A design picture of the National Speed Skating Oval for long-track speed skating in Beijing at the 2022 Olympic Games. Image: China Daily

Tokyo’s rejigged plans to host the 2020 Olympic Games this summer will be watched closely in Beijing as the Japanese capital presses ahead with the athletic event despite unrelenting local and global Covid-19 outbreaks. 

On Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga sought to quash speculation about another postponement of the event. “Resolve is not dampened and the games will take place this July,” he said.  

Tokyo’s organizing committee president and former prime minister Yoshiro Mori has reaffirmed that the delayed games would be held “in a safe and secure way for all the participants this summer that fits the post-coronavirus world.”

Logo of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters in Shinjuku Ward is pictured in March 2020 when postponement was being discussed. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

How many medals China’s athletes will grab at Tokyo’s muted event is of less importance to Beijing than Tokyo’s success in staging the event. That’s why Beijing is keen to send observers to compare notes with their counterparts in Tokyo, according to reports.

While watching closely how Tokyo will fare amid the pandemic, Beijing is quietly drafting a “Plan B” for its high-stakes Winter Games, now just a little over a year away. 

On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited a number of venues built for the February 2022 extravaganza scattered across Beijing and its snow-capped suburban highlands. Xi touted progress in preparations and said he was more convinced than ever that the Beijing 2022 Winter Games would be a “howling success.”

Xinhua noted in a feature about Xi’s “personal guidance” for the Winter Games that Covid-19 must not be allowed to upset plans for the biggest international sporting event in the country since Xi came into power in 2012.

“The pandemic struck when preparations of the Winter Games headed into the final-stage home stretch in early 2020, yet under the strong leadership and auspices of President Xi, construction of all sites was completed in time by the end of 2020 and other work is progressing well without any delay,” the report gushed in propaganda fashion. 

Xi told officials in Beijing and organizers of the Winter Games that Covid must not be allowed to upset plans and schedules. Photos: Xinhua

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach also assured in his New Year’s message to Suga and Xi that the Tokyo 2020 Games and the Beijing 2022 Winter Games would be the body’s top priority for 2021.

“We at the IOC have started at the beginning of this year to prepare for the upcoming 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. And there, really all are on board. We see the strong commitment and determination of our Chinese partners and friends, and all the Olympic venues are already ready for the best winter sports athletes in the world,” Bach said.

That said, in a sign of the Covid-19 times, members of Xi’s retinue, construction workers and organizing committee staff all wore masks and spaced themselves apart throughout Xi’s inspection of the grounds.

Unlike previous tours of Winter Games venues, Xi did not make a sortie into the ski resort of Zhangjiakou in neighboring Hebei province, which is now on a “wartime footing” battling the biggest new Covid outbreak in the country.  

Chinese state media reports are also scant on details about how Beijing will receive the droves of foreign athletes, representatives, journalists and spectators next year, including those from nations still significantly affected by outbreaks. China currently requires all visitors to undergo 14 days of quarantine before moving freely in the country.  

As such, Xi may now have to sign off on a contingency plan with measures to ensure and enforce mask-wearing, thinned-out crowds and staggered admission and competitions.

The Chinese leader is known for his penchant for big bang events, as seen in the slew of chest-thumping military parades and feel-good celebrations held since he assumed office. However, the threat of Covid-19 may have forced him to agree to scale down the games, which will mark the tenth year of his leadership tenure.  

“Beijing is set to become the only city to have hosted both summer and winter Olympic games, but the Chinese capital is highly unlikely to swing the door open to receive all foreigners next February as it has to take no chances,” said Eric Mer, a Peking University associate professor of public administration. 

“Although by then there may be glimmers of hope as wider vaccination of global populations may be achieved, there is no guarantee it can change the course of the pandemic in just 12 months to the extent that the entire world can bid good riddance to it.

“The resurgence that first hit Beijing and then doing the rounds in Hebei since the beginning of the year has also awakened the central leadership to the fact that risks are always lurking and Covid is set to ebb and flow in China,” said Mer.

“Organizers may have been told to turn away most foreign attendees and roll back the scale and limit domestic attendance, but still, postponing the games is not an option for Xi,” he said. 

Taking a page out of Tokyo’s Olympic playbook, viable options for Beijing include mandatory and repeated virus testing for foreign athletes before and on their arrival, priority inoculation schemes for all workers and volunteers serving the event, and vaccine donations to some countries to immunize their entire delegations.

It is also reported that Beijing may grant entry permits only to participants from countries in Asia where cases are tapering off, but all arrivals will be put in quarantine. 

Beijing has shelled out hundreds of billions of yuan for the sprawling and modern venues and infrastructure for the Winter Games. Photo: Xinhua

While capping attendance and stepping up checks to keep the virus at bay, it is increasingly unlikely that Beijing will recoup its heavy investment in the 2022 Winter Games.

China has not made public its budget for the games but factoring in the cost of the many cavernous, state-of-the-art venues, athlete villages that sprawl over several square kilometers as well as a high-speed rail link between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, it is estimated that the total investment will run into hundreds of billions of yuan. 

China will have the opportunity for downsized test runs. Western China’s Chengdu is set to host the World University Games in August and alternative arrangements have already been made for quarantined and pre-approved overseas athletes to play to empty stadiums to prevent contagion. 

In September 2021, cities in the eastern Zhejiang province will also host the Asia Games but the attendance of that event has been downsized as well.