February Centerfold: Beijing Olympics

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While this year’s Olympics are labeled as occurring in Beijing and most events are being held in the city, it is just one of three locations in China to hold events this winter. Beijing’s Olympic venues include the National Aquatics Center, which held the curling competitions, the National Indoor Stadium and Wukesong Sports Center, both home to ice hockey games, and Capital Indoor Stadium, which housed short track speed skating and figure skating events. However, the place most people had their eyes on in Beijing is The National Stadium, where the opening ceremony took place, and the location of the closing ceremony.

The other two locations, Zhangjiakou and Yangqing, host the outdoor events. Yanqing held the bobsledding, skeleton, and luge events in the massive National Sliding Center, and the alpine skiing competition at the National Alpine Ski Center. Zhangjiakou was home to the National Biathlon Center, the National Ski Jumping Center, the National Cross Country Center, and Genting Snow Park, which held freestyle skiing and snowboarding.

In each of these outdoor events, for the first time in Olympic history, all of the snow used was man-made. This was the plan from the start, as these areas of China are not generally snowy. However, the artificial snow has drawn some criticism and caused controversy. The most prominent impact came with Mikaela Shiffrin’s failure to qualify for the slalom and giant slalom events, both of which she has taken the gold in in past Olympics. While she wouldn’t attribute the falls to the snow, other athletes would. 

“Artificial snow is icier, therefore faster and more dangerous. It also hurts more if you fall outside of the course when there is no fluffy snowbank, but a rocky and muddy hard ground,” said Estonian biathlete Johanna Taliharm in an interview with CBS.

While the International Olympic Committee could choose to hold future Winter Games at colder venues, with the increases to global warming, the use of artificial snow will likely become more and more common, despite the pushback from some athletes.

The last Olympics that occurred before the pandemic were the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  Since then, there has been so much change throughout the sports world due to COVID-19 regulations, and the Olympics in Beijing are no exception.  In fact, the strict COVID-19 regulations have stirred stress and uncertainty among athletes and participants in this year’s games.  

The games are being held within isolated areas and competitors are living and competing within their own olympic bubbles.  They are being tested daily for the virus and having thorough screenings and checks.  If a situation arises where an athlete tests positive they are either taken to a facility to isolate, or a hospital if they are experiencing severe symptoms.  To be cleared they must receive negative tests or medical clearance. However, if this coincides with an event, athletes will be forced to withdraw. This happened to U.S. figure skater Vicent Zhou after he tested positive for Coronavirus.  Even in one situation, Players on the Russian Olympic Committee team had to wear masks during the first two periods of a hockey game due to delayed test results.  This all contributes to the general feeling of uncertainty, and stress during this year’s unique olympics. 

From Jan. 23 to Feb. 7, the International Olympic Committee reported 393 positive cases of COVID-19 from tests taken after arrival.  However, these cases have been trending down since the arrival of the athletes. Those who do test positive, however, are experiencing extreme feelings of isolation and other problems like lack of internet, access to proper training equipment, and basic necessities.  Those in isolation are not the only ones experiencing this, as many athletes have described the eerie experience that is this olympic games as being isolating and unlike any other.  Part of this comes from the reduced crowds, made only of domestic and selected spectators, as well as the downsized ceremonies.  These regulations made to make this safer have made this Olympics as strict as Tokyo’s in 2021. 

The International Olympic Committee promises that politics and the Olympics do not intertwine, however, this year we have not seen that to hold true.  It all began in December when Washington declared a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in protest of China’s mistreatment of Muslim-majority ethnic groups groups such as the Uyghurs.  This exploded when Uyghur cross country skier, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, was one of the athletes selected to light the cauldron in the opening ceremony, and although China claims this was done to boost representation of minorities, the rest of the world viewed it as malicious, as if they were flaunting their actions. 

Eileen Gu, also known by her Chinese name Gu Ailing, is currently standing in the heat of it all as an 18-year old free-style skier representing China.  Born in San Francisco, Gu spent her first few seasons competing for the United States, however, in 2019, she made the radical decision of switching national affiliation to compete for China in the next Olympics.  While she has quickly gained massive traction in China, earning herself the nickname of the “snow princess” and earning spots on the covers of the local editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, many Americans have been attacking her, accusing her of being an opportunist and a traitor.  Ironically, Gu follows a long-line of American winter sports athletes, including Jeffrey Webb, Chris Reed, and John-Henry Krueger, who took the same route of action, yet avoiding any controversy.  Olympics expert, Jules Boykoff, has spoken out, explaining ““There is no question that Gu is being caught in the wider political crossfire between the U.S. and China in ways that other athletes are not. While changing nationalities to compete in the Olympics is not all that uncommon, her decision to compete for China has thrust her into a political firestorm. This is a stark reminder that the Olympics are bigger than the Olympics—political machinations matter.”

With the Olympics starting on Feb. 4 and the first Men’s hockey games on Feb. 9, one wonders why there won’t be NHL players in Beijing.  The NHL was previously expected to go to the Olympics after missing the previous one in 2018 due to disputes financially.  In 2018, the IOC(International Olympic Committee) said that it would not pay for the NHL’s travel, and  insurance, so the NHL then decided to opt-out.  This year, it was dependent on the containment of the COVID-19 Virus.  However, the Virus and the fact that Canada vastly limited attendance from attending games, ended up causing over 100 postponements in their regular season schedule, so they needed time to play all of the games that had previously been canceled.  Canada limiting attendance meant that revenue would be cut drastically if there were games played, as the NHL is primarily a gate driven league.  The idea that players could have long quarantines or lose money from contracts because they missed games after the Olympics did not give them confidence.  Unfortunately, that time was during the previously scheduled Olympic and NHL All-Star Break between Feb. 3 and Feb. 22.  Though the All-Star game and break still went on as scheduled, the games started on Feb.7 instead of late February.  

The players are disappointed with this result after the new CBA extension said that they could go to these games and those in 2026 as well, assuming an agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and barring any COVID problems.  The Olympics have always been a major bargaining point in the NHL’s CBA discussions as the NHL’s position is that when they are not in North America, they are too much of a disruption to the season, and the Players’ want to play in the best on best tournaments for their countries.  Some players have asked about the possibility of being loaned to their National Teams, but that was never an option for the NHL.  This is especially disappointing for most older players who probably won’t have another chance to play in the Olympics, such as Tampa Bay Lightning Defensemen, Victor Hedman, who turned 31 last December. 

 

 “It’s sad, it’s something we’ve been looking forward to for a very long time.  It’s out of our control what’s going on in the world, and we were preparing for a battle in February in China.  So it’s a bummer for us.  You don’t know when you’ll get another chance.  So for us not to be able to go, it’s going to hurt for a while.” said Hedman

 

Although some players were clearly disappointed with the NHL’s decision to opt-out of the Olympics, others had already decided that they would not be attending the games, such as the Vegas Golden Knights’ Robin Lehner, who had said that he would not be attending either way due to him not being sure what the rules would be, in early December of last year.  As of Feb. 4, positive cases will have to be isolated until they test negative twice 24 hours apart.  

With the NHL not going, the teams will be filled out with players not on NHL contracts, so the US will primarily use players in college, the AHL(American Hockey League), and other leagues in Europe.  The loss of NHL players makes the Olympics odds tilt into the Russian Olympic Committee’s favor, as they will benefit from using players in the 2nd best hockey league, the KHL, and they have won the last winter Olympic Hockey Tournament in 2018.

The NHL’s opting out will mean that the biggest hockey stars will not be able to play in the Tournament, including Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, and Auston Matthews.  

The highs and lows of the Beijing games begin with figure skating.  On the men’s side, after a disappointing fall in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, American skater Nathan Chen set a short-program world record of 113.97 points, surpassing the previous mark by nearly three-points.  Chen, known as the “Quad King,” eventually secured the gold medal with a stunning performance in the long-program to a medley of Elton John songs.

On the women’s side, Russia’s teen skating sensation Kamila Valieva landed the first quad in women’s history to lead the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) to team skating gold.  However, just a few days later, reports emerged that Valieva had tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine (TMZ) in December 2021 at the Russian national championships.  As a result, the gold-medal ceremony has been delayed.

In addition, American Chloe Kim once again starred in these Olympic games, defending her snowboard half-pipe title from 2018 in dominant fashion.  For the men, snowboarding half-pipe and three-time gold medalist, the legendary Shaun White of the United States, finished fourth in his final Olympic games.

Furthermore, skiing favorite Mikaela Shiffrin of America crashed out of the giant slalom and slalom events.  These DNFs came amidst concerns regarding the conditions of the Beijing mountains; athletes have complained that the fake snow is unusually icy and difficult to ski, snowboard, or perform other events on.

Another highlight was American Lindsey Jacobellis winning her first gold medal in her fifth Olympics in the snowboard cross at age 36, breaking the record for the oldest American woman to win a gold medal.  Three days later, she broke that same record, winning another gold medal in the team snowboard cross.

One last mix-up came in the women’s mixed team ski jumping event, where five women from Austria, Japan, Norway, and Germany were disqualified due to wearing loose clothing.  Their disqualification is especially controversial because those same uniforms had been approved in earlier rounds of the competition and had been worn by certain athletes for their entire careers with no issues.

Canada and the US are both up for the gold medal in this year’s Olympics.  Having played this game repeatedly, once in 1998 when women’s hockey became part of the Olympics, and once in 2018, when the US won the gold medal in a shootout.  The championship game between these two legendary teams was on Wednesday, anxiously awaiting to earn the gold medal.

On Monday, Feb. 7, athletes competed in women’s aerials, or freestyle skiing.  12 women reached something called the Final 1, where they would give their best of two attempts, therefore deciding which six would advance to the Final 2.  One of these six competitors was Xu Mengtao of China who amazed the crowd with her stellar trick, winning gold.  Although Ashley Caldwell, a 28-year-old from Utah making her fourth Olympic appearance, was an American favorite, she attempted the same trick as Mengtao, only to land on her backside, finishing fourth.  Nonetheless, she hugged her competitor and yelled “Olympic champion!” congratulating her on her victory.

Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France won the ice dancing competition on Monday at the Beijing Olympics.  This couple won gold with 226.98 total points over Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, who took silver with 220.51 points.  Having skated together for over a decade, Papadakis and Cizeron have won over four world championships.  Unfortunately, in 2018, they lost the gold medal by a mere less than a point to Canadian skating champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Norway sits first with 21 total medals, the Russian Olympic Committee is second with 18 total medals, and the US is third with 16 medals.

One up-and-coming athlete to look out for is Eileen Gu.  At just 18 years old, a freestyle skier, who although was from California, competes for China.  Gu initially opened the qualifications with a score of 57.28, finishing in 11th place, not close to the final.  Her next score of 79.38 put her in third.  Gu finished in top positions in every slopestyle event following.

Another up and coming athlete to watch is Nathan Chen, a 22-year-old who won gold for the US in men’s figure skating.  He finished ahead of Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno, who took home silver and bronze, respectively.  Chen had a total score of 332.60 compared to Kagiyama’s 310.05 and Uno’s 293.   Chen opened the men’s figure skating team competition with a personal-best score of 111.71.  He has now won gold, bronze, and silver in this year’s Olympics.  

This year’s Olympics are definitely one to watch!