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Is China ready to host the Winter Olympics?

Workers assemble the Olympic rings on the outskirts of Beijing, Jan. 5, 2022. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Chinese officials have promised that the 2022 Winter Olympics — to be held Feb. 4 through Feb. 20 and followed by the Paralympics from March 4 through March 13 — will be a “safe, streamlined and splendid” global event.

But that won’t be easy to deliver. With less than four weeks to go, China is struggling to enforce its strict “zero covid” policy amid record global infections from the omicron variant, make sure there is enough snow in a region of the country where it is scarce, and deal with the United States and its allies staging a diplomatic boycott.

When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared after accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault, global outrage put a spotlight on the Winter Games. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Here are the biggest questions for China going into the Games, an event meant to help burnish its reputation on the international stage.

How will omicron affect the Games?

Beijing is determined to pull off a successful Winter Olympics, which would be a propaganda coup for a leadership eager to demonstrate the superiority of China’s approach to tackling the coronavirus. As one of the few countries in the world still pursuing a zero-covid strategy via strict quarantines, lockdowns, border controls and contact tracing, China has reported only a handful of omicron cases.

Over the course of 19 days, more than 3,000 athletes and thousands of trainers and support staff, as well as members of the media and spectators, are expected to converge on Beijing and neighboring Hebei province, where events will be held. All participants will be inside a “closed loop,” with tighter restrictions than those seen at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Volunteers began entering the closed loop this past week and will remain within it until the end of the Games.

The loop, which physically separates Olympics-related attendees from the local population, will have dedicated transport and be closely monitored. Athletes who violate the rules can be disqualified from competing. All participants going into the loop must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days before arriving in China or face quarantine. Attendees will be tested daily. Masks will be required at all times.

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Only spectators from within China will be allowed, though organizers have not said yet how many. Cheering and shouting have been banned.

Elsewhere, China has imposed strict controls, including locking down Xian, a city of 13 million people with fewer than 2,000 covid cases. The measures have caused an outpouring of anger over reports of residents unable to get food or medical care because of the restrictions.

Will there be enough snow?

The Winter Games — to be held in Beijing, Yanqing, and Zhangjiakou in China’s arid north — will depend almost entirely on man-made snow and ice. In Yanqing, the site for the Alpine skiing event alone will require 1.2 million cubic meters of snow, according to organizers.

Officials say the biggest challenge will be maintaining snow quality to meet strict requirements, so “snow cannons” and “snow guns” are being used to produce different densities of snow. Wu Gaosheng, manager of the National Alpine Ski Center, told Chinese state media in November that a team of Chinese and foreign personnel was working 24 hours a day to produce enough snow for the event.

“The International Snow Federation has strict requirements on the hardness of the slopes, so snow-making is the most critical part,” Wu said.

Chinese officials have promised a green Olympics, with all 12 venues to be powered by renewable energy, but environmentalists question the wisdom of holding a winter sporting event in a highly water-stressed area with little natural snow.

Critics say water-intensive snow production could continue for years if, as planners have envisioned, the venues are turned into permanent ski resorts after the event, jump-starting China’s winter sports industry. Chinese organizers claim that the event will not impact the availability of water in Yanqing and that the snow will be recycled after the Games.

How much access will the media have?

Chinese officials have said that journalists will be free to cover the Winter Olympics, and in its bid, Beijing promised that media “seeking to report on the Games would have freedom to report.”

According to Beijing’s contract with the International Olympic Committee, organizers must ensure that “there shall be no restrictions or limitations on the freedom of the media to provide independent news coverage” of the Games, the Paralympics and “related events.”

But journalists in China, where domestic and foreign media are frequently censored and blocked from reporting freely, have already had difficulty covering the run-up to the Games. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China released a statement in November alleging that members had been “continuously stymied” in their coverage of preparations, including being denied entry to events and sports venues as well as being followed and prevented from interviewing athletes, coaches and officials.

China’s media environment does not appear to have improved before the Games. With at least 127 journalists currently detained, it is the world’s “biggest captor of journalists,” according to a report from the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

The organizing committee has also promised that attendees will have unfettered access to the Internet while in China, where major Western news outlets, Google and social media sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are blocked in a system known as the “Great Firewall.” Similar assurances were given during China’s bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, but journalists attending that event complained of restricted access.

Will athletes be free to express themselves while in China?

The IOC has said athletes will be free to express themselves during the Games as long as they abide by IOC rules barring any demonstrations during sporting events or medal ceremonies.

Athletes could raise any number of issues, including allegations of cultural genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the erasure of civil freedoms Hong Kong, and the arrests of human rights lawyers, activists and outspoken Chinese citizens.

Pressure over China’s human rights abuses mounts ahead of Beijing Olympics

But Chinese authorities are extremely sensitive to criticism about the country’s human rights record, its role in the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, and even the country’s efforts during the Korean War. Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who accused a former senior Chinese official of pressuring her into sex, has largely disappeared from public view since her allegations. Her few seemingly scripted media appearances have prompted concerns that she has been silenced by authorities.

“Foreign athletes are put in a tough position where they have to consider censoring themselves in order to compete or for their career prospects, with corporate sponsors already silent on Chinese human rights abuses,” said Angeli Datt, senior China researcher at the Washington-based human rights group Freedom House. “The IOC should not be putting athletes in this position.”

What impact will a diplomatic boycott by Western countries have?

The United States, Canada, Australia, Britain and others have said they will not be sending government representatives to the Olympic Games as a way of protesting China’s continued suppression of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Japan has also said it will not send cabinet members.

China's Foreign Ministry said on Dec. 6 that "no one cares" whether individual politicians come to the Beijing Winter Olympics and the focus is on the athletes. (Video: Reuters)

The boycott does not include athletes and is unlikely to derail the Games. Still, it is embarrassing for Beijing, which feted Western leaders like President George W. Bush at the 2008 Summer Olympics. The boycott also underlines growing unease felt by governments, as well as companies and public figures, in drawing too close to China.

Beijing has repeatedly said that it couldn’t care less whether the United States and other countries send representatives, adding that U.S. officials were not invited in the first place.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Alicia Chen and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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