While it is too early to evaluate the 2020 Summer Games, its legacy will surely affect the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The Chinese will be studying and learning from Tokyo’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Japanese organizers paid enormous attention to environmentally and socially friendly practices throughout the Games from the subdued opening and closing ceremonies to the use of recycled or reusable materials to make the medals and build and furnish the facilities. Beijing will have to take these efforts into account and think over what its vision for the 2022 Winter Games should be and that event should look like.
The geopolitical dimensions must be a major consideration. The world is obsessed with the rise of China and its global implications, especially for Sino-American relations. The Olympic Games can provide new perspectives to ponder that future. As I demonstrated in my recent book, Chinese and Americans: A Shared History, the US and China have common touchpoints in the Olympic movement. It was the Americans who brought the modern Olympics to China through the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). China’s first participated in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1932. China’s first Olympic gold medal was won at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Beijing even heeded the American government’s call to boycott 1980 Moscow Olympics. And the first time a sitting American president attended the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games outside the US was when George W Bush went to Beijing in 2008.
Could this shared history in sports help improve China-US relations, which have been described by some as a new Cold War rivalry? Or could the Beijing 2022 Winter Games become a source of further division and dispute, with calls for a boycott mounting?
Hosting the Olympic Games is one of the most telling milestones marking a nation’s growth, development and emergence on the international stage. This was true for Japan in 1964, South Korea in 1988 and China in 2008. Bringing the Winter Games to a country may be less significant, but it is akin to icing on the celebratory cake.
Displaying sports prowess at the Games has also become a matter of national pride and stature. The US has been leading the Olympic gold medal tally since the first modern Olympiad in 1896. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) made its first appearance at an Olympics in Helsinki in1952 but refrained from participating in a Summer Games again until 1984 in Los Angeles. The PRC quickly established itself as major Olympic sporting power, coming in a constant close second in the gold medal race, even surpassing the US at Beijing. At the 2020 Games, with a haul of 39 gold medals, the US surpassed China’s count by one on the last day of competition.
Through sports, China has successfully proven that not only can it compete, it can do so at the highest level. Asian societies, especially Chinese ones, have, for centuries, been male-dominated. But in the Tokyo 2020 Games, Chinese women accounted for 69 percent of all Chinese athletes who took part, compared to 49 percent of the total for all competing members from around the world. Just over a century ago, in 1895, most Chinese women had their feet bound and were practically disabled. Today, more Olympic Gold medals have been won by Chinese women than men.
These touchstone trends are revolutionary. Can a sports revolution lead to a social revolution in China? Can the Olympics be used as a clear indicator of China’s future development towards, for example, gender equality and deeper globalization? “Revolution is not a dinner party,” Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared a long time ago. But could the Olympic movement catalyze major social and economic change in China and calm geopolitical tensions rather than inflame them? The 2020 Games arguably demonstrated how sports could overcome a global scourge. In that respect, it might truly have been the best Games ever. The coming months before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics will offer ample opportunity to ponder the possibilities. Let the Games begin!