Banners bearing the 2022 Winter Olympics slogan, “Together for a Shared Future” have made their way onto Beijing’s lamp posts, its expressways and even the Great Wall, while cuddly toys of mascots Bing Dwen Dwen and Shuey Rhon Rhon are being flogged in shops. But to Maggie Liu, a 21-year-old student from the Chinese capital, the Olympic spirit is found wanting. “Due to the impact of Covid-19, citizens are more focused on the fight against the [pandemic], which [makes it] difficult to have a strong atmosphere,” she said. Another student, 22-year-old Sabrina Chen in Shenzhen, said: “If there was no Covid, I would want to travel to Beijing to just feel the atmosphere and watch the Games.” When China won the bid to host these Olympics in 2015, it promised a greener Games and to popularise winter sports, but it did not expect a battle with a global pandemic, nor diplomatic boycotts. With new-found challenges, how should China judge success for its second Beijing Olympics? Bringing home gold As the host, China undoubtedly wants to see itself on the podium. China first competed at the Winter Olympics in 1980 with a delegation of 28 taking part in skating, skiing and biathlon. Ye Qiaobo won China’s first Winter Olympics medal in 1992, taking a silver in speed skating. Historically China has not won nearly as many medals at the Winter Games as it has at the Summer Games. And the country has also only reached the podium in six of the 15 Winter Olympic sports. But this time it has several dark-horse contenders. China took home nine medals from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but only one – won by Wu Dajing – was gold. He is the top contender to clinch gold again in the 500 metres short-track speedskating event. China has won most of its medals – 33 in total – in short-track speedskating, including its first, which Yang Yang won in 2002. China is ranked second in the world in the sport after South Korea, which has won 48 medals. Is Eileen Gu American or Chinese? Opinions divided over her nationality Elsewhere, the skeleton could provide medal opportunities. The host nation has won the event in the last three Olympics, with local athletes having had access to the competition track for practice. This same advantage goes to aerial skiing and snowboarding athletes, who can prepare on the slopes used for the Games. When it comes to figure skating, China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong will expect to bring fierce competition in Beijing. They took silver in Pyeongchang after missing out on gold by just 0.43 points. Then there is Chinese freestyle ski star Eileen Gu, the hot favourite for three events – big air, half-pipe and slopestyle. Gu was the X Games rookie who won three medals on her debut, the first ever free skier to win multiple world titles in a single year. Quest for 300 million winter sports lovers The Olympics is not only about professional athletes. Perhaps the paramount goal of these Games for China is to make 300 million citizens fall in love with winter sports. After all, it came from the president himself, Xi Jinping, with China setting itself this lofty target as part of its bid to host the Winter Olympics. In January, China’s sports administration claimed 346 million people across the country have taken part in winter sports since 2015, seemingly abandoning the original goal of reaching the figure among residents in the north alone. The winter sports push was as much about creating business opportunities as it was about promoting an active lifestyle. “Three hundred million people taking part in ice and snow sports will create a huge winter sports market and a long industry chain,” then-sports minister Liu Peng said in 2015. The official Winter Sports Development Plan targeted the creation of an industry worth 1 trillion yuan (US$157 billion) by 2025. To reach that goal, China has turned to mass media, with at least 12 films and television shows created. But documentary Burning Ice , about three boys with ambitions to play ice hockey professionally, has been a box-office bomb. The film has only made 1.6 million yuan in sales in the two weeks after it premiered, according to Endata, an entertainment analytics firm. The television shows fared better. State broadcaster CCTV is showing Beyond , a drama about Chinese speed skating novices training themselves into worthy Olympians. It has been near the top of prime-time viewership charts, data from television analytics platform Kuyun Eye shows. The 2019 reality show Ice Hockey Hero , which follows 14 young aspiring players, ranked among the top 50 prime-time shows in viewership for most of its run, according to Kuyun Eye. Let the Winter Games begin: sport, politics and Covid collide in Beijing It is difficult, however, to know exactly how successful the winter sports push has been, according to Marcus Chu Pok, an assistant professor at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. “The keyword is ‘participation’. What do you mean by participation? Because the Chinese authorities never [did] tell us the definition of participation here,” he said. The sports administration in 2015 said the term “participants” did not only count people who practise winter sports, but also student athletes and their parents, as well as coaches, referees, visitors to winter carnivals and even audience members at quiz shows about winter sports. Green Olympics Outside sports, Beijing 2022 organisers also promised a carbon-neutral Olympics that was “green, inclusive, open and corruption-free”. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has required Olympic Games held after 2030 to be “climate-positive”, while Games held since 2020 have committed to being carbon neutral. Beijing 2022 will reuse venues from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, including the iconic “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies, and the “Water Cube” National Aquatics Centre, which has been converted to the “Ice Cube” for curling events. Renewable energy will also fully power venues. Beijing will also use carbon dioxide refrigerants to make ice in four of its venues, the first time this technology has been used in China and at the Games. Carbon dioxide refrigerants contribute less to global warming than traditional refrigerants and do not damage the ozone layer, according to Wu Wei, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong. “Clean energy” and energy-saving cars will account for 84.9 per cent of vehicles used for the Olympics, the pre-Games sustainability report said. Some parts of Beijing and Zhangjiakou will be afforested to offset carbon emissions. However, concerns over air pollution remained. Beijing only met Chinese air quality standards last year, after authorities cut coal consumption and relocated heavy industries, among other measures, from 2010-2020. The level of small airborne pollutants called PM2.5 dropped by 63 per cent since 2013, when China started releasing air quality data. Still, Beijing’s pollution is far below World Health Organization standards. Water usage was another concern. The IOC was worried that Beijing was too reliant on artificial snow and had underestimated the amount of water needed to make snow. To save water, the organisers said in the sustainability report it would use a snow-making system that would use 20 per cent less water than traditional methods. The competition zone in Zhangjiakou will also capture rainwater or melted snow, and be reused after treatment. Emissions figures will be released after the competition ends, but analysts remain concerned whether they will reflect actual environmental costs without third-party assessment. Pandemic and boycott Beyond what China promised the IOC and the world, it still has to manage unexpected challenges from the coronavirus and diplomatic boycotts over human rights concerns, which China has repeatedly dismissed. On the health front, 106 people connected to the Games have already tested positive since January 4, a month before the Games, with 42 of them were found inside the Covid-19 bubble the organisers are counting on to keep the Chinese population safe. “We had a mission, which was to deliver a safe Games,” IOC executive director Christophe Dubi told the Post . “We have delivered a safe Games right in times of a pandemic, while Omicron is raging around the globe. So all the measures, we have suffered blood and tears to get there.” The IOC made clear the goal was not to hold a virus-free Olympics, but one with “zero spread” inside the closed loop. The moment they arrive in Beijing, participants will enter the bubble covering living quarters, competition and training venues, and other facilities inaccessible to the public. Unvaccinated athletes can compete, but they can only enter the bubble after a 21-day quarantine, unless they are exempted. Everyone is also tested daily and required to wear N95 masks or those of equivalent grades. To limit infections, only selected spectators from China can enter venues. Pu Haozhou, a University of Dayton assistant professor, said China would want to highlight that its people are leading normal lives during the pandemic. “This fits into the heavily pushed official narrative that China’s handling of the pandemic has proved the superiority of its political system,” he said. But the US-led call for boycotts, followed by a handful of Western countries, has not helped China’s reputation. Media coverage has also been more negative than the host would have liked and there remained a clear mismatch between China’s hard and soft power, Pu said. “The event [is] unlikely to be a major political gathering this year,” he said. “China however would be keen for the attendance of political figures in other countries as a countermove to the diplomatic boycotts.” With the Games set to begin on February 4, athletes, officials and volunteers are already making their way into the closed loop. Athletes will be putting everything on the line to achieve their Olympic dream. Not only will fans be eyeing the competition, the media, governments and audience across the world will be closely watching whether Beijing 2022 will be a green and safe Games.