Beijing 2022: National legacy seems assured, but international legacy an open question

Associated Press / Mark Schiefelbein

Yes, here we are again, ready to celebrate athletic excellence at the highest level — this time with the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, which arrive just months after the Tokyo Summer Games.

The pandemic has impacted the Olympic calendar tremendously, and, unfortunately, it is still causing challenges for the Beijing 2022 Games organizers, who are taking extraordinary measures to avoid a coronavirus outbreak that impedes competition.

That alone is daunting enough, but China and the International Olympic Committee also face a challenge in ensuring a lasting legacy — international and national — for these games.

The international legacy may be most unsettled and difficult to achieve.

For host countries, the national legacy is typically a boost in sports participation and creation of an infrastructure that serves as a draw for athletes, both professional and amateur, for years to come.

In Beijing, winter sports participation and economic development indeed received a tremendous boost after the 2015 announcement that it would host the 2022 Games. Xinhua news has reported that China has exceeded its initial goal of achieving 300 million winter sport enthusiasts, and investments in goods, equipment and infrastructure have soared.

China now has 654 standard ice rinks, up 317 percent from 2015, and the number of ski resorts now totals 803, up from 568 in 2015 and 130 in 2002, according to XinhuaChina is projected to have 50 million skiers by 2025, who will be able to indulge their passion for the sport at 1,000 ski resorts by 2030.

And the games are proving a true economic driver for the region. Chongli, described as a formerly impoverished county, has become an elite ski town with nearly a quarter of its population now working for resorts or related industries. It will host six disciplines during the 2022 Games.

Beijing is the only city to host the Olympic games in both seasons, though nine countries have had that honor, and five cities have held Summer games more than one. The work of organizers to convert several venues used in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics to winter-sport venues for this year’s Games is impressive and showcases new technological know-how in adapting structures to serve as multisport facilities.

The National Aquatics Center, dubbed the “Water Cube” in 2008, has been renamed the “Ice Cube,” and will host curling events. Going forward, the facility will switch between summer and winter sports as a multi-purpose venue.

When it comes to Beijing’s international legacy, the situation is more complicated.

For host cities, this narrative depends largely on the image portrayed during the games and the experience of athletes. Thanks to COVID, this narrative will depend in large measure on the city’s ability to protect the health and safety, and thus participation, of competitors. The Olympians also will, once again, compete without the roar of a crowd to urge them on. Instead, as we saw in Tokyo, athletes will likely engage with the international audience to a large degree through social media. Digital platforms associated with the Olympics, including Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Weibo, totaled 3.7 billion engagements in 2021. The direct engagement of audiences on these channels will play a key role in how Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are perceived.

Human rights issues in China are receiving attention, with mounting pressure on sponsors and politicians to address use the Olympics’ international spotlight to shed light on abuses. The IOC was well aware of these issues when it selected Beijing in 2015 and has relied on its human rights charter to articulate its position while staying focused on sports rather than politics.

For these reasons, the international legacy of the 2022 Winter Games remains to be seen. These games seem promising in terms of a national legacy as they have and will continue to boost winter sport participation and development of first-rate winter sport venues.

The international legacy, on the other hand, will largely be defined by the athletes’ experience. If the athletes have a great time in Beijing and achieve amazing sport performances, the worldwide audience will likely focus on their unique, emotion-laden stories and these, in the end, will be the images that shape the games’ legacy.

Kyriaki Kaplanidou is a professor in the Department of Sport Management at the University of Florida whose research focuses on impacts and legacies of sport events, including the legacy of the Olympic Games.

Tags 2022 Beijing Olympics Beijing Games 2022 Beijing National Aquatics Center China China's human rights abuses International Olympic Committee legacy Winter Olympic Games Xi Jinping

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