Will political bickering overshadow sports events at the Beijing Winter Olympics?

Yu Zeyuan takes stock of the barbs that have been traded by mainstream Western media and Chinese state media at the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics. It seems that references to political issues such as Xinjiang and Taiwan have been thrown in by both sides. After this snowball fight and the warm glow of the opening ceremony, is it time to get down to the sports?
People watch a screen with live footage of the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Shenyang Olympic Sports Centre in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China, on 4 February 2022. (AFP)
People watch a screen with live footage of the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Shenyang Olympic Sports Centre in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China, on 4 February 2022. (AFP)

The Beijing Winter Olympics began on 4 February under great scrutiny. Although mainstream Western media have largely emphasised the diplomatic boycott of the Games by some Western countries, the opening ceremony held at Beijing’s National Stadium was nevertheless a spectacular one, opening the Games on a good note amid an ongoing war of words.   

The said war of words is not so much targeted at the Games itself, but a continuation of political and diplomatic struggles between US and the West on one side and China on the other.  

Bickering match amid Winter Olympics

Soon after the Games started, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged his support for the Canadian athletes, but said that he remained “extremely concerned by reports of human rights violations in China”.    

China naturally refuted these allegations. The spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Canada argued that Trudeau’s statement “flagrantly politicises sports based on lies and disinformation, and violates the principle of political neutrality enshrined in the Olympic Charter”. He further said that China has expressed its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to this and “lodged stern representations with the Canadian side”. 

Performers stand as flagbearers Marie-Philip Poulin of Canada and Charles Hamelin of Canada walk during the opening ceremony at the National Stadium, Beijing, China, 4 February 2022. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Performers stand as flagbearers Marie-Philip Poulin of Canada and Charles Hamelin of Canada walk during the opening ceremony at the National Stadium, Beijing, China, 4 February 2022. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

At the same time, the Chinese have hit back at unfavourable comments and reports by mainstream American media such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. On 22 January, The Washington Post published an editorial with the headline: “China Has a Message for Winter Olympic Athletes: Shut Up and Ski”.

On 25 January, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in the US, wrote a letter to the editorial board of The Washington Post reiterating that “the Olympics should be about sports, not politics”. He asserted, “It is unethical to take the athletes hostage in the name of ‘free speech’ and force them to ‘speak out’ against International Olympic Committee rules, especially when narratives have been adversely impacted by the US government and some media outlets.” 

Part of Liu’s letter was published in The Washington Post on 30 January as an opinion piece. Following the opening of the Games, Chinese state media again highlighted Liu’s rebuttal.  

Putting the Uighur issue on the agenda 

According to Chinese public opinion, an article published by the New York Times on the opening ceremony was of malicious intent. It was titled “In a Provocative Choice, China Picks an Athlete with a Uyghur Name to Help Light the Cauldron”.  

The report referred to a young Xinjiang athlete named Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who was one of the two final torchbearers. It claimed that Dinigeer was a cross-country skier “who the Chinese said has Uyghur roots”, suggesting that she may not actually be a Uighur.

Chinese torchbearer athletes Dinigeer Yilamujian (left) and Zhao Jiawen wave with the Olympic flame in the middle of a giant snowflake during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing, China, on 4 February 2022. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)
Chinese torchbearer athletes Dinigeer Yilamujian (left) and Zhao Jiawen wave with the Olympic flame in the middle of a giant snowflake during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing, China, on 4 February 2022. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper under the People’s Daily, seized the chance to criticise The New York Times. It said that for an established news outlet, The New York Times was a bad role model for stoking the flames on purpose and playing word games when introducing Dinigeer in their report.    

Nonetheless, other mainstream Western media have continued to associate Dinigeer’s appearance with politics. On 5 February, The Wall Street Journal reported, “After months of uncertainty and tension, China kicked off one of the most unusual Olympic Games in history with an opening ceremony spectacle punctuated by what appeared to be a defiant jab at the US and its allies that have challenged the country’s human rights record.” The report added that China’s selection of Dinigeer as torchbearer “was a reminder of the geopolitical overhang surrounding the Games”.

Mainland China netizens were explicit about what they thought the scene’s intent was: “All the doves are looking southeast, waiting to bring back the lost dove.”

‘Returning to the fold’ and hints of Taiwan?

Also, the scene in the opening ceremony of a “lost dove returning to the fold” sparked discussion on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s FTV News asked: “Bringing back the ‘lost dove’ to the motherland — an Olympic performance item taking a dig at Taiwan?” (迷失鸽子带回祖国冬奥表演节目吃台豆腐?)

Victor Chou, columnist and assistant to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislative Yuan member Ker Chien-ming, wrote on Facebook in Chinese: “Who is that lost dove?... On closer thought, Taiwan’s future is full of perils.”

doves
Performers and the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics at the National Stadium, Beijing, China, 4 February 2022. (Annegret Hilse/Reuters)

Mainland China netizens were explicit about what they thought the scene’s intent was: “All the doves are looking southeast, waiting to bring back the lost dove.” Other netizens said "一个[鸽]都不能少" (yige dou buneng shao), referring to Zhang's 1999 movie Not One Less, making a pun out of the homophones "个" (one entity) and "鸽" (dove). 

However, the creator of the opening ceremony may not have intended for its programme to have so many hidden meanings. According to mainland China reports, the heartwarming scene was inspired by a rehearsal where a young performer really got left behind and another performer ran over to bring her back to the group.

Clearly, in the context of tense cross-strait relations and China-Western relations, the various parties are sensitive, and verbal spats are inevitable.

If the 2008 opening ceremony showed an imposing uniformity that could make others feel intimidated, this opening ceremony was unforgettable in its simplicity, directness, warmth and friendliness.

An opening ceremony full of warmth

However, verbal spats cannot hide the glow of the opening ceremony, which was again directed by Zhang Yimou, and won even more acclaim despite being far less grand than the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony that he also directed.

If the 2008 opening ceremony showed an imposing uniformity that could make others feel intimidated, this opening ceremony was unforgettable in its simplicity, directness, warmth and friendliness.

Zhang said he was not thinking about “flexing muscles” or showing technical skills; he was no longer obsessed with how good it would look, but was thinking about what would move people. The entire opening ceremony said one thing: the snowflakes of the world had gathered in Beijing to form one snowflake of humanity, which was also represented by the Olympic torch.

olympic anthem
Young performers sing the Olympic anthem during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing, on 4 February 2022. (Ben Stansall/AFP)

This concept was elegantly presented. The opening ceremony included a blend of Chinese elements — such as the countdown based on the 24 solar terms — as well as high-tech and international ones. In particular, the group of children from Fuping County in Hebei singing the Olympic Anthem in Greek brought a sense of friendliness and warmth to this anxious world.

While the success of the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony has not stopped the political bickering, the world’s athletes have gathered under the five rings that symbolise fair competition, unity and amity. In this sense, the Beijing Winter Olympics does not belong to China alone, but to the entire world.

Related: China has a zero-Covid policy. Can it pull off a spectacular Winter Olympics? | Will the West boycott Beijing's Winter Olympics over Xinjiang? | Beijing gears up for Winter Olympics amid Omicron threat | Why Japan did not impose a 'diplomatic boycott' of the Beijing Winter Olympics | Beijing Olympics diplomatic boycott: Does China care? | Winter Olympics: 13 years later, 'Beijing welcomes you' no more?