NEWS ANALYSIS: Much more than medals has been at stake in Norway during the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Norwegians call it simply “OL,” and it’s usually a festive occasion in a country full of winter sports stars and their enthusiastic fans. Not this time, with some even calling the OL that opens on Friday “a parody.”
China’s authoritative regime, human rights abuses, the Corona crisis and harrowing infection control rules have already spoiled what’s supposed to be a fun run-up to the games. Then comes limits on freedom of movement and expression at the games themselves, plus warnings of constant surveillance and, just last week, China’s not-so-veiled threats against athletes who dare to criticize their regime.
“I’m really sorry to say this, but based on the rules for athletes, the situation in China and that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) refuses to protect all athletes, we’re asking them (athletes) not to say anything,” Rob Kohler, leader of the volunteer organization Global Athlete, told Oslo newspaper Aftenposten. He added that “freedom of expression doesn’t exist” in China. Athletes who voice their opinions can risk losing their accreditation, or worse.
The human rights organization Human Rights Watch also warned athletes that expressing any criticism about China during the Olympics could have serioius consequences for them. Aftenposten reported that Norway’s Olympic committee (Olympiatoppen) has made it clear to Norwegian athletes that they’re not traveling to a liberal western democracy where their rights would be protected.
“We have discussed possible effects and consequences of expressing yourself,” said Olympiatoppen’s communications adviser Halvor Lea, who also serves as press attaché for the Norwegian athletes in Beijing. “We have encouraged those who want to use their voices to do so, and also support those who don’t. Our experience is that it’s better to have a sports-minded focus during the games.”
This week the “focus” was almost solely on keeping athletes free of infection and ensuring their transport to their almost hermetically sealed Olympic Villages. Tensions rose when first a Norwegian coach and then two of Norway’s cross-country skiers (including medal favourite Heidi Weng) tested positive for the Corona virus last week, jeopardizing their participation. Then two support personnel in an Olympic entourage traveling to China, both of whom had tested negative just before boarding a chartered SAS flight bound for Beijing, ended up testing positive upon arrival. Chinese testing is said to be “more sensitive” and those involved were sent directly into isolation.
On board the flight were Norway’s national teams for men’s cross-country skiing, biathlon, combined and ski jumping, in addition to free-style skiers and snowboarders. Several members of Denmark’s Olympic troop and some from Sweden were also on board in addition to journalists from Norway and Denmark.
Infection prevention measures were so extreme that several skiers were also outfitted with glasses and visors in addition to face masks. Skier Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, who won multiple gold medals at the last Winter Olympics in South Korea, was even decked out in ski goggles as well, to ward off any risk of infection through the eyes.
“The virus is dominating OL,” wrote sports commentator Daniel Røed-Johansen in newspaper Aftenposten. “Testing rooms can be just as decisive a factor in the medals race as what happens on the ski trails. This OL can be a parody.”
When some of Norway’s first athletes finally arrived in China, cleared all the testing regulations and set off on some training rounds, they were met by temperatures so called that actual competition would have been cancelled. Biathlon athletes Marte Olsbu Røiseland and Tiril Eckhoff were among those waking up to minus-27C and strong winds as they braved conditions to ski on artificial snow.
No ‘people’s party’ in the land of the People’s Party
Like all their fellow athletes, neither Eckhoff nor Røiseland will be cheered on by spectators in the stands. They’ve been banned because of Corona virus fears, ironically just as Norway itself was opening up again this week. It will be an Olympics void of the festivity and fellowship that were earlier hallmarks of the games. All participants must also submit to testing and temperature-taking every day.
“If the athletes themselves really were important for Olympic organizers, these games would have been postponed,” wrote Røed-Johansen. Sports commentator Reidar Sollie in newspaper Dagsavisen agreed. “Avoiding infection has become the the most important OL event,” Sollie wrote weeks before the games were due to begin. “That raises major questions about how fair an OL in Beijing will be.”
It’s also been suggested that China is using elaborate infection control measures as another means of controlling Olympic participants and journalistic coverage. Røed-Johansen, referring to the Beijing Olympic’s 84-page “playbook” full of rules and regulations, notes that the infection-prevention measures “can be effective against more than just a virus.” By confining all athletes, support staff and journalists to their assigned “bubbles” around arenas, press centers and hotels, the Chinese hosts can also keep journalists and others from mingling with the locals or asking too many critical questions.
“I’ve felt drawn in two directions myself,” Røed-Johansen mused. “On the one side I look forward to (an Olympics’) major moments in sport, on the other side are all these problems that put a damper on the joy of an Olympics but should be covered, too.
“This is certainly not going to be a grand celebration of sport. Everyone taking part in these Olympics must acknowledge that a lot more than medals is at stake.”