Opinion: Geopolitical tensions surrounding Beijing Olympics amplified by biased media reporting

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Winter Olympics art
Anissa Basnayake/ The Occidental

I cannot, in good faith, call myself an avid fan or spectator of the Winter Olympics. California born and raised, I’m deeply unqualified to comment on the perils of snow-based athletic events minus the odd ski trip to Tahoe or Mammoth Lakes. My loyalties lie with those figure skaters who have made a name for themselves through dedicated social media use and charming post-routine interviews, as well as a handful of skiers for the sake of validating my minimal experience with the sport.

However, this year’s Winter Olympics, held in Beijing for the first time since the city hosted the Summer Games in 2008, are difficult to ignore in their propensity to further complicate the existing tensions between China and the US. The Biden Administration, in an effort to publicize its disapproval of the callous mistreatment and genocide of the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region, announced a diplomatic boycott of this year’s games that was backed by many U.S. global allies. To be frank, this feels like just another in a line of empty diplomatic gestures in the Biden Administration’s long list of promises.

To begin with, the choice to withhold diplomatic contingents while still allowing athletes to compete feels like a cop-out; we are sending the message that, while the gross acts of human rights abuse against the Uyghur population are certainly concerning, they aren’t quite enough to put a damper on the national enjoyment of global sporting events. Prior to the official announcement, some news outlets discussing the potential boycott believed it would have minimal effect on China’s current policies. China’s governing bodies have warned against any form of athlete protest, the likes of which drew attention during the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, rendering that path of resistance ineffective.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. has decided on a gesture with very little actionable consequence for the Chinese government; this does not mean the repercussions back home aren’t notable. Anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. following the COVID-19 outbreak spiked dramatically, with particularly vicious hatred directed towards America’s significant Chinese population. The U.S. has long held a diplomatic stance against China, pushing the narrative of American democracy as a direct opposition to Chinese authoritarian communism, and painting China as a vilified other to be feared and reproached. Now, the tension surrounding this year’s Olympics has allowed for a further push down the rabbit hole of alienating China as a censorship-ridden, surveillance-heavy, evil, Communist other — primarily through media reporting.

The core of this argument may come off as nit-picky and macrocosmically insignificant, but the subtle nuances in reporting are often deeply influential in ways that aren’t immediately recognizable within the context of a larger issue. So, here is the crux of it:

Criticisms of fake snow usage!

Silly though it may seem, this is the most easily comparable difference in reporting I could find. Since China announced their intention to use 100 percent fake snow to account for the natural aridity of host regions Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, a slew of articles critical of the threat its use could pose to athletes have cropped up in major news reporting. Many of these articles reference studies discussing the chemical makeup of artificial snow. Western spectators have voiced ignorant concerns regarding the limitations of athlete performance on artificial snow. Despite many Olympics totaling large numbers of injuries on average, current reporting dramatizes and points fingers at Beijing’s management for this year’s injuries, with some accusations predicated on the basis of fake snow usage. Though there have been cases in which the failure to account for wind speed and direction caused extreme fatigue that athletes were unprepared for, none of the reported injuries to date have attributed the competition course layouts as a contributing factor.

Both the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics were held in regions unfavorable to the kind of snowfall required for the rostered sports. Fake snow was reported to compose about 80 percent of all Olympic snow in Sochi, and between 90–98 percent in PyeongChang. At the time, no reports of its usage posing potential dangers to the competing athletes were released. Many articles discussed the history of fake snow usage at the Olympics based on region and climate change-induced temperature changes, citing it as a costly and environmentally destructive solution, but again, not worth shelving global enjoyment of the sporting event and the opportunity for cultural exchange. Notably, some articles also reported that athletes found fake snow easier to compete on, since its composition was far more predictable and consistent.

None of this is to say that Beijing, and China at large, have no culpability in both dissatisfaction at the Olympics and the aforementioned human rights abuse. Reports of athlete mistreatment — poor isolation facilities, disregard for proper nutrition, lack of accountability in evaluating related meteorological factors on competition courses, inconsistent and erratic COVID-19 testing policies — have caused confusion and distress in the Olympic Village. In many cases, Beijing has fared worse than Tokyo, whose games garnered criticism for ignoring the safety concerns of both its athletes and the general public. I do not intend to absolve either side; in the context of the Olympics, China deserves to be held accountable for various breaches of conduct in athlete care, and on the larger stage of global politics, ought to publicize and put an immediate stop to the mistreatment of the Uyghur population. And I’m sure the concerns aren’t limited to what I’ve discussed so far.

I want to make clear that we are entrenched within a narrative of vilifying and scapegoating China to regard ourselves as their moral superiors by using subtle reporting differences on such a seemingly insignificant issue. If we want to take steps towards the rectification of xenophobic and race-based mistreatment, we should start with the border camps and prevalent shootings right here at home (and that’s only the tip of the iceberg). To hold such open disregard of China in any setting in which it becomes involved with the US is both turns the eye of the public away from domestic concerns and is spectacularly ignorant.