Beijing 2022 Member Insights Olympic Games

Member Insights: Beijing 2022, a year on – The prelude to war & The Olympic Games in an era of constant crisis and change

February 15, 2023

In this Member Insights article, Michael Pirrie examines the legacies and impacts of the Beijing 2022 Olympics in the countdown to the war on Ukraine.

There is a distinctive emotional weather front that accompanies the arrival of the Winter Olympic Games.

This includes high and low pressure zones of anxiety, excitement, and uncertainty in the cold pre-dawn mornings and shortened days that precede Games competition.  

Danger can lurk ominously, hidden beneath snow and ice.

A practice pirouette can break an ankle and a blossoming career; a final training session can end in tragedy and cost you your life  – Nodar Kumaritashvili, a young Georgian luger, died on a rehearsal practice run just hours before the Opening Ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

The scale of the threat confronting the world’s best winter athletes and organisers of the Beijing 2022 Games is clearer a year on from the historic event.

The enormity of Beijing’s challenge was grimly illustrated by China’s soaring Covid death toll following the recent lifting of the world’s strictest lock down.

The external forces that shaped Beijing’s global winter spectacle are also clearer on the first anniversary of the Games as the political snow cover continues to dissolve

The Beijing Winter Games marked a new era of super power sport and politics.

Much of the spectacle was delivered on mountains of machine-manufactured snow, giving organisers a level of control over sport and climate matched only by Qatar’s refrigerated desert football world cup stadiums.

The political climate was more difficult to control.

A diplomatic cold front formed over China’s capital in response to more revelations of human rights abuse, while Chinese fighter jets also scrambled Taiwan’s air space in the countdown to the Games, forcing Olympic peace doves to find alternative flight paths into the host city.

The Beijing Games challenged sport’s status quo as well as athletes.

The Communist Party’s focus on total pandemic and political control chipped away at traditional Olympic freedoms and values.

The diplomatic boycotts also forced governments and international audiences to take sides over China’s controversial human rights record.

The political climate in China meant the voices of athletes were quieter on podium platforms and in the mixed zones.

Beijing’s legacies are more complex a year on, complicated by the close relationship between the Chinese and Russian leaders and subsequent war on Ukraine.

While London took the world from war to sport at the 1948 Olympic Games following the devastation of World War Two, Beijing 2022 formed a backdrop to Europe’s first major war this century.

Western intelligence reports indicate Putin may have delayed the invasion of Ukraine until after the Games in a concession to Chinese counterpart Xi.

While the delay gave Russia – and other Olympic nations – time to get teams home from Beijing before troops invaded, the postponement also avoided an international crisis which could have stopped the Games, seen as vital to Xis historic third term campaign for leadership of China.

Beijing 2022 framed the war on Ukraine – from the meeting between Xi and Putin on the eve of the opening ceremony to the commencement of the invasion just days after the Games.

Devastating invasion images quickly united the international community, challenging governing bodies and federations to respond in meaningful ways that reflected the gravity of the situation and sport’s position of influence.

The Ski Federation of Norway was one of the first to respond: “Sport is not detached from this (invasion) and cannot remain passive to what is happening now,” the federation said.  “The Norwegian Ski Federation’s message to Russia and Russian athletes is crystal clear – we do not want your participation.”

Beijing was constantly tense and threatening  – just a two hour flight from the Wuhan epicentre of the pandemic that had crushed the world.

Those risks began to subside as China’s closed loop system moved into overdrive and locked out the virus.

Beijing’s biosecurity bubbles and barriers minimised human contact and infections. 

The loop’s strict isolation and quarantine requirements also overwhelmed several athletes, and organisers scrambled to provide more food and shelter on mountain locations.

Athletes cut through the Covid and geopolitical gloom as Games services and operations became more familiar, finding rhythm and routine.

Electrifying performances generated an overlay of hope and meaning, sought increasing by audiences from sport in uncertain times.

Peggy Noonan, acclaimed speechwriter for late US President Ronald Reagan, once observed that “the bravest things we do in our lives are really known only to ourselves.” 

If so, the Olympic Games brought uncommon bravery to global attention.

Few showed more valour than the young Georgian luger Saba Kumaritashvili, who made good on a profound personal promise to compete at the Olympic Games on behalf of his cousin, Nodar, fatally injured at the Vancouver Games. 

Saba transformed a family tragedy into a towering triumph of the human spirit, realising the Olympic dreams of his beloved cousin 12 years after Nodar’s death. 

“Thinking about him (Nodar) is painful but gives me strength as well,” he said.

The key themes have also come into sharper focus from Beijing as the ‘Gender Games’ – the high impact story lines of many women athletes compelling, relevant and enduring a year on.

They include: 

·     The teenage ski sensation, Eileen Gu, who bridged the growing super power divide between her birth nation of America and Chinese ancestry, with grace, style and almost faultless performances. 

·     The ‘Little Girl Lost,’ teenage Russian skating prodigy Kamila Valieva, who has probably spent more time on the ice rink than in school exams; caught up in an international doping scandal at the Winter Olympics, only 4 editions of which she has been alive for.

·     Fallen but unconquered US world skiing champion Mikaela Shiffrin, who inspired in defeat. Despite failing to win any of the many medals expected of her in Beijing, Shiffrin recently tied for the most medals in Alpine skiing world championship history.

·     The mysteriously lost, found and gone again former Chinese Olympic tennis star Peng Shuai. 

Beijing was a Games of improbable Olympic outcomes.

US snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis was an Olympic time traveller, who turned a haunting error from her past into a gold medal 16 years later in Beijing.

This was an uncommon story of self-belief and perseverance steeped in Olympic mythology. 

After a last minute swerve robbed her of first place at the Turino Winter Games in 2006, Jacobellis secured Olympic gold in Beijing at her fifth Games attempt.

Beijing also reinforced truisms for major sporting events in turbulent times, especially the interdependence between high performing venues and high performing athletes. 

Giant decommissioned cooling towers formed the surprise post-industrial backdrop to Beijing’s Big Air venue – the most compelling sports setting of 2022.


Athletes became new aviation pioneers, blessing themselves before launching so high off the slopes on snowboards that a pilot’s license, oxygen mask, and parachute might otherwise have been required for a safe landing.

Fellow boarders waited below to welcome their high flying colleagues back to earth, embracing fellow frequent flyers on landing, composing a new, more youthful image of Olympic sport following surfers and skateboarders from the Tokyo Games just months earlier.

The industrial towers produced high impact global viewing experiences prized by high paying broadcasters, while showcasing stunning sporting images for international federations and world governing bodies.    


Winter athletes from unlikely destinations in tropical Oceania succeeded against the odds and the weather.

These included two snowboarders from New Zealand who provided a new movie script for local Hollywood Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

The athletes soared high above middle earth to capture their nation’s first two winter gold medals in 70 years, creating a new fellowship of the rings.


The Olympic Games in Beijing, like Tokyo, must be seen largely through the prism of the pandemic.

If the primary threat to the Games and the athletes was the pandemic, Beijing was successful with infection levels amongst the lowest in the world

The sports venues, services and operations were organised at a high level amid the most dangerous conditions encountered in modern sport 

While the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games generated unlikely gestures and overtures of peace on the heavily nuclearised and politically divided Korean peninsula four years earlier, the Beijing Games was less optimistic in tone and outlook

Beijing 2022 delivered high impact sporting performances and drama in one of the most politically charged environments of modern sport.  

The Beijing Games pointed to new geopolitical challenges and uncertainties for international sport in a rapidly changing and divided world.

This was highlighted by IOC President Thomas Bach in his Beijing ceremony addresses, observing that “division, conflict, and mistrust are on the rise.” 

The Beijing boycotts demonstrated that strong international support is needed for cities and governments to host Games that engage and relate to the world.

While the diplomatic stand offs were condemned and dismissed by China, the boycotts widened the spotlight on China’s human rights record and further challenged its international image.

Along with Beijing, Almaty, the biggest city in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan – where government shoot-to-kill orders were issued in recent times to crush protests – was the only city that completed the bidding process for the 2022 Winter Games.  

The Games did not produce the legacy of international respect and recognition sought by the Communist Party of China for Beijing, as the first city to host the winter and summer Olympiads.

China created a new modern day ice-age for winter sports in Asia built on mountains of artificial snow

While the Beijing Games was the catalyst for a new international winter sports destination, the subsequent war launched on Ukraine by China’s ally has had a more dramatic impact on world sport.

Devastating daily images of the suffering inflicted by Russia continue to test of sport’s capacity to respond authentically to the crisis.

While Olympic stakeholders seek a credible pathway to bring Russia back into the fold for the Paris Games, opposition to Russia’s Olympic return is hardening due to the unrelenting brutality of the invasion.

Russia’s war also continues to disrupt nations and cities involved in the initial application process to host the 2022 Winter Games.

These include especially, Poland, which became a haven for Ukrainian refugees, and Sweden.

And in one of the harshest of modern historic ironies, Lviv, Ukraine – now fighting for its survival – also applied to host the world’s foremost sporting event dedicated to peace, the Olympic Games in 2022, delivered by Beijing, Russia’s ’no limits’ partner!

Michael Pirrie is an international communications advisor and consultant who has worked in senior positions on major global sporting events and campaigns. These include the London 2012 Olympic Games, Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games bid, and the Invictus Games. 

Beijing 2022 Member Insights Olympic Games