Fourteen years ago at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, ninety thousand fans roared at Usain Bolt down the stretch to break the men’s 100m world record and instantly establish one of the most indelible images of the Olympic Games.
On Saturday night in the Chinese capital, memories of Bolt’s 9.69 supercharge remained fresh, but masked officials and freezing temperatures told a different story, of a Games that threaten to be remembered by all. the wrong reasons.
Politics and a pandemic have blighted preparations for the first Winter Games to be held in the same city as its summer counterpart, albeit a banned one, consigned to a closed-circuit bubble sealed off by security officers in hazmat suits.
Despite all the rules prohibiting regular ticket sales, the Bird’s Nest was nearly half full of quarantined spectators for a restricted ceremony, clocking in at just over two hours, making it the Olympic opening event Shortest in over 40 years.
“Simple, safe, wonderful” was the message, and the ceremony certainly succeeded as a colorful artistic spectacle, a 11,600 square meter LED ice display forming the basis of the spectacle that coincided with the millions of cubic tons of artificial snow accumulated in the tracks. from Zhangjikou.
Chinese President Xi preceded a lavish fireworks display as he declared the Games open, before two young members of the current Chinese team lit a low-key cauldron.
Yet no amount of pageantry can extinguish the backdrop of accusations of genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, nor the press freedom fears that led many traveling delegations to pack disposable phones along with their pom-pom hats. .
Add in the continuing concerns about tennis player Peng Shuai’s well-being, and it was a far cry from the lavish and cozy festival that hosted the world’s top athletes in 2008.
A diplomatic boycott caused officials from many nations, including the UK and the US, to stay away, while Russian President Vladimir Putin was present, though he was caught apparently asleep on camera as the Ukrainian delegation entered the stadium.
Inevitably, an asterisk will be added to everything that happens in the next two weeks, as the Olympic Games face their biggest challenge since former International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage declared the establishment of the winter version a “ deplorable mistake”.
For all the athletes, including British duo Eve Muirhead and Dave Ryding, who proudly carried their respective national flags into the stadium on Saturday night, there were others who watched the ceremony on a flickering television screen inside a quarantine hotel.
By the time of the opening ceremony, Britain had mercifully guided the entire arriving delegation safely through rigid protocols, and more than 50 of its members marched around the Bird’s Nest that at the opening ceremony from Tokyo seven months ago.
Great Britain is optimistically hoping to threaten or even surpass its haul of five medals at each of the last two Winter Games, led by a triple curling challenge, a buoyant bobsleigh team and even a historic alpine World Cup winner in Ryding. .
Returning champions Chloe Kim and Shaun White will light up the snowboarding schedule, while the quest for quads will provide a headlining act in a figure skating event featuring 15-year-old Russian superstar Kamila Valieva and the renewal of the historic rivalry between Yuzuru Hanyu. and Nathan. Chen.
At the other end of the spectrum will be the unlikely participants who have shaped the Winter Olympics as much as their illustrious counterparts, including skiers from Haiti and Eritrea, and Nathan Crumpton, a skeleton athlete from American Samoa who was the last to parade topless. despite the fact that temperatures are close to five degrees below zero.
The moments they create are sure to dwarf the bravado of Brundage and his current successor, Thomas Bach, maintaining that mildly anarchic Winter Olympic spirit in a way that no amount of grandiose posturing could ever hope to match.
They can prick our collective conscience just as painfully as daily PCR tests. But the hope must still be that the Beijing Winter Games will create moments that can co-exist with Bolt’s in the Olympic pantheon.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.