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How Beijing residents are taking a ‘closed-loop’ Winter Olympics

Beijing residents lament the ban on overseas fans but say the Winter Games ambience is still there.

People queue to enter a Beijing Winter Olympics souvenir store at Wangfujing shopping mall complex in Beijing [Noel Celis/AFP]
People queue to enter a Beijing Winter Olympics souvenir store at Wangfujing shopping mall complex in Beijing [File: Noel Celis/AFP]

The Beijing Winter Games are halfway through and the mood in the host city, the first to have hosted both a Summer and Winter Olympics, is mixed for most residents who cannot attend the competitions held in a rigidly pandemic-preventative “closed loop”.

Alex Acker, an expat in Beijing for both Games, is showing the event at his Jing-A craft brewery branches but he says the 2008 Beijing Summer Games had felt like “a huge party” and saw the Chinese capital “really coming into its own”.

He believes that while Beijing residents are still excited for the Winter Games, it is “obviously muted due to COVID and not being able to go to events or mix with fans and athletes from around the world”.

Mathieu Herout, who owns a sports bar, was more downbeat, saying that while he had a “good crowd” for the opening ceremony, only a “handful of people come and watch the competitions”.

There is “no comparison” between 2008 and 2022, he said, adding that many of his employees remember “foreign spectators, staff, crews and athletes would come and party” 14 years ago.

“We have none of this this year, given the health and safety measures,” added Herout.

The mood between the two events is “starkly different”, said Asher Gillespie, who owns a pizza place near some of Beijing’s top ice rinks, where he spent years in Beijing’s evolving hockey scene as a local recreational league player.

Gillespie recalled throngs of tourists and staff descending on Beijing in 2008 for sightseeing, watching the events, dining and enjoying the nightlife.

For many who did not have tickets to attend the Bird’s Nest, Water Cube or other Olympic venues, sports bars and restaurants were an alternative, and Gillespie said many in his industry hoped 2022 would be similar.

“Obviously everything changed with COVID,” Gillespie said.

Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports Insider, TV commentator, and author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best, said a number of factors have “dampened the mood” during the 2022 Games.

Along with the ban on international spectators, Dreyer says the chilly February weather meant there were fewer outdoor festivities than in the summer of 2008.

However, he saw hope in the social media and retail clamour around the Games’ mascot, though Dreyer remembers a bigger and far earlier buildup for that in 2008.

Chinese state media ran a number of highly positive interviews with Beijing residents, which ran counter to international news about diplomatic boycotts and the strict anti-COVID protocols for Olympians, staff, volunteers and media within the “closed loop”.

Businesses near the Olympic bubble gave Al Jazeera a different view.

Wang manages a hotel a few blocks east of the Bird’s Nest, and he said he feels “very safe” despite the influx of athletes from around the world amid the Omicron surge.

He also restrictions had not affected traffic to the hotel.

Restaurateurs, like Wu who manages an eatery a few blocks south of the Bird’s Nest, share that “business as usual” sentiment.

Fiona Yao said little of a diplomatic boycott mattered to her as the Games inspired her and her young daughter to lace up and skate on Beijing’s outdoor ponds for the first time this winter.

And while the Olympic bubble has left Yao feeling “unfortunate that we can’t go see any events like in 2008”, she does feel protected by those procedures, and says “we are still very happy [the Games] could actually happen in our city”.

Dastine Huang, a skiing fan, said the 2022 Games are an “unprecedented opportunity to enlighten” uninitiated Chinese viewers about the virtues of skiing slopes and skating rinks.

He also says young Chinese viewers have been inspired by athletes like Chinese snowboarders Cai Xuetong and Su Yiming, and especially freestyle skier Eileen Gu winning gold for China.

Watching such Olympic skiers and snowboarders has made recreational snowboarder Guo “Anna” Na even more motivated than usual to take to the slopes.

For her, the infrastructure boost, from the high-speed rail that can whisk her and her snowboarding friends to slopes in hours, to the greater quality and number of resorts as the Games approached has been a plus.

That enthusiasm for China’s would-be winter sports potential is shared by Canadian Justin Downes who, as president of IMG Ski Resort Management & Axis Leisure Management, has consulted for years to help develop China’s skiing industries.

He said the country’s ski and snowboard population has not already quadrupled since Beijing won the 2022 Winter Games bid but is on track to double once more before 2025, which would make China the world’s biggest ski population by nation.

“Tourism numbers to winter sport destinations around the country have seen unprecedented growth – coupled with the Chinese population’s quest for a happier, healthier and more balanced way of life – the ski and snow venues around the country are significant beneficiaries of this.”

Source: Al Jazeera