine. It is impossible to know. That is because of a second strand running through these Games: the “closed loop” Covid regulations which are the most restrictive in history.
For all their time in Beijing, athletes, officials and journalists will be cordoned off from the outside world; their lives restricted to the airport, hotel, special buses and the Olympic venues. Escaping the bubble is impossible. In the Guardian’s case it would involve evading nearly a dozen hotel security guards and vaulting over a 10-foot high fence. Beijing police have even warned locals to stay away from Olympic vehicles in the event of an accident.
Even so, some of the world’s leading athletes will miss out. The top women’s ski jumper, Marita Kramer of Austria, is one of them, having failed to recover from the virus in time to make it to the Chinese capital.
Others are in a government isolation facility, hoping they will be out in time. So far no British athlete is among them.
Such measures are ostensibly designed to prevent Covid running rampant in the local population. But they have a handy byproduct of keeping journalists and athletes pegged in and perhaps less willing to speak out too. In this area, however, Bach was more encouraging and forceful, promising that freedom of speech would be protected. “We had this in Tokyo, it will be here, it will be in Paris, it’s irrespective of the host of the Games,” he added.
There was, however, a kicker, with Bach clearly hoping that athletes will keep controversial opinions to themselves. “If an actor is engaging in a theatre playing Hamlet, then nobody ever asks the question when playing Hamlet he must or should express during the play his political opinion,” he said at one point. “The same is true for the athletes.”
To protest or not to protest, that is the question. Meanwhile there was also good news for domestic fans, with organisers confirming that 150,000 spectators would be invited to attend events in the coming fortnight. No international supporters have been allowed into China, however.
So what of Britain’s chances? There is always more jeopardy in winter sports than in their summer equivalent, where the risk of a crash landing is higher than on a track or bike. Nonetheless it is not out of the question that Britain beats its record of five medals at a Winter Games, with its world champion curlers and Charlotte Bankes in the snowboard cross leading the charge.
Elsewhere the Jamaican four-man bobsleigh team will bring nostalgia and diversity to a Games that remains overwhelmingly white. But the battle to be the star of these Olympics is likely to be between Eileen Gu, a Chinese athlete born in California, who is gunning for three gold medals in the big air, slopestyle and halfpipe, and the American skier Mikaela Shiffrin.
Shiffrin already has three golds to her name and, if she can bag another three, she will become the most decorated Olympic alpine skier in history. But she has already admitted that the pressure is on, saying: “It’s not like rainbows and sunshine and butterflies and everything that people sort of say.”
Speaking of history, when the Games are declared open on Friday, Beijing will become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. History, of course, is different from legacy. While that legacy is yet to be fully written, the early chapters are not exactly encouraging.