Fake snow. Fake budgets. Fake smiles. Real authoritarianism.
As slogans go for an Olympics, that’s a little clumsy. But for the Winter Games just underway in Beijing, it works for me and maybe a lot of other people who don’t work for NBC.
Based on pre-Games reporting from multiple credible news sources, the return to the same city that hosted the 2008 Summer Games is far more awkward than that geographic non sequitur (although given the pace of climate change, Beijing may be ahead of the times, once the International Olympic Committee is forced to blend winter and summer sports into The Five Rings of Hot Mess).
The most obvious feature is that arid Beijing and environs get very little snow and have year-round water scarcity, which the capital city mitigates by annually pumping billions of gallons from flooded South China via a large network of reservoirs. To meet the snow requirement for the Games, China has marshaled dozens of snow cannons and will spray an estimated 49 million gallons of crystals across the venues.
China is hardly the first Olympics host to use fake snow. The U.S. pioneered the technique at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. Vancouver B.C.’s Whistler resort needed help in the warm winter of 2010, and a lot was applied in the 2018 Games in South Korea. But this is the first time for a completely artificial snowpack.
So the template has been perfected for the eventual creation of a massive, very tall meat locker to host an indoor Winter Games in, say, Qatar. That way, the IOC can rotate the Games between repressive regimes for the generations who will have no memory of snowfall.
Regarding fake budgets, an investigation by Business Insider says that China’s estimate of $3.9 billion presented to the IOC as the cost to stage the events was a tad shy. The business-news site says it’s more like $38.5 billion, just a tad shy of the most expensive Olympics ever — the $42 billion spent on the Beijing Summer Games in ’08.
Lots of housing and transportation projects were kept off the books. Three Olympic villages were built, one in Beijing, another in Yanqing, a district 30 miles northwest of Beijing that is the alpine skiing center ($443 million). A third is in a city of 1.5 million, Zhangiakou, that cost $5.1 billion (ski jumping, snowboarding, biathlon). Also not on the books is a $9.2 billion bullet train that connects Zhangiakou with Beijing.
Hey, with China’s great Nordic tradition, too much is never enough.
At least China is recycling its two most distinctive architectural features from 2008 — the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies, and the Water Cube aquatic center for, um, curling. The venue where U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps won eight gold medals will now feature Gord and Jean-Luc cracking wise and a Kokanee before delivering their first nose hits in this fancy bonspiel.
On a less humorous note, the fake smiles will be upon many, if not most, visitors.
No, there’s no fans — Chinese and international spectators are banned because of the government’s onerous, zero-tolerance COVID-19 protocols. Vaccinated and tested athletes, coaches, journalists and technicians will be separated from “mainland” China by a closed-loop Olympic bubble maintained by health-care workers in head-to-toe haz-mat suits, as well as concertina-wire fences, police dogs and guns.
If that tension wasn’t sufficient, China also has zero tolerance for political protests, especially because the Olympics platform has a global reach. According to Sports Illustrated, the U.S. Olympic Committee sent a mass email to its athletes strongly recommending avoiding political statements “directed toward China” until back on U.S. soil.
So if any Olympian’s conscience is stirred by what the State Department calls “genocide” against Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities in western China, or furious with the rights crackdown in Hong Kong, well, the advice is to stick a mitten in it. Then fake a smile.
Even then, you may not be safe.
David Wallechinsky, the foremost American author of Olympics history, is skipping the Games, his first miss since Calgary in 1988, to protest China’s plan to have all visitors install a smartphone app to monitor health information. He believes the cyber-security officials who claim the app can also monitor users’ calls and social media. The IOC approved the app, claiming it was secure.
“My decision has nothing to do with covid,” he told InsideTheGames.biz. ” I believe that the covid bubble created by the Chinese organizers will work. I am not going because I do not feel comfortable with the intrusive surveillance bubble imposed on visitors by the Chinese government.
“Several countries have advised their athletes and other participants to leave their computers and cell phones at home and instead to use burner phones to avoid personal data being stolen by the government, and to use (virtual private networks). If you think the Chinese won’t hack into these phones and VPNs too, you’re naïve.”
Modern authoritarians, from Hitler to Xi Jinping, always count on illusion and spectacle to distract and soften. The circuses allow them to say, “We’re not who they say we are.” Mostly, it works.
At least for the athletes, the competitions are genuine and the medals real.
Although I’d run the medals through an electronics scanner.