How China could lose the political Olympics

Xi Jinping.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

The Olympics aren't just about sports. As a major international media event, the Games also serve as a showcase for the host country. In some cases, as in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 or the Seoul Games of 1988, that has meant celebrating newfound openness and prosperity. In others, including the notorious 1936 Games hosted by the Third Reich, it's been an opportunity to promote the dubious benefits of dictatorship.

The 2022 Winter Olympics, which officially opened in Beijing on Friday, fall into the latter category. As in 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Games, the Chinese Communist Party hopes to impress the world with its efficiency and confidence at a time when Western powers seem to be faltering.

It may not work as well this time, though. For one thing, the tyrannical character of the regime is even more obvious now than 14 years ago. In 2008, Western leaders could still imagine that China was moving along an idiosyncratic, perhaps swerving, but nevertheless progressive course toward liberalization. Today, that illusion has become impossible to sustain — hence the diplomatic boycott by the Biden Administration and several allied governments.

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Second, China's zero COVID policies make it difficult to mount the impressive crowds that make the Games such an appealing public relations opportunity. Some events will be conducted without any outside attendance. Other venues will admit audiences well under their capacity from a hand-picked list of 150,000 approved spectators. You can count on careful filming and editing to conceal empty seats. But it's hard to fake the excitement that comes from a full house.

Harsh tactics used to maintain control of both political expression and public health could also backfire. Chinese officials have already manhandled a Dutch reporter in the middle of a live broadcast. That's not the kind of image they want showing around the world.

Finally, this year's Games have to contend with shrinking television audiences. U.S. ratings for the Tokyo Games in 2021, also conducted under COVID conditions, were down 45 percent from their predecessor in 2016. And the Winter Games traditionally attract fewer viewers than the summer ones. Some of that audience may be migrating to streaming platforms rather than tuning out entirely. But the disaggregation of media and declining interest in spectator sports suggest that expectations that the Olympics will attract mass audiences may belong to a bygone age of shared televisual experience.

That's too bad for athletes eager to compete, even under difficult conditions. But it could be a good thing for opponents of the CCP and its General Secretary Xi Jinping, who wanted another magnificent display of tightly choreographed power. If they lose their competition for Olympic prestige, the rest of the world wins.

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