Beijing Olympics: journey to the heart of the closed Games

The Olympic Shuttle winds its way along the main road to the Zhangjiakou site, 180 km north of Beijing. The landscapes pass. Gray hills with sparse, parched vegetation. When suddenly, at the bend of a bend, shines an immaculate white track. On a side of the mountain, a huge springboard has covered its coat of snow.

→ CONTEXT. Beijing Olympics: the Winter Games opened in a China withdrawn

The demarcation is clear: to his left, gray, to his right, gray. Same situation a few hundred meters away, at the National Center for Biathlon and Cross-Country Skiing. Or tens of kilometers away, on the alpine ski slopes of Yanqing.

If we tighten the frame, the postcard takes shape. The sunny snow, these little fir trees that can’t be found anywhere else in the area, the warm light that accompanies the sunset behind the peaks. It is the television image, that of the Winter Games resting on entirely artificial snow, in a region where no flakes fall.

Ski resorts transformed into a fortress

If we look a little further, we understand that this setting, this sample of a ski resort, is a real fortress. The Zhangjiakou Olympic site is entirely fenced. Guarded by several checkpoints, manned by police and security guards in the colors of the People’s Republic of China. On Saturday, a small armored military vehicle was even circulating on the road. Buses arriving from Beijing Airport are escorted by police cars and only stop at areas closed to the public. Surveillance cameras are everywhere.

To get around, you have to take specially chartered transport. Public transport is prohibited for participants. Conditions of course due to the health context: China practices “zero Covid”, a strict policy which consists in particular of confining cities of several million people as soon as a case is detected.

Less than 400 cases of Covid

All participants are tested daily. You can even come across agents in full suits taking samples on escalators, using cotton swabs. Hotels are disinfected regularly, by robots on some sites. And the doctrine seems to be working: only 363 cases of Covid have been detected out of more than 70,000 people taking part in the Games since February 3. Three quarters coming from tests carried out at the airport, before entering the closed loop.

→ ANALYSIS. The Beijing Olympics, between health threat and political controversy

But the health situation cannot justify everything. In some hotels, journalists must systematically pass their luggage X-rayed when they leave, before being themselves passed through the detector, then having to point in front of a terminal. On Friday in Beijing, a Dutch journalist was interrupted live by Chinese security agents, who surrounded him and put him aside. “Isolated incident”, tries to reassure the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Very limited freedom of speech

On the political side, the Games have not experienced any waves for the moment. IOC President Thomas Bach spoke of the UN’s call for a “Olympic truce”, during the opening ceremony. Athletes know this, they expose themselves to sanctions from the authorities if they do not respect the “Chinese laws and regulations”. However, the IOC ensures that participants in the Games can express themselves freely.

Snow competitors seem to get used to these Games without the party. “Yes, the health situation is not obvious. But we were very well received on the slopes and the infrastructures. And everything is beautiful, rejoices the alpine skier Alexis Pinturault, indicating all the same that he will express himself on more political questions on his return to France.

The first medals of these atypical Games were awarded in eyebrow-raising cold, and in front of a sparse audience: members of the delegations but also dozens, sometimes hundreds, of invited spectators. Who are they ? “Friends from all over the world residing in China, diplomats, marketing partners”, children, locals, explains the Organizing Committee. How do they view these Games? We will know nothing about it: they evolve in another circuit, totally hermetic. On the competition sites, the atmosphere is timid. Except for the passage of Chinese athletes. Always accompanied by a round of applause.


Television success for the opening ceremony in China

According to OBS, the service responsible for broadcasting the Olympic Games:

316 million Chinese viewers followed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games on Friday 4 February.

They had been as numerous, all nationalities combined, during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

In the United States, the NBC channel reported an audience of 16 million viewers, nearly half the number four years ago. An effect no doubt of the American diplomatic boycott.


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