These are not the Olympics that Beijing hoped to host.
When China was awarded the 2022 Winter Games in a surprisingly close vote of the International Olympic Committee seven years ago, few could have predicted how much the world, and the host nation, would change by the time they arrived. But now here they are: at the start of the third year of a pandemic; as the second consecutive Olympics closed to nearly all fans; and at a moment when an increasingly confident China has made plain its intent to host one of the world’s largest and most global sporting spectacles entirely on its terms.
To get to this point, China has plowed through the obstacles that once made Beijing’s bid seem a long shot; overcome new ones by walling off the Games (and, it hopes, the coronavirus) in a closed community the size of a small city; and shrugged off condemnation on the world stage over its human rights abuses, its heavy-handed treatment of its neighbors and its increasingly authoritarian behavior.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who once put his personal prestige on the line in support of Beijing’s bid, has more recently hailed the Games as a showcase for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Blending sports and power politics, he will host President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Friday, the day of the opening ceremony, as the crisis over Ukraine continues.
Yet for a powerful and prideful China, and for its grateful I.O.C. partners, these also will be an Olympics of firsts — including, notably, in seeing Beijing become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. Its Olympics will be the first for seven new disciplines, for a new generation of athletes and for much of China, where winter sports are gaining popularity.
The run-up has not, of course, been without problems. Russian, Czech and Norwegian teams have reported coronavirus outbreaks that may jeopardize their medal hopes. At least two American bobsledders have also tested positive. But big stars remain: Mikaela Shiffrin in Alpine skiing. Chloe Kim and Shaun White in snowboarding. The figure skaters Nathan Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu.
As in Games past, there were will be athletes whose stories transcend borders, like the Chinese American freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who will chase golds in three events, and others trying to cement legacies in their disciplines. Johannes Klaebo, the Norwegian cross country skier, will try to win six medals in one Games. Ireen Wüst, the Dutch speedskater, will aim for a medal in a fifth straight Olympics. And then there is Claudia Pechstein chasing one of her own, somewhat unbelievably, at age 49.
Their hopes, and their challenges, will roll out in the 17 days that follow Friday’s opening ceremony, beamed to the world from behind (mostly) closed doors, when the crowds will be absent but the victories, the disappointments, the drama and the heartbreak will be all too real.