Amid Boycotts and Pandemic, Athletes Train for Uncertain 2022 Winter Olympics

Two-time Paralympic athlete Tyler Carter may be a seasoned contender on the world stage, but the alpine skier says he is not sure what to expect as the clock ticks toward the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing next February. Carter wants to be prepared to race in Beijing but says he hasn’t had a chance to become acquainted with the terrain.

“We didn’t really get a test event,” said the 27-year-old Carter, who has skied since the age of 8, seven years after a foot was amputated due to a missing fibula in his right leg. “Because of COVID, everything was kind of postponed or cancelled, so I don’t really know what it’s going to be like there.” 

Test events are seen as dress rehearsals held in the host country, often a year before the actual Olympic Games, to not only help the athletes but also allow the hosts to test their readiness. 

“It’s kind of a mystery in a way, but that’s fine,” said Carter, now based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We train for all conditions, all different types of hills and racing venues,” said Carter, who took part in the Winter Games in 2014 and 2018. 

As Carter trains for his moment on the slopes, he says he is hoping politics won’t impact his ability to compete.

Beijing is facing calls for a boycott or cancellation of the Games over political issues. 

Pandemic preparations in Beijing 

Foreign pressure on China to cancel the Games, over politics, has not changed pandemic event planning. 

Beijing’s Games show early signs of taking place at a full scale, just minus live spectators. The Chinese government is energizing fans at home and ignoring calls for boycotts, while athletes such as Carter are doing whatever it takes to win medals for themselves and their countries. 

“Individuals will have their own opinions across the spectrum, but from a general perspective, I think athletes who are wanting to compete at the top level and take part in the Olympics are being pragmatic and understand that there are going to be politics, protocol, whatever,” said Mark Thomas, managing director of U.K.-based, China event-focused S2M Consulting firm.

Most athletes, he added, realize “it’s a new world” in terms of how they travel.

Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee did not reply to a request from VOA on pandemic-related measures for the Games, but Chinese media suggested this month, the rules are not yet fixed. Twelve test events and three international training weeks in Beijing from October to December will offer clues, the state-run CGTN news website said.

“As Beijing organizers have not revealed the full extent of the COVID-19 countermeasures yet, those test events could offer a sneak peek at the meticulous precautions they are expected to take against COVID-19,” the September 15 report said.

Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng visited the National Ski Jumping Center, a snow park and Olympic villages in early September to learn about epidemic prevention work, the official Xinhua news agency said. “He also stressed sound plans to prevent and control the COVID-19 epidemic,” Xinhua said. China will hold the events at 12 venues in and around Beijing.

Chinese officials have involved 100 million people in domestic campaigns to promote the Games and more than 1.1 million people have signed up as volunteers, CGTN said.

The country squelched its major COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 through some of the world’s strictest lockdowns in the central Chinese city Wuhan, where the outbreak was first reported. It has closed the border to foreign travel.

But observers said Beijing’s Olympics organizers will just adopt Tokyo’s precautions from the recent Summer Olympics. Tokyo barred spectators from most events and required athletes to operate in an Olympic venue-hotel bubble rather than mixing with the public.

The Tokyo Games drew 11,656 athletes to 339 events, roughly equal to the 11,238 athletes and 306 events of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics four years earlier. 

Geopolitical pressure 

Opposition from abroad to the 2022 Games arises from lack of trust in China following political decisions by Beijing over the past two years, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.

He points to the reduction of political freedoms in Hong Kong in 2020, growing military pressure against Taiwan and crackdowns against ethnic Uyghurs in China’s far northwest. Many people abroad still believe China should have done more to stop COVID-19 from expanding past its origin in Wuhan.

“The reticence about going to Beijing has to do with the political issues that have come to light over the past several years,” Nagy said. 

The European Parliament passed a resolution July 8 calling on “government representatives and diplomats” to boycott the Beijing Games, citing reasons that include “the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in Hong Kong and more specifically the open attacks against freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

International observers see the 2020 National Security Law implemented in Hong Kong by China as a crackdown on democratic freedoms in the territory.

China’s state-run People’s Daily said the new laws aim to “protect people’s rights” and make Hong Kong “safer” after months of demonstrations on the streets in protest of an extradition measure that has since been withdrawn. 

Scores of human rights groups have asked for full boycotts, meaning countries would send no athletes, and some want major broadcasters including the American network NBC to cancel plans to cover the Games.

In June and July, some U.S. lawmakers pushed for a diplomatic boycott of the Games, meaning no federal funds would be spent to support Olympics attendance by federal employees. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a research group, found in March that 49% of Americans backed a boycott. 

No teams have announced that they will pull out of the Games — although North Korea was banned this month after the International Olympic Committee suspended it for not showing up in Tokyo. North Korea and its allies skipped the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the most recent full boycott.

As Carter continues to perfect his skiing for the Olympics, he watches closely for the latest political developments to see if a 2022 U.S. boycott will take place. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but it isn’t in my control,” he said. “I’m focused on my training and preparation, and we’ll see what happens.”

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