The 2022 Winter Olympics/Paralympics in Beijing were characterized by controversy, most notably impending Russian aggression toward Ukraine. The shadow of war crept upon the games as the world anxiously awaited Russia’s first strike on the country; and sure enough, the anticipated attack was realized on 24 February 2022, four days after the closing ceremony. The subsequent Paralympics were immensely overshadowed by international coverage of the Russian invasion. Although some intelligence reports broadcast by the media predicted that the conflict would start during the Olympics, the timing of the invasion may be anything but “coincidental”, particularly if one believes arguments that the Russian government didn’t want to completely steal China’s spotlight as host of the games.
Still, controversy surrounding the games – and not just Russia’s behavior – actually began earlier as several powerful democracies declared a diplomatic boycott of the games. The US, UK, Canada, India, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark, and Estonia, among others, declared that they would send athletes without any officials in attendance. The declared reasoning for this boycott was China’s human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang; but for India it was due to the fact that one of the Olympic torchbearers was a Chinese army officer involved in a deadly skirmish with Indian troops. Looking back at the history of modern Olympics, parallels can be drawn to the Berlin 1936 games. Back then, the US had debated boycotting the games that would be held in Nazi Germany.
Aside from tensions between the West on the one hand and Russia and China on the other, the games also ruffled the feathers of South Korea. Following the games’ opening ceremony on 4 February 2022, many South Koreans – including then-presidential campaign candidates – spoke out about the appearance of a performer wearing a hanbok, a national item of clothing of South Korea. According to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, the costumes worn by the performers during the opening ceremony were meant to represent the traditional garb of over 50 ethnic groups living in China. However, the inclusion of the hanbok clashed with many South Koreans’ nationalistic sensitivities that stem from the long history of Chinese subjugation of Korean states. Current bilateral relations between the two countries can be expected to carry a heightened tone, especially following the 9 March 2022 election of conservative Yoon Suk-yeol to South Korean presidency. Yoon has a hawkish stance towards China.
Another controversy surrounding the games can be seen in the MY2022 app. All athletes participating in the games were required to download and use this app that was developed by the Beijing Financial Holdings Group. The app is able to store user information such as COVID-19 vaccine status and health tracking codes; it also contains features such as AI-based translation, baggage tracking, weather forecasting, messaging, and so on. China, which pursues a “zero-COVID” strategy, touted this app as greatly important in tracking the spread of COVID-19 during the Olympics. However, a report by the Canada-based Citizen Lab research center highlighted concerns with regard to privacy and censorship on MY2022. Although the International Olympic Committee defended the app by stating that it was in compliance with the regulations of Google and Apple, several democratic countries still expressed their distrust of the technology. The US, UK, Australia, and Germany urged their Olympians to leave all personal devices and laptops at home out of concern that they could face cyber-attacks or be monitored by the Chinese government, both during the Olympics and after their return home. The Dutch Olympic Committee went as far as to officially ban its citizens from taking their devices to Beijing.
Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Olympics also had its own fair share of controversy. Due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic, the games were postponed from March 2020 to the summer of 2021. The organization of the Olympics was then plagued by a relatively slow vaccine rollout in Japan together with various logistical issues related to the Olympic Village. As time drew closer to the start of the event, the discriminatory remarks by Head of the Japanese Olympics Committee (JOC) Yoshiro Mori led to his hasty resignation and replacement by Seiko Hashimoto. The suspected suicide of a JOC official also beleaguered organizers. Once the games began, no public spectators were allowed to attend the events. In addition to protests against the games, there were also reports of rule-breakers who violated their pledge to not leave the Olympic Village. The immense rise in the number of cases of COVID-19 and resultant deaths in Japan coincided with the Olympics and Paralympics.
In short, the two most recent Olympic Games have showcased a wide variety of controversies. While Japan struggled against the domestic and international implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020/2021, Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics will be associated with the growing distance between China and the West as well as Russian aggression in Ukraine and thus the prelude to a breakdown in international peace.