It was like almost any other Friday evening commute. People filed out of their offices on July 31 in an orderly fashion, headed for Beijing’s subway, its public buses or to try their luck hailing taxis. The only difference was that as the city’s workers were heading home, Beijing was capping a 21-month, come-from-behind campaign to host the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games with a win!…and no one seemed to care.
The street scene could not have been more of a contrast with 2001. When Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games then, the entire city erupted into spontaneous cheering and joyous gatherings. This time there was barely a honking car horn or gleeful hooray from Beijingers done with work for the week. Celebrations shown on television involved only orchestrated “volunteers.”
By the time Beijing entered its bid for the Winter Olympics in November 2013, Stockholm, Sweden, had already dropped out of the running. Beijing was facing previous winter games host Oslo, Norway; Almaty, Kazakhstan; Lviv, Ukraine; and Krakow, Poland. Oslo was considered the favorite, with both that city and Lillehammer having given Norway the experience of hosting the winter event twice.
But one by one, the other cities dropped from the race. Oslo was the last to bow out, leaving the precipitation-challenged Beijing up against the dark horse Almaty, Kazakhstan. When the Olympic Committee met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the height of summer to decide which city would host the greatest event in winter sports, snow did not seem to be first on their minds. Beijing won by four votes, 44 to 40, closer than expected but an outcome that was by that point not a surprise.
International reaction was less than jubilant. “Qatar was robbed,” read a wry subheadline in The Economist, referring to the 2022 World Cup host—a choice now awash in controversy—with much of the backlash focusing on Beijing’s lack of natural snow. Of similar concern is the impact that a second Olympics will have, or not have, on China. Social-change proponents of the Olympic movement saw the 1988 games in Seoul and the 1992 event in Barcelona as evidence that the Olympics could help move cities, and the countries they represent, out of darker times, like periods of martial law or dictatorship.
The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 could still be a sign of a new era in Brazil. But while Beijing 2008 surely marked the arrival of China’s capital on the international stage, coming at the end of an almost-unbroken 20-year run of economic growth and expanding global influence, the period following the Beijing Olympics has not been particularly bright.
Hopes for greater press freedom were not realized even during the 2008 games. Since they ended, well-regarded foreign reporters from The New York Times and Reuters have been forced to leave the country where several met their wives and where their children were born. In July, before the Olympic decision, 100 or more lawyers who have defended clients charged with political crimes were taken into police custody, and authorities in China’s Zhejiang Province continue to clash with Christians by removing crosses from churches—in some cases bulldozing entire houses of worship—under the guise of building violations.
China has also asserted itself territorially, building landing strips on disputed islands in the South China Sea. It continues to antagonize Japan. In September China will stage a massive military parade in Beijing on a newly established holiday weekend, its exhausting moniker the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japan and Victory of the World War Against Fascism 70th Anniversary.”
That last event has already led to a chorus of “we told you so” from naysayers of the Beijing Olympic pick. In a move similar to pre-Olympic visa clampdowns and other measures designed to limit visitation and pollution in the capital during the Olympics, identity and vehicle checks at provincial border crossings into Beijing began on Aug. 10, almost a month before the new holiday, causing traffic delays measured in hours.
Beijing relied on its Olympic legacy from 2008 to win the right to host in 2022. That suggests low returns for anyone hoping that a another chance to stand out as an Olympic city will be a second chance for change.