Charm, character and pyrotechnics headline the Opening Ceremony at the start of the controversy-fueled Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There’s a conventional wisdom, unless you maybe work in Downing Street, that when you want to divert attention from something really bad, then you throw a big party.

It is recommended to spend cash when inviting friend or foe in a bid to curry favor or gain some influence, and this show is reported to cost £9bn and counting.

So here we are, back in Beijing, 14 years later, as the Chinese capital becomes the first city to host the Summer and Winter Olympics.

The last time the five-ring circus pitched its big top here, there were some lofty words about how the world’s most populous country would change.

Former International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge expressed the hope that the world’s scrutiny would open up the nation.

And perhaps he was right, because China has fallen one spot out of the unwanted medals in the World Press Freedom Index, with Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan taking the podium spots. Progress more funereal than slow.

Coincidentally, Norway ranks best, as they are expected to do here, with safe predictions of 40+ medals.

The last time Beijing hosted the star it was a certain Jamaican sprinter, now the IOC runs as fast as Usain Bolt for some uncomfortable truths.

In 2008, Rogge acted the perfect righteous diplomat, being “gravely concerned”, while parroting that the Olympics are a catalyst for change, not a panacea for all ills.

And not much is different now, his successor Thomas Bach still has his talking points. This week he somehow conflated genocide with a ‘political spat’, as he stood under a banner proclaiming ‘Together for a shared future’, the marketing people for provincial building societies can have that for free.

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Fireworks and bright lights have become a staple of Games Opening Ceremonies in the modern age.
Fireworks and bright lights have become a staple of Games Opening Ceremonies in the modern age.

There’s fake snow here and plenty of fake promises too, although it should be noted that the only rival to Beijing’s bid for these Games was Kazakhstan’s capital, Almaty, which campaigned without irony under the slogan “Keep it real”. Last month, hundreds of people, including a four-year-old girl, were killed there in anti-government protests.

It’s hard to keep sport and politics separate or to find a transition between the above and Johannes Lamparter’s hopes at the Nordic Combined, but we’ll have to try.

This opening night extravaganza lacked the scale of director Zhang Yimou’s 2008 epic, with its 15,000-strong cast and £74m budget.

However, in front of a half-full Bird’s Nest, it was not without its charm and character, with a soundtrack drawn from Last Night of the Proms, though never with the lyrics “Land of hope and glory, Mother of liberty”. It seemed so incongruous.

Obviously there were fireworks and lights, which are as much an essential part of the Olympic Opening Ceremony checklist as flags and flames these days.

Speeches promised a ‘joyful gathering’ as ‘gracious hosts’ were thanked and two young members of the Chinese team were the latest torchbearers, though the discreet lighting of the cauldron was always going to have a hard time matching the iconic reckless act of Li Ning on the tightrope. 2008.

According to a 42-page manual, the ‘overall aesthetic tone’ of this show was ‘snow-white, romantic, pure and beautiful’ while adhering to the general creative principles of ‘simple, safe and wonderful’.

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One sometimes wonders if these Olympic brand experts just type inspirational words into Google and look up as many synonyms as possible.

Of course, they are question marks on stage, as they will be later this year in Qatar or when any sport bows down in a country looking to wash its image with sweat. Sport, especially the Olympics, has long followed money, and little will change until that happens.

But we must not forget that the actors in this play have no choice where to act and it is too simplistic to demand that they stay home and watch someone else live out their dreams on television.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to make an Olympian, these days a lot of PCR tests are also required – everyone here has their tonsils “tickled” every day to keep a second Games pandemic in six months safe and healthy.

There are 2,871 athletes from 91 countries in tracksuits at these Games and many more organizers also in Hazmat suits. Taller, faster, stronger, and stranger too.

Curling’s Eve Muirhead and alpine skier Dave Ryding led a delegation of 56 members of the British team, more than attended the Tokyo Games Opening Ceremony just 196 days ago.

On snow and ice there are high hopes of equaling, even bettering, the five medals won at the two previous Games in Sochi and PyeongChang.

They’ll slide and slide, thrill and spill, and it’ll be worth setting the alarm and sacrificing some sleep.

Because there’s nothing like the Winter Olympics, even if you can’t tell your triple salchow from your cork 360, your slap shot from your hack or your huck.

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Trust the process, in a fortnight you will be seriously discussing why the Norwegians gave up the hammer in the eighth set or the best line to take corner 13.

To use the vernacular of those effortless ‘Fridge Kids’, who learned their dizzying trade in the snow-capped domes of Britain, it is entirely possible to be ‘enthusiastic’ about our hosts’ government, while continuing to think that these athletes are ‘totally rad’.

Watch all the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics live on discovery+ Eurosport and the Eurosport app

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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