Editorial: The accidentally virtual games

by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS

In three months, the Winter Olympics 2022 will start, one month later then the Paralympics. Officially, Beijing is the venue of the Games, even though the alpine competitions will take place hundreds of kilometres away from the Chinese Capital. Acquiring the title of the “only city which hosted both summer and winter Olympic” was a major reason for the Chinese government to apply for an event which will cost many billions of RMB for a city which has neither mountains nor much snow to qualify as a winter sport destination.

Skiing, ice-skating and curling have no tradition in China. The Great Wall marked the limit of the Chinese civilisation, with the snowy mountains of Manchuria north of it. The holy mountains of China are located in climate zones with little or no snow and the high altitudes of Sichuan and the Himalayas were almost inaccessible from the heartland of Chinese culture. The Qianlong Emperor in the 18th century is reported to have promoted ice-skating as a typical Manchu activity to strengthen the identity of the rulers as non-Chinese. The first ice-skating ring in China is supposed to have opened in the Great World, the famous amusement centre in Shanghai, which introduced the audience in the 1930s also to the hilarious and unsanitary western idea of WCs where you had to sit down on a porcelain bowel to relive yourself. 

In 1978, during the first trip of your humble editor to Mainland China, our group was taken – for lack of other events – one evening to an ice-hockey game in Beijing between teams representing Heilongjiang and Beijing provinces. We found that the audience was not much more interested in the sport than we were, following quietly the efforts of the players. To support the home team with chanting or applause would have been a sign of lack of solidarity with the visitors, damaging the idea of national unity, we were told. Probably most of the audience had been given tickets by their Danweis (work units) and did not really care who was winning anyway.  

The number of successes of Chinese athletes in Olympic Winter Games can not be compared to the dominance of China in the Summer Games, where China was beaten in Tokyo by just one Gold Medal for the title of the most successful team by the USA.

Only in 2002, for the first time, China managed to secure a Gold medal and all but one of the 13 Gold medal won until now, came from skating competitions. Compared with the total of 262 Gold medals from the Summer Games, the gap becomes obvious. To change that, the Chinese government not only started programs to support winter sports in schools and universities in the northern provinces, but also proclaimed that by the time of the Games at least 300 million Chinese would have been turned into knowledgeable winter sport fans who would know the rules and the correct time to show support for the different disciplines, avoiding to make a fool of themselves in front of the international visitors by continuing to cheer on a skier after he missed a goal in the slalom.  

Alas, the virus has nixed all that considerations. No international spectators are allowed and the games will take place in a super-bubble which has already started with restrictions for the citizens of Beijing and the other areas which will host some of the events. Accidentally, that will also reduce the number of foreigners making critical remarks about all the artificial snow and the environmental damage caused by the games. More than ever before, the games will be mostly an online show, rather than a real event. Global brands are much less interested in the Winter Games compared to the Summer Games, but in this way their interests of a perfect show without having to take into account the needs of the spectators on the ground can be catered even better for. 

For the organisers, the focus has shifted from the question of the success of Chinese athletes to the question of following Tokyo in staging Olympic Games without major outbreaks of CoViD-19. Given the fact that more than 2.2 billion doses of vaccine have been administered in China and that most of the athletes and team members come from industrialised countries with high levels of vaccination, there is a good chance that there will be no major problems, which in turn will hopefully convince the government to open the borders for tourism in and out of China again.  

As always, all best wishes from Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt and the entire COTRI WEEKLY team!