The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are underway despite a diplomatic boycott and after a ceremony held at the National Stadium - built for the 2008 Summer Games - amid strict health protocols to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Beijing thus becomes the first city to host both winter and summer Games, despite the rejection of some countries that denounced human rights violations by the Chinese Government. Nevertheless, world leaders such as Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alberto Fernandez attended the event.
The Winter Olympics are particularly captivating for their impressive sporting feats on ice and snow, but this time around the meaning of cold was associated with the crisis in Ukraine, as troops continue to be deployed on both sides of the border, with US President Joseph Biden constantly fearing a Russian attack. In any case, and as long as that does not happen, there is a feeling which resembles that of the Cold War between the United States and the Communist Soviet Union.
Fourteen years ago, the vivid opening ceremony in Beijing marked China's surge as an economic and military superpower, which was not accompanied in terms of individual freedoms.
For Beijing, the current 2022 Games are a confirmation of the country's global leadership status, but for many outside of China, particularly in the West, they represent a confirmation of the country's increasingly authoritarian turn after all activism in favor of democracy has been crushed, in addition to a tougher stance in Hong Kong and a more confrontational position with Taiwan, in addition to actions against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, something that several governments and human rights organizations have described as genocide.
China says the camps are vocational education and training centers and denies any human rights violations. The Government also argues it has restored stability to Xinjiang, a region that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was plagued by extremist activity, according to unsubstantiated claims Chinese officials, which has led the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, among others, to impose a diplomatic boycott on the Winter Games.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has also taken its toll on this year's Games, just as it did last summer in Tokyo. More than two years after the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in China's Hubei province, nearly 6 million people have died and hundreds of millions more have fallen ill worldwide, with the host country boasting one of the lowest rates of death and illness from coronavirus, due to full lockdowns and other extreme measures.
In the run-up to the Olympics, China's crackdown on dissent was also on display in the controversy surrounding tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public view last year after accusing a former Communist Party official for sexual assault. Her allegations were quickly deleted from the Internet. Concerned for her safety, tennis players and social media influencers launched calls asking Where is Peng Shuai? Peng made a brief appearance at a junior tennis event and spoke via video link with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach as part of the efforts to ease tensions.
Also marking a stark contrast to the 2008 Games, the local atmosphere is gripped by anti-COVID-19 measures. Flight attendants, immigration officers and hotel staff work covered from head to toes in hazmat gear, masks and goggles. There is a daily testing scheme for all attendees, followed by lengthy quarantines for those who come out positive, while a huge bubble separates locals from Olympians and their entourages.