Once Again the Olympic Games Will Begin, Despite Everything

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The Winter Olympics will go forward. They always do.

The opening ceremony is Friday in China, which is hosting the celebration of sport and unity even as it is caught in the cross hairs of international controversy over its record on human rights.

Amid the hoopla and celebration, the Beijing government will be asked about its crackdowns in Hong Kong and Tibet and the repressive treatment of its predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority.

Perhaps the organizers or the International Olympic Committee will give faint assurances about the well-being of the tennis star and former Olympian Peng Shuai, who, after accusing a former high-ranking Chinese official of sexual assault, has essentially disappeared.

The Olympic movement endures. Its Games unfurl every four years when not disrupted by awful circumstances like the pandemic that moved the recent Tokyo Games to the summer of 2021. It presses on, season after season, despite a long list of troubles:

Bribery cases and drug scandals.

Athlete censorship and cost overruns.

Environmental damage and the displacement of local residents.

But Beijing 2022 sits at a whole other level of discord.

Many, including me, are asking should these Games even be happening?

Should a second straight Olympiad be held amid a pandemic that has killed more than five million people worldwide?

The Chinese attempt to beat back the virus will make the strict measures taken in Tokyo look like kindergarten play, in a country whose tilt toward authoritarianism has gone unnoticed by the I.O.C.

Once again, few fans will be in the stands. NBC will broadcast the Games in the United States while keeping its event announcers home because the network has deemed it unsafe for them to be in China.

Here we go with yet another Olympics where Russia stands as a specter. It was only eight years ago — the Sochi Winter Games of 2014 — when the Russian military massed at the border of Crimea. Then, once Sochi ended, Russia annexed Crimea, defying the international community. The worry now is that the same fate will befall Ukraine once these Games conclude.

In Sochi, the Russians undertook one of the most brazen doping scandals in sports history — a sophisticated campaign to replace dirty doping samples with clean ones that involved more than 1,000 athletes and dozens of coaches and officials.

And yet Russian athletes have competed in every Olympics, winter and summer, since those 2014 games. Although they are not permitted to march under their flag, they will be there in Beijing, the ones deemed “clean” by the I.O.C. Expect many of them to dominate.

The I.O.C. doesn’t want to take on the powerful. That’s why Russia has escaped mostly unscathed after Sochi.


Feb. 3, 2022, 3:23 p.m. ET

“By not commenting on political issues, you’re not taking a side,” said Thomas Bach, the I.O.C. president, after he faced withering criticism for failing to aggressively press China about Peng Shuai and human rights.

Bach swaddled this stance in typically high-minded, reality-obscuring idealism, and then he lined that idealism in hyperbole. “Otherwise, we could not manage to accomplish the mission of the Games — to bring and unite the world,” he said.

But politics, protest and the incursion of vexing world affairs have always played a part in the Olympics. They did when Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler in Berlin in 1936, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists in protest in Mexico City in 1968, and when terrorists representing a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization killed 11 members of Israel’s Olympic team in Munich in 1972.

“The Games must go on,” said Avery Brundage, who was the chief of the I.O.C. after the massacre.

The remaining athletes stuffed down their sorrow and forged on until the closing ceremony. Their guts and determination could not have been a surprise; it is the Olympic competitors who always redeem the Games. (Most of them, at least, not the dopers and other cheats.)

Barring an unstoppable cascade of infection, what will save Beijing 2022 will be more athletic brilliance — on the ice and the mountains that, in this case, are blanketed by an unusually heavy coating of artificial snow because it is in a dry region.

Mikaela Shiffrin, daring and dominant, aiming for as many as five more gold medals.

Nathan Chen, gliding across the ice and twisting through the air in figure skating.

Shaun White and Chloe Kim in the halfpipe.

Germany’s Eric Frenzel in the Nordic combined.

Canada, waging its ongoing battle with the United States for supremacy in women’s hockey.

There will, of course, be other stars, other memories formed. Expect an alluring stream of virtually unknown Olympians, athletes with back stories for the ages, no chance at winning and indomitable pluck.

Expect grace notes; the kind of fair play that became a hallmark of the Tokyo Olympics.

Think of those games, which took place just five months ago. I was one of many critics sounding the alarm about the usual scandals and ballooning costs back then. The biggest concern was how the Swiss-based I.O.C. was shoving the Games down the throats of a Japanese public with legitimate worries that a mega-event coming to their island nation could undermine the fight against the coronavirus.

Most Japanese people wanted the Olympics canceled or once again postponed.

The I.O.C. scoffed and sneered and pushed forward.

Then the Games began. As they always do, viewers worldwide became understandably consumed by the drama unfolding in the gyms and on the courts and the track surrounded by a stadium devoid of fans.

Over the next three weeks in China, expect much the same. Expect the same greatness, the same athletic grace — a marvel for us all — but always remember what is really going on.