The opening ceremony will promote comparison. The celebrations taking place in Beijing this Friday, February 4, to launch the 24are Winter Games, will give rise to a game of the seven errors. Fourteen years after the summer festivities of 2008, the Chinese capital is this time hosting the great white circus. An obvious fact: on the souvenir photo, the guests will be fewer this time.
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Because before talking about sport, it has been a question of politics for weeks. Of diplomatic boycott more precisely, certain heads of state brilliant by their absence in the stands of the National Stadium of Beijing. The United States launched the movement in late 2021 to protest China’s human rights abuses, including against Uyghurs. A few rare countries followed (United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Lithuania, Denmark, Japan). France, for its part, limited its representation to the sending during the fortnight of its Minister for Sports, Roxana Maracineanu.
Beijing, a default choice
“In 2008, President George W. Bush was present, Nicolas Sarkozy too, and in total more than 80 heads of state or government took part in the celebration. This time the list is much shorter. This boycott is anything but insignificant”, insists Jean-Loup Chappelet, professor emeritus at the University of Lausanne and specialist in the Olympic world.
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Glass half empty or half full? “China will highlight the arrival of Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Al-Sissi, Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and especially the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, underlines Carole Gomez, researcher in geopolitics of sport at the Institute of international and strategic relations. And it will be interesting to observe the privileged narrative during the opening ceremony: will there emerge a reflection on a world order not dictated by Westerners? »
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which persists in displaying its political neutrality, would have done well without this attention focused on anything but sporting considerations. Should we come to Beijing after PyeongChang in 2018 and Tokyo last year? Let’s remember first that it’s a default choice, four European cities – Stockholm, Krakow, Lviv (Ukraine) and Oslo – having withdrawn to leave as candidates only China and Kazakhstan. “Turning towards the Asian continent has notably enabled the IOC to get out of its financial dependence on American sponsors and to balance its partnerships”, says historian Patrick Clastres. With the arrival of Toyota in 2015 and Alibaba in 2017, the IOC now has five American, five Asian and three European companies out of its 13 main sponsors.
Another point rarely mentioned, the actual holding of the Games in this period of health crisis. “Perhaps Japan and China were the best equipped countries to organize the Games despite the pandemic, notes Carole Gomez. They have demonstrated that we can postpone the Games, or receive them under a bubble. » There remains the ecological controversy. The photos of the ski area and of these snakes of artificial snow scratching the bare mountains shocked, and underlined the absence of environmental concerns of the organizers.
For China, a booming “snow market”
With these Games, China is for its part pursuing an issue taken very seriously: the development of winter sports and related tourism. His government is also spinning the numbers: an ice and snow market increased from 38 billion euros in 2015 to 84 billion euros in 2020, with the prospect of 140 billion euros in 2025. 450 skating rinks and 300 ski resorts have been opened in the past six years and the goal “to introduce winter sports to 300 million Chinese” has been achieved, according to Li Sen, director of the planning department. of the Games Organizing Committee.
“These figures are very overstated., warns Benoît Robert, director of the Cluster Montagne association, which promotes French players in the development of mountain tourism around the world. China has invested a lot in recent years in resorts that are especially ideal for beginners, but with limited snow fields and therefore quite quickly crowded. The Chinese skier puts on skis less than two days a year on average, and the whole problem is to convert it to a sustainable practice. The 300 million mentioned by the government is a resort audience in the broad sense, for tourism and leisure. »
In terms of high-level sport, “Chinese champions on the Olympic podiums in alpine skiing, it’s probably not for now. Even if the government wants to convince and pushes the snow classes a lot to create the market of tomorrow”, believes this connoisseur of the Chinese market.
Rather skeptical athletes
There is therefore still a lack in Asia of this “ski culture”, the absence of which many champions deplore. This long Asian streak lowers their enthusiasm. “For us Europeans, these two Olympics in countries where skiing is not really developed are quite frustrating., regrets the French cross-country skier Richard Jouve, bronze medalist in PyeongChang with his teammate Maurice Manificat. I’m not sure that all of this leaves great memories. »
→ ANALYSIS. Beijing Olympics: the great ambitions of a reduced French team
However, this reservation does not apply to all participants. On the contrary, ice cream specialists benefit from the continent’s appetite for their disciplines. In PyeongChang, 30 of the 39 medals gleaned by South Korea (17), Japan (13) and China (9) were on the ice.
“I understand the disappointment of some skiers or biathletes who experience crazy atmospheres at races in Europe. But for us, discovering the Asian craze is a real pleasure. In Korea, it was really crazy in the ice rink with the stands rumbling and the whole building shaking”, says Tifany Huot-Marchand, the leader of the Blues of the short-track.
“Games with a real soul”
Most athletes do not confide more before their future Chinese adventure. Mix genres? Bad idea, reminded them of the instructions given before departure. “We advised them to stay on sport, we are not in Beijing to play politics”, loose Nathalie Péchalat, head of the French Olympic delegation.
Without going that far, some nevertheless dare to evoke a malaise. In this game, biathlete Quentin Fillon Maillet hits the mark: “What I somewhat criticize the organizations that set up these Olympics is that they promote sharing, fairness, respect, but that sometimes we go to sites that are not not carrying these values. I would like us to think about Games with a real soul. »
Fifteen days on the right track
The opening ceremony. It is scheduled for Friday February 4 in the “Bird’s Nest”, the Olympic stadium of the 2008 Games. Due to the time difference (+ 7 a.m., 1 p.m. in Paris, 8 p.m. in Beijing), most of the events will take place at night and during the morning in France, until the closing ceremony, on February 20.
3,000 athletes are expected. This is almost four times less than for the Summer Games. They will compete in 15 sports and 109 events.
Seven new challenges. Included for the first time this year on the Olympic program are the women’s monobobsleigh, the men’s and women’s “big air” freestyle skiing competition, and four mixed events, in ski jumping, acrobatic jumping, snowboardcross and short-track.