The Collegian
Friday, December 02, 2022

OPINION: At the Beijing Olympics, snow was among the opposition

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.   

A couple of weeks ago, I got a bulletin from The Washington Post: The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing were halted for snow.

How could the weather be so daft as to precipitate on China’s parade! After all, what type of winter games would it be if the white stuff blocked the view of the looming industrial plant behind the slopestyle stadium. God forbid powder from obscuring the gloriously brown summits around the ski slopes.

Beyond the rogue snowfall, the Beijing Games were uncomfortable from the onset. For every positive story of perseverance, these Olympics were built on, dystopian undertones and authoritarian pageantry extinguished the flame of passion.

It’s like taking a ski trip with the scariest family in school to a mountain that closes the lifts whenever snow starts falling — you’re going to have a bad time.

And yet, it would be downright silly to put this on the competitors, even the ones who literally embody the broad reach of the Olympics. Most notably, Eileen Gu.

A lot of reporting has covered the nuanced example of Chinese-American politics, reporting I can’t do as I write this from my Gateway Village apartment at the University of Richmond. Who am I to judge Gu’s choices or the politics of her skiing? Instead, I am content with tuning in on my laptop to watch her do things we have never seen before. I urge others to do the same. Gu is great at what she does, regardless of the color of her effortlessly fashionable ski pants.

The same should be said for the American Olympians. The Winter Games have been a true step forward in Team USA’s ability to reflect on the true composition of our country.

Nathan Chen, an Asian American figure skater, scored a world record as well as some new gold bling. Erin Jackson, an American speed skater, became the first Black woman to win a speedskating medal when she struck gold in the women’s 500-meter event.

Personally, since I grew up as a cross-country skier, it was incredible to see Jessie Diggins win the first individual cross country medal for any American woman with a bronze in the women’s sprint — the shortest skiing event. Then, on the final day of the 2022 Olympics, she won silver in the 30-kilometer mass start, the longest skiing event, and I was downright emotional. Never have I seen a more cathartic collapse. These two medals add to my admiration of her talent. I will never forget her domination of the pro field as an indomitable teenager in 2011 at a race in Idaho. Nor will I forget her incredible final pull in the sprint relay in 2018, which earned our nation its first cross country gold.

Nonetheless, the pervasive loneliness of the scattered venues and sparse crowds will dampen the images in my mind. The bubble that Beijing’s officials have created has proved great at sanitizing the competitors from COVID-19. Conversely, it has also sterilized the energy and I can’t escape feeling sad for the legends who are being made with nowhere to feel it.

At 30 years old, I sure hope this wasn’t Diggins' final show. Taking a bow in front of a sparse, passionless audience isn’t very fun, even if her podium was in front of the world watching from afar during the closing ceremonies.

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Putting atmosphere aside, having low-energy venues can be a good trade-off to expanding the reach of sport and offering opportunities to the globally underrepresented. However, that is not the reality in China. These games have a much more nefarious impetus — made clear at the opening torch lighting ceremony.

Under the bright lights and authoritarian eyes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, lounging together next to the NBC booth at the recycled “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, an Uyghur cross-country skier, and Zhao Jiawen, a Nordic combined athlete of Han ethnicity, brought the Olympic torch to its final cauldron. To the naive and to those to whom the Chinese propaganda machine speaks, it was a beautiful representation of Olympic togetherness. For the rest of the world, it was a lightly veiled rebuke of the extremely well-documented claims of Uyghur persecution and internment in Xinjiang.

Not only was this lame display of sports-washing (the term used to describe nations, or companies, that seek to use sports to generate goodwill in the face of criticism) extremely clear, it also hurt the one person it was supposed to celebrate: Yilamujiang. In fact, purely as an athlete, she probably shouldn’t have even been there.

Many of her competitors, especially those who are older, more funded, and more supported, didn’t even walk in the ceremonies. They were busy preparing for the competition that started the very next day, a full 100 miles away and 5,000 feet up, in the longest race any woman in the field had to face this year.

It’s not good for endurance to take a road trip after a night of political exploitation.

She finished a distant 43rd, far back from the Norwegian victor, and was mysteriously missing soon after she finished her ski. The Chinese Olympic team that paraded her Friday night had hidden her Saturday afternoon. Honored, exploited and hidden — sports-washing is rarely this ironic. 

While the delaying snowstorm was a humorous scene from this very weird Olympics, it is also a fitting metaphor for the games. While snow is an essential building block of the sports being played, its unpredictable nature is seen by the Chinese government as the opposition. As the snow falls, it disrupts the artificial Chinese snow constructions — just as the Uyghurs build the country's West while disrupting the state’s authority.

Now, with war unfolding in Europe, the Olympics seem like an afterthought — a footnote in the future history books that will tell the story of this war. And yet, that would be a mistake. We cannot forget the games, or we will be doomed to grant more festivals of athletic excellence to authoritarian countries where even the snow is among the opposition.

Contact copy editor Logan Jones Wilkins at logan.joneswilkins@richmond.edu.

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