The brigade of Chinese athletes and other personnel, totaling 777, at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games on July 23. Photo: Xinhua

The mission for Team China in Tokyo is perhaps not just beating rivals but also observing and possibly acquiring Japan’s playbook for how to let in foreigners and host a sporting pageant amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Any experience or lessons will surely be brought to bear as Beijing counts down to its Winter Games in less than 200 days. 

Apart from sending hundreds of athletes to the Olympics, China also dispatched sports and health officials and members of the Beijing 2022 Olympics organizing committee to Tokyo. Their job is to compare notes with their Japanese peers on policies and practices to prepare the Chinese government on how to open borders and manage risks.

The main aim of this operation is to ensure the virus will not spoil China’s showcase event or curtail the enjoyment for athletes and fans. 

Beijing’s municipal party chief Cai Qi, also a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo and President Xi Jinping’s trusted lieutenant, reportedly said he had been thinking of hosting a “big bash event” next February, but that has been put on hold.

The official Beijing Daily reported on Tuesday that Cai’s Olympic advisers, now in Japan as observers, would compile a detailed report about the measures needed. The newspaper also noted that Tokyo should be “held up as an example” of how to keep the virus at bay – five days into the Games and no major outbreaks had been reported so far.

Tokyo’s 50-page anti-Covid guidelines and contingency plans are already sitting on Cai’s desk. 

Beijing may draw on Tokyo’s standard operating protocols, like limiting the places visited by foreign athletes and journalists to merely the Olympic Village, competition venues and the Media Center. China may also use special devices to keep tabs on peoples’ movements, subject them to daily tests and ask them to leave the country within 48 hours after their matches.

Chinese volunteers and logistical and other support personnel who will have to interact with foreigners will also work and rest in isolated facilities to minimize the risks.

A sign detailing anti-Covid rules at the entrance to a venue in Tokyo. Photo: China News Service
Volunteers take pictures outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 23. Photo: AFP / Philip Fong

The Beijing Games will also implement social distancing and other anti-Covid rules, in line with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines.

The director of the management panel at the National Stadium in Beijing also told Xinhua this week that the opening ceremony in February 2022 would skip all unnecessary pageantry and trim the number of performers for safety.   

But competing in empty, eerily-quiet stadiums, as in Tokyo, is unlikely to be the case in Beijing. Chinese athletes can expect home crowds to lift their spirits – and their odds of winning. Seating will be capped at half to two-thirds of capacity at most venues with admissions to be staggered, though. 

While Tokyo and the IOC agreed to have no foreign visitors or spectators, China has dithered on this vital decision, and there are no signs any announcement would be made soon. 

The China News Service noted in an op-ed earlier this month that the all-out inoculation blitz in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province was making steady headway toward 95% full vaccination coverage by the end of the year.

China should be able to welcome foreigners fully immunized with Chinese shots or those recognized by the IOC and WHO and drop their two-week quarantine, provided they show proof of jabs and have satisfactory levels of antibodies.   

“A sizable foreign presence will add to the vibe of another China big coming-out party after the roaring success of the 2008 Summer Games and reflect the Olympic spirit of unity amid the current adversity,” noted the article.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a Winter Games venue in Beijing in January. Photos: Xinhua

But top leaders like Xi, known for his penchant for lavish celebrations, may have second thoughts on the matter. Meanwhile, the efficacy of Chinese vaccines is facing increasing scrutiny at home and abroad, particularly against the Delta variant, while Chinese airports and checkpoints are shoring up their defenses against the virus and sealing borders even tighter. 

Beijing also has its work cut out to vaccinate most, if not all, foreign athletes and their accompanying personnel. In March, the Chinese government announced it would ship and donate vaccines via the IOC to some developing countries prior to their trips to Beijing.  

Yet unlike the Tokyo Olympics that opened to pomp and protests on July 23 after Japanese opponents of the event staged demonstrations close to the Tokyo stadium, any dissenting views in China will likely be suppressed.

This month, an online survey held by the Chinese news portal NetEase to gauge people’s sentiments about the 2022 Games was halted after some netizens complained about the virus risks and the drain on public finances.  

In January, Xi reaffirmed China’s commitment to hosting the event during his inspection of venues and facilities scattered across Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou. Xi has dismissed calls to call off the event or boycott it.  

Sources privy to the clauses of the contract between China and the IOC told Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Phoenix Television that, just like its deal with Tokyo, the IOC had reserved the exclusive right to postpone, adjust the date or cancel the Games.

Any postponement or cancellation is highly unlikely after Xi’s phone call with IOC President Thomas Bach in May, when both sides talked up their shared resolve to host the Games as scheduled. 

Read more: Beijing insists 2022 Winter Olympics will be ‘howling success’