Another iteration of the Olympic Games is just around the corner.
And these Games, like the Summer Olympics in Tokyo before them, promise to be memorable.
With the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Olympics now just 100 days away, Beijing 2022 organizers are continuing to refine the COVID-19 protocols that will be in place for the Games. Human rights groups are continuing to call on Olympic stakeholders to speak out about China’s detention of Uyghur Muslims, among other issues. And some of Team USA’s marquee athletes are returning to competition after a summer of training, with their eyes set on Olympic gold.
As the 100-day countdown to Beijing begins, here’s a look at seven key questions ahead of the Games.
1. What will Beijing’s bubble look like?
Beijing 2022 organizers released the first iteration of their COVID-19 protocols this week – a pair of so-called “playbooks” that detail some of the principles they had previously announced. Many of these countermeasures, such as frequent temperature checks and social distancing, are in line with those utilized by Tokyo. Others are far more strict.
While Tokyo created a loose bubble for the Summer Olympics, Beijing’s “closed-loop” setup appears to be significantly more strict, completely walling off Olympic stakeholders from the rest of China. And some of the countermeasures for those inside the bubble are more stringent, too. The playbooks specifically reference the use of KN95 masks, for example; In Tokyo, many stakeholders wore simple cloth masks. Everyone inside the Beijing bubble will also be subjected to daily COVID-19 tests, collected by throat swabs. Tokyo used saliva tests, and some groups (including media) were only tested once every few days.
It will be interesting to see how all of this works and looks come February, as well as how Beijing organizers deal with rulebreakers. Minor infractions at the Tokyo Games typically just received a warning. Beijing’s playbooks reference a range of possible punishments, including “financial sanctions.” An updated set of playbooks are due to be released by the end of the year.
2. What impact will vaccine mandates have?
Vaccine policy is perhaps the most notable difference between Beijing’s protocols and those in Tokyo. In Tokyo, getting the shot was encouraged. In Beijing, it will be all but mandatory. Those who are unvaccinated will face a 21-day quarantine upon arrival.
Some Olympic delegations, including those from the U.S. and Canada, have decided to take uncertainty out of the equation and require that all of their athletes, coaches and staff members be vaccinated before traveling to Beijing. Jonathan Finnoff, the USOPC’s chief medical officer, said during Team USA’s media summit last week the organization has seen a mixed response from athletes to that decision.
“(But) the vast majority of people that we’ve been talking to are really excited about this and feel that this is the right way to go,” he said.
About 85% of Team USA’s athletes were vaccinated in Tokyo, and it’s unclear what the remaining 15% would have done if a mandate had been in place. It’s also worth monitoring how Beijing’s threat of a 21-day quarantine impacts other countries’ plans.
3. How will fan attendance shake out?
There will be no foreign fans at the Winter Olympics, but Beijing 2022 organizers have indicated that some spectators from mainland China will be permitted to attend, as long as they follow a series of yet-to-be-announced COVID-19 protocols.
The absence of foreign fans will be a disappointment to non-Chinese athletes, who won’t have their families on hand to support them in Beijing. But the bigger question moving forward is what the atmosphere will be like in some of these venues.
Will organizers allow the stands to be, say, 80% full? Or just 20% full? Will the venues look and feel empty, or seem almost normal? And how will this impact competition, if at all? The host country always has something of a home-field advantage, but this promises to be a unique case.
4. How will stakeholders handle questions about China’s human rights abuses?
Human rights groups and politicians have called for the postponement or boycott of the 2022 Olympics due to China’s human rights abuses, specifically the detention of Uyghur Muslims, which the U.S. government has declared a genocide. And as the Games get closer, those calls will only grow louder.
While the chances of such a postponement or boycott appear to be nearly zero, it will be interesting to see how various groups of stakeholders – from the International Olympic Committee to sponsors to broadcasters – address (or avoid) the issue. There will also be a particularly bright spotlight on athletes, some of whom have referred to the Games as a chance to drum up awareness of the human rights abuses in China.
“I can say human rights violations are abysmal. And we all believe that it’s really … it tears the fabric of humanity,” U.S. figure skater Evan Bates said last week. “But I think to boycott the Games would be to not take the opportunity to shed light on this topic.”
One of the big questions here is whether an athlete will publicly condemn China while competing in Beijing – a move that would attract plenty of eyeballs and draw the ire of the Chinese government.
5. Is there any realistic chance of a U.S. boycott?
In short: No. Though the U.S. government has made its stance clear on China’s detention of Uyghurs, a full-scale athlete boycott appears to be far-fetched at this point, in part due to the USOPC’s staunch opposition.
“We believe the more effective course of action is for the governments of the world and China to engage directly on human rights and geopolitical issues,” the USOPC said in a statement earlier this year.
That said, some sort of diplomatic boycott – which has been proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., among others – is feasible. While it wouldn’t impact the actual competition, it would certainly add some geopolitical intrigue to one of the world’s largest sporting events.
6. How will NBC (and U.S. audiences) handle Olympic-Super Bowl overlap?
One of the interesting wrinkles with the 2022 Olympics is that they’ll overlap with another massive sporting event: Super Bowl LVI. The game will take place almost exactly in the middle of the Olympics, on Day 10 of the 17-day schedule. Both events are being televised by NBC.
The logistical challenges here, from NBC’s standpoint, are obvious. But it will also be interesting to see if one event dilutes interest in the other – or, more specifically, if American fans basically ignore the Olympics for a week in favor of NFL talk. The Winter Olympics have traditionally started a week or two after the Super Bowl. This will be the first time the two marquee events overlap.
7. Will Team USA stars live up to the hype?
For all the off-ice intrigue detailed above, there’s obviously the basic question of how Team USA – and its marquee names – will fare in Beijing.
Mikaela Shiffrin, who won a gold and a silver at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, figures to be the United States’ biggest star. She spoke recently about competing in all five Alpine skiing events in Beijing, which would give her five medal chances. Shaun White is aiming to make his fifth Olympic appearance in snowboarding. And in figure skating, all eyes will be on Nathan Chen, who won three consecutive world championships after a disappointing showing in Pyeongchang.
Then, of course, there’s men’s and women’s hockey – where the U.S. and Canada are likely to continue their long-standing rivalry. The men’s competition will once again include NHL players, who were barred by the league from participating in the 2018 Games.
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.