By Dan Palmer
One of the questions journalists hoping to work for insidethegames get asked at interview seems to be a very simple one. “When are the next Olympics?”
It is a question, however, which catches many out – especially if the next Games are of the Winter variety.
The Olympics, of course, do not take place every four years. It is more like every two, with a festival of snow and ice nestling in between the Summer Games.
Candidate after candidate incorrectly answered “Tokyo 2020” to this question when Pyeongchang 2018 was just around the corner, while some learnt that the Winter Olympics were approaching for the first time as they sat in the interview room.
Their ignorance was in line with the apathy much of the world has for the Winter Games. Skiing and skating fans will beg to differ, but the Winter Olympics have always passed a lot of people by.
Not many winter athletes can be described as superstars on a global scale, and the sports on the programme have not risen to the same status as say athletics or swimming.
The majority of countries in the world do not enter the Winter Olympics and therefore have no interest.
Unsuitable climates in Africa, South America, the Caribbean and large parts of Asia means the chance of success for an athlete from these areas is essentially zero, and a lot of the famous stories from the Games fall into the light-hearted bracket – think Cool Runnings and Eddie the Eagle.
Living in a powerhouse winter nation such as Norway would inevitably mean seeing the Games through a more positive lens but I still remember a backlash on the BBC show Points of View, after Buffy the Vampire Slayer was cancelled for two weeks in favour of highlights from Nagano 1998.
“We don’t even have any snow in Britain,” a particularly bloodthirsty commenter barked.
You would think one organisation that would take an interest in the Winter Olympics would be the International Olympic Committee.
But those in the corridors of power in Lausanne have had their hands full recently, and perhaps they too are guilty of giving the Winter Games bridesmaid status in favour of heaping attention on the more glamorous summer sibling.
The Summer Games are, as you will know, in crisis after Tokyo 2020 was moved to next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has prompted a huge rebuilding task, the size of which has never been seen before in the Olympic Movement.
It is no surprise this is an urgent priority, but the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are approaching fast and the one-year-to-go milestone on February 4 seems frighteningly close.
What is more, if any problems do arise surrounding Beijing the IOC will not have as much time to deal with them. The delay to Tokyo 2020 means the gap between the Summer and Winter Games has shortened to just six months, which in Olympic planning terms is cutting it extremely fine.
If the great Tokyo re-arrange has caused officials to take their eye off the Beijing ball, the lack of a suitable grace period between the Games could lead to consequences which will be challenging to address.
“Rather than an inconvenience, we see this short period between Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 as an opportunity,” an IOC spokesman told insidethegames, however.
“In what has been termed the ‘peak to peak’ approach, all parties will work closely together in order to capitalise on the opportunities that this short timeframe presents.”
China would usually be seen as a safe pair of hands when it comes to mega-event planning. Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008 and will become the first city to stage the Winter Games as well in 2022.
Although the COVID-19 crisis originated on Chinese soil, the country believes it has got things under control. There remains the fear that Beijing 2022 will be scaled back in the same way Tokyo 2020 will be, however.
“We cannot be sure today how the world will look like next year or in the year 2022,” the IOC spokesman said. “So we have to prepare for different scenarios, and this is what we are doing together with our Japanese partners, but the same is true with regard to Beijing 2022.”
The main problem is one of image amid growing international criticism of Chinese political policy.
Xinjiang Province lies thousands of miles to the west of Beijing but if Olympic officials hoped the region would be forgotten they have been sorely mistaken.
Much of the world has been left shocked by reports of Uyghur Muslims being arbitrarily detained and forced into camps.
China has insisted that these facilities are voluntary schools for anti-extremism training but this explanation is not even close to passing muster with increasingly vocal critics.
More than one million people are said to have been held, with allegations of children being separated from their parents and women forced into birth control.
Mosques have reportedly been bulldozed with the World Uyghur Congress describing the situation as a “genocide”.
In the face of this, and other Chinese crackdowns in places such as Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan, it is unsurprising that suggestions of a boycott have become more frequent.
You may think that the B-word – the nightmare scenario for the IOC – is out of the question and will never happen, and that remains the most likely outcome. But when the first reports of a new respiratory disease began to trickle out of China, nobody would have thought that Tokyo 2020 would be postponed by a year either. These are unprecedented times in the Olympic Movement and the situation can, and does, change rapidly.
The Winter Olympics would be easier to boycott than the Summer Games, which has a vastly superior international profile and greater financial clout. With fewer countries involved at Beijing 2022, the absence of only a handful of major nations could bring the event to its knees.
“China’s hosting of the 2022 Olympic Games flies in the face of the values and principles that underpin the Olympic Movement,” said World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa to insidethegames.
“It is unconscionable for a country committing genocide against Uyghurs and serious human rights violations against Tibetans, Hong Kongers, Mongolians, Chinese activists and many others to host an event celebrating common humanity and solidarity.
“If the Olympics are permitted to go ahead in Beijing in 2022, it will tarnish the reputation of the Olympic Games.”
Pressure on the IOC has come from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which includes politicians from the US, Britain, Japan, Australia and the European Union.
American senator Rick Scott submitted a bipartisan resolution asking for the bidding process to be reopened, and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, when quizzed on the possibility of a boycott, provided more questions than answers.
“Generally speaking my instinct is to separate sport from diplomacy and politics but there comes a point where that may not be possible,” he said.
Separating sport from wider issues is the clear party line of the IOC, and particularly its President Thomas Bach who has claimed that boycotts “have no political effect” whatsoever.
The former fencer was personally impacted when 80 nations opted out of Moscow 1980 amid Cold War tensions, a move which denied the German the chance of a second Olympic gold medal.
Critics will say that it is not possible to remove sport from politics completely and that the IOC does involve itself in other matters, especially those which do not concern global superpowers like China and are therefore easier to influence.
In October, Bach accepted the Seoul Peace Prize for his role in persuading South and North Korea to march together at Pyeongchang 2018 under one flag, where the two neighbours also formed a combined women’s ice hockey team.
The Korean situation is one of the most complex political matters in the world but the IOC did not mind involving sport on this occasion.
“Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues,” the IOC spokesman claimed.
“Awarding the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country.”
Amid the political shadow, the IOC may have one eye on the ongoing debate surrounding Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter – which declares that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”.
The campaign to scrap the rule has been gathering steam in recent months, fuelled by athletes who have a growing desire to protest amid the global rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter.
Bach has asked the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission to present proposals in December, but has already warned that the Olympics should not be a “marketplace of demonstrations”.
If the IOC does scale back the rule and allow for some type of protest at Tokyo 2020, it is difficult to see China allowing their country to be the target six months on.
Whether anyone would be brave enough to openly criticise the Beijing regime while on Chinese soil is another intriguing question, but there would be a large elephant in the room if certain issues are given airtime and the allegations against the host nation are not.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has rejected the calls for a boycott and claimed China’s human rights conditions are “constantly improving”.
All sporting organisations, and not just the IOC, will likely have to get used to defending their choices of questionable host nations.
Bidders from authoritative regimes, where there is less room for public dissent, could easily be among the only options as more liberal contenders drop out due to financial concerns and referendum defeats.
When focussing purely on sport, the IOC has been encouraged by Beijing 2022’s progress.
Venues, including the impressive Ice Ribbon facility for speed skating and the new sliding centre, are said to be on track across the hubs of Zhangjiakou, Yanqing and the capital itself.
A new railway linking Beijing and Zhangjiakou, which are nearly 200 kilometres apart, has cut the journey time to around 50 minutes and eased fears about the Games being too spread out.
The IOC has also praised Beijing 2022’s swift return to work after COVID-19 restrictions started to ease.
“After the outbreak of COVID-19 and following the recommendations and requirements of the Chinese Government, Beijing 2022 not only prioritised the prevention and control of the pandemic, but also focused on Games preparations to ensure venue construction could resume at the earliest opportunity,” said Beijing 2022’s executive vice president Zhang Jiandong.
The IOC’s Coordination Commission chair Juan Antonio Samaranch pointed out that China is hoping to engage millions of people with winter sport as he tried to hammer home a positive message of legacy.
“Despite these unique circumstances, Beijing 2022 has continued to meet key milestones, a true testament to its determination to provide the perfect stage for the world’s top winter athletes,” he said.
It is those athletes who the IOC hope will hog the headlines when the next Winter Olympics begin.
But with the forecast for the Games frosty in both senses of the meaning, they will know as well as anyone that this is far from certain.