Michael Pavitt

One of the lasting thoughts when leaving China after the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics was "how exactly do they get out of this?"

The Beijing Capital International Airport was largely a ghost town on arrival and departure from the host nation, with large empty areas interspersed with those carrying Olympic credentials and hazmat-suited employees.

The controlled nature led to the departure of the flight bound to Europe heading initially to South Korea, ensuring there could be a change of crew, rather than allowing them to get off in China and become part of a myriad of COVID-19 protocols.

Arrivals in France and the United Kingdom had a considerable shift in approach, completing a journey from tightly controlled restrictions to arriving in a place where all measures were imminently being lifted.

The approaches of the respective Governments are for others more qualified than me to discuss, but it illustrated the lengths China went to ensure the Beijing 20222 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games were held on time and without risking spreading COVID-19 to the population.

China would point to its success in this area, with the closed-loop system in operation seeing 2.5 million tests conducted with only 463 positive cases recorded.

The closed loop was essentially a separate cocoon within China’s overall COVID-19 cocoon, with international travel to the nation still extremely limited.

The Chinese Government’s commitment to hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games never seemed in doubt.

This was perhaps reflected by the lack of stories or rumours over a potential postponement or the Games being unable to take place compared to Tokyo 2020, with only six months separating the two events. Even the emergence of the Omicron variant was greeted with calm, as organisers insisted the closed-loop system would work.

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics were able to take place due to a closed-loop system being in operation ©Getty Images
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics were able to take place due to a closed-loop system being in operation ©Getty Images

The talk from organisers as the Games concluded was that Beijing 2022 had provided a model for future sporting events to be held despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The proof was always going to be in the pudding.

Doubts had increasingly grown over the fate of the Chengdu 2022 Summer World University Games and the Asian Games in Hangzhou in recent weeks, as several Chinese cities were forced into lockdown to quelle the spread of COVID-19 as part of the nation’s zero-COVID policy.

Despite opposition five weeks into a lockdown in Shanghai, the Chinese Government has vowed to "unswervingly adhere" to its policy and hit back against criticism.

"Practice has proved that our prevention and control policy is determined by the nature and purpose of the party, our prevention and control policy can stand the test of history, and our prevention and control measures are scientific and effective," China’s politburo standing committee said this week. "We won the battle to defend Wuhan, it will also be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai."

The commitment to hosting sporting events was always going to be in doubt as a consequence. With the greatest of respect to the Summer World University Games and Asian Games, the prestige of the two events does not compare to hosting the Olympic Games.

Equally, athletes and officials were unlikely to have the same desire to enter closed loops and have freedoms restricted as they would have been for Beijing 2022.

The withdrawals of Britain, Canada and New Zealand from Chengdu 2021 was instructive, with the lingering feeling that proceeding with the Games was unlikely.

Sure enough, the decision to postpone the Games for the second time was made last week, with athlete welfare billed as the key reason.

"The decision to reschedule Chengdu 2021 is not one that was made easily, but it is the right decision for university athletes," Acting International University Sports Federation (FISU) President Leonz Eder said. 

China has maintained its zero-COVID policy, leading to strict lockdowns in several cities ©Getty Images
China has maintained its zero-COVID policy, leading to strict lockdowns in several cities ©Getty Images

"Their welfare is always our number-one priority.

"Continued uncertainty over conditions has made rescheduling the sensible choice - a number of National University Sports Federations had already changed their plans. Taking a team to the FISU World University Games is a great responsibility and FISU is confident that this decision will enable the greatest possible number of university athletes to attend next year."

The postponement was among a swathe of postponements and outright cancellations made Chinese officials.

The Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games was the most eye-catching and possibly the most inevitable, given that organisers would have had to cater for around 10,000 athletes alone at the event, which had been scheduled from September 10 to 25.

The Asian Youth Games in Shantou was scrapped outright, while the Asian Beach Games in Sanya had already been pushed back from its initial date in 2020 until at least 2023.

Two planned Chinese Diamond League meetings in Shanghai and Shenzhen have also had a line drawn through them for the second successive year, as well as two World Triathlon events.

The International Table Tennis Federation has said preparations for the already-delayed World Team Table Tennis Championships later this year in Chengdu are continuing as planned.

Organisers of sporting events remaining in China must certainly be sweating, particularly given the Chinese Government’s approach appears unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

The clock has been reset on several events in China following a series of postponements ©Getty Images
The clock has been reset on several events in China following a series of postponements ©Getty Images

This is perhaps most concerning for the multi-sport organisers, where considerable numbers of athletes, support staff and officials are required for the event to go ahead.

FISU understandably took the option to swap its Games in Chengdu to the 2023 slot vacated by Yekaterinburg due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Olympic Council of Asia has yet to confirm the revised dates for the Asian Games.

The OCA is among organisations to have bet fairly big on China in recent times, with almost its full portfolio of events having been scheduled to take place in the nation. The World Games in Chengdu in 2025 is another large event in the pipeline, while numerous International Federations have also turned to China to stage events.

A question facing organisations now is when will they be able to feel secure in announcing Chinese cities hosts of future events, without running the gauntlet in the build-up to the competition being held? Sporting bodies which consider events in China must wonder whether they will at some stage be forced to issue a press release to announce a delay or relaunch a bid process.

China and Russia have been regular hosts of sporting events in recent years, but one is impacted by COVID-19 measures and the other is now unwelcome due to its invasion of Ukraine.

It is certainly a headache for organisations going forward.