Behind the scenes, subplots abound at Beijing’s Winter Games

Russia's Vladimir Putin with China's Xi Jinping

While most eyes at this year’s Winter Olympics will be turned to the elite competition, a UO researcher who focuses on the Olympics and international relations said these Games in particular have a handful of nonathletic subplots.

Yoav Dubinsky of the Lundquist College of Business has attended, studied and researched the Games for more than a decade, and he will be keeping a watch on several storylines during the Beijing Olympics, which began Feb. 4 and run through Feb. 20.

The diplomatic boycott by several Western nations amid crackdowns on personal freedoms and human rights is the one issue that especially stands out.

“There is much international controversy,” said Dubinsky, whose interdisciplinary scholarship focuses on sports, nation branding, public diplomacy and country image, and especially how countries, cities and communities try to improve their images and reputations through sports.

The U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. are among the countries declining to send diplomatic contingents to Beijing in protest of China’s human rights abuses, including against the Muslim population in Xinjiang province.

Conversely, China is using its role in Olympics as part of its effort to grow its influence on the international stage. Toward that end, the Games mark the first time a city has hosted both the winter and summer Games, with Beijing having played host to the 2008 Summer Games.

“This is part of an ongoing Chinese public diplomacy strategy of becoming the largest sports economy globally,” Dubinsky said.

However, Western media is framing China’s effort as “sports washing,” meaning it is trying to launder its image from being associated with human rights violations through sports.

Dubinsky said surveillance of the athletes and curtailments of athletes’ rights are also issues he will be following.

They include concerns about free speech, including athletes’ ability to freely express themselves on controversial issues such as public support of Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared after making allegations of sexual assault against a Chinese official, or criticism of the Chinese government.

"There are also concerns about privacy invasion as all athletes will be monitored through their mobile phones due to strict COVID-19 protocols,” Dubinsky said. “And there are also issues about restrictions on free use of the internet during and after the Games.”

U.S. companies broadcasting or advertising during the Games who position themselves as supportive of issues such as the Black Lives Matter or #MeToo movements may be taking political or economic risks, Dubinsky said, due to China’s highly restrictive political climate.

Political tensions also threaten to spill onto the competitive playing field. While Russia has been banned from the Olympics because of systematic doping, its athletes are there competing under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee. The escalation and looming threat of conflict by Russia against Ukraine hangs over the Games.

“The International Olympic Committee and the United Nations hope for an Olympic truce during the period of the Games, but there have been precedents of Russia confronting Georgia or Ukraine during past summer and winter Olympics,” Dubinsky said.

The Games are not without feel-good stories as well. Dubinsky points out the return of the Jamaican bobsled team.

“Having a Caribbean country known for track and field competing in winter sports despite not having the appropriate weather can frame a country in a positive and light way,” he said.

When the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games officially opened last Friday in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Dubinsky noted the ceremony had a distinct celebratory tone. Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the 24th Winter Olympic Games open, with Russian President Vladimir Putin in attendance and showing his support from the stands.

“It might not have been as extravagant as the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, but it surely was not as somber as the opening ceremony in Tokyo last summer,” Dubinsky said. “If I would take anything from the ceremony, it’s that it signals to the world that whether we like it or not, Beijing is now Olympic royalty and China will unapologetically pursue to establish itself as a global powerhouse, no matter the cost.”

By Jim Murez, University Communications