Shortcuts / 03 February 2022

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

It feels like the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were on 2 seconds ago – and they basically were because of COVID delays. But it’s time to get set for the next round – the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. And there’s a lot going on: international politics, human rights issues, the pandemic, and environmental concerns. And, of course, a big global sporting event where Aussies will compete for the medals… So in this Squiz Shortcut, we cover issues like why Australia and other nations are staging a diplomatic boycott, as well as taking a look at the sporting side and Australia’s chances on the podium.

It feels like the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were on 2 seconds ago…
It does – and they basically were because of COVID delays. But it’s time to get set for the next round…

Alright, we’re in Winter Olympics mode. How did they come about?
It started not long after the first modern Olympics, just 5 years after in 1896. Known as the Nordic Games, the athletes were mostly from countries like Norway and Sweden.

How was it received?
It was very popular and organisers decided to hold the competition regularly. There was a disruption to those plans due to WWI, but the next big event was held in Chamonix in France in 1924.

And it was a huge success?
Yep – so much so that the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, modified its charter to create a separate Winter Olympics. So from then on, the Games were held every 4 years.

So what kinds of sports are included?
There are 15 sports that cover events on the snow like skiing and snowboarding, and then there are those on the ice like figure skating, the luge, and ice hockey.

Got it. So let’s take a skate down memory lane… What have been some highlights over the years?
One that springs to mind is Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, the British figure skating pair who made history at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They performed their free dance to Ravel’s Bolero and became the highest scoring figure skaters of all time.

It was magical… And what about the Miracle on Ice?
That was in 1980 in Lake Placid. The Soviet Union had won 5 of the previous 6 ice hockey gold medals and they were the strong favourites to win it again. Their team was pretty much all professionals and standing in their way was the plucky USA team that was mostly amateurs. They met in the semi-finals and the USA came back from a goal down to win 4-3 and they went on to win the gold medal too.

So it was truly a miracle… What about some Aussie moments?
Well, we’re more of summer sports kinda country, it’s probably not too surprising that it took us more than 80 years to win our first Winter Games gold medal. And it happened in the most bizarre of circumstances…

Go on…
Against all odds, Aussie Steven Bradbury won gold in the final of the 1000m skating event at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. He stuck with the other skaters for most of the race but they pulled ahead of him for the final bit, they were just too strong and fast. But as the skaters rounded the final corner, the lead pack collided with each other and were all sent crashing…

But not Bradbury?
Yep – he was far enough behind to miss the chaos, so he easily skated through for gold in disbelief. He later said “I’ll accept this gold medal. But not for the 90 seconds of the race – I’m going to take it for the 14 years of hard work.”

And fair enough… Wasn’t there another Aussie gold medal at those Olympics?
Yep, but it was in a much more conventional manner. Two days after Bradbury’s win, Alisa Camplin won gold in the aerial skiing final.

What’s that again?
Aerial skiing is where you hit the ramp at pace, which launches you up into the air – you do some spins and turns and then land on the steep slope.

So it’s not for the faint-hearted…
Not at all. Camplin was a gymnast and track and field athlete as a kid, and she turned to aerial skiing in her quest to go to the Olympics. But she broke a lot of bones on the way to gold, and actually broke her ankles just 6 weeks before the games. But she got there and Australia went absolutely nuts watching it.

So are Steven and Alisa our most successful Winter Olympians?
Nope – that honour goes to freestyle skier Dale Begg-Smith. He won gold at the Turin Olympics in 2006 and silver in Vancouver in 2010. He was actually born in Canada…

Wait, what?
Yep – but the Canadian team thought he was spending too much time on his computer business rather than ski training. So he moved to Australia with his brother, they became citizens and he competed as an Aussie.

We’ll take it… So fast-forwarding to this year’s Winter Olympics – there’s been a bit said already about some of the issues faced by this Games – what are they?
Well, it’s fair to say these Olympics are a bit complicated – and that goes well beyond COVID… China’s human rights abuses – specifically the accusations of genocide against the Uyghurs in the country’s Xinjiang province – are particularly in focus.

What’s that about again?
Long story short, the Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim ethnic group who have been detained in Chinese forced labour camps, and there are credible reports that many women have been sterilized so they can’t have children.

How has China responded to that?
China denies these claims and says they are job training and education camps to help locals – basically they’ve told everyone to stay out of their affairs.

And how have other countries responded?
The Australian Government, alongside the US, the UK and Canada are making a formal complaint about the treatment of the Uyghurs through what’s known as a diplomatic boycott. That means our athletes will go, as well as their entourage, but Government officials and diplomats will stay at home.

Gotcha. Have there been other Olympics boycotts in the past?
Yep – in 1980 there was a boycott that saw athletes stay home as well. Then-US President Jimmy Carter announced that Team USA would not be attending the Moscow Summer Games that year.

Why was that?
The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, so Carter pulled the pin. Australia did compete, but they did so under the Olympic flag rather than the Australian flag, as a form of political protest

That was a huge call… What was the reaction at home?
It was mixed. Most US politicians agreed with the protest action, but a survey of some of the leading athletes at the time revealed that athletes had mixed thoughts.

What did they say?
They said that they wished it was an individual choice, and perhaps they felt they were being punished because just a handful of other countries – notably West Germany, Japan and Canada – also gave the Games a miss.

But the athletes are going to this year’s Games…
That’s right. And other countries like New Zealand said they wouldn’t have been sending officials anyway cause of COVID.

Okay, let’s get into COVID.
Sure thing. China still has a “zero COVID” policy, and recently the country’s President Xi Jinping said his country would present a “streamlined, safe and splendid Games to the world”.

But that’s been really tested by Omicron…
It has, and infections are rising in the capital. As for dealing with this for the Games, the Chair of the Olympics medical expert panel, Dr Brian McCloskey told the media last week that the aim was “zero spread” amongst athletes, rather than zero cases.

What does that mean?
So they’ll test for cases and then isolate people who test positive. Those who do have COVID will be able to take part after returning 2 negative tests. And all athletes and team officials, as well as media, will be in what’s referred to as “closed loop” bubbles for the fortnight the Games are underway.

Which is…?
Basically, there are 3 mini bubbles in the city that are interconnected and completely cut off from the public.

That sounds pretty full-on…
Yep, these Games are being billed as the world’s strictest mass sporting event since the pandemic began. And Games organisers have announced that tickets will be super restricted with only “selected” spectators permitted.

So the average punter won’t be able to go?
Nope. There will be a handful of people watching, with crowd restrictions even tougher than what we saw in Tokyo. That’s a big shame – and not just for the Chinese – it will affect that “Olympic spirit” that lifts the tournament.

Any other issues I should know about?
Well, last but certainly not least is the criticism that these Games are far from good for the environment because all the snow is artificial.

What is artificial snow?
It’s snow that’s injected with water to harden it and then treated with chemicals to keep it in place. It’s probably going to become more common in the future as we feel the worsening effects of climate change… But scientists say it’s going to become more common at Games into the future as we feel the worsening effects of climate change.

Alright then… So onto the fun stuff – the sports. How many Aussie athletes will be competing in Beijing?
Australia won 2 silver and a bronze medal at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang in South Korea, and we’re sending 44 athletes to compete in Beijing – more than half of them are women.

Please tell me we have some medal prospects…
We sure do. Let’s start with snowboarder Scotty James. This is his 4th Olympics. His pet event is the halfpipe competition, where his biggest competition is Japan’s Ayumu Hirano. But James has been working on something called the triple cork, which is basically spinning around 3 times in the air.

That sounds like ‘dont try this at home’ kinda stuff…
Definitely. Another Aussie to watch out for is mogul skier Jakara Anthony. She’s having a great year on the slopes. She’s a genuine gold medal chance – she’s ranked 3rd in moguls this season and won a World Cup event in France late last year.

Any other Aussie medal hopes?
Yes, world champion aerial skier Laura Peel is competing at her 3rd Games. She’s a very strong contender for a medal and has been in very good form of late. At a recent event in the US she won with one of the highest scores seen in her event in recent years.

Good one… So are there any international names I should look out for?
Expect to hear about Eileen Gu, who was born in the US but will be competing for China. She’s a freestyle skier and runway model, and soon to be Stanford university student.

So she has beauty, brains, and sporting talent…
She sure does. You might also want to keep an eye out for Francesco Friedrich. The German is considered one of the best bobsledders of all time and has heaps of World Cup and World Championship medals. At the last Olympics, he won 2 gold medals, which he’ll be defending at the Games.

So how big are these Games expected to be in terms of viewership?
Well, the Summer Games are always bigger in terms of eyeballs on TV. The television audiences for last year’s Tokyo Olympics in the US, France, the UK and Germany were down on Rio 5 years earlier, but numbers were up here in Oz.

Because we were all stuck at home anyway…
Yep – the pandemic no doubt played a part. But the timezone was another factor, as it was broadcast during primetime here. It should be good again this time around with a 3-hour time difference for those in the east, except Queensland.

Well, it will be interesting to see how it goes this year…
Yep, and no doubt we’ll all be downhill skiing and curling experts again overnight. Or more like armchair experts…

Squiz recommends:

Cool Runnings movie – available on Disney+

Sport Today’s Beijing Blitz podcast

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