SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of this morning’s Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony live on NBC.
A Chinese-hosted Winter Olympics in the Year of the Tiger should have been roaring. Instead, this morning’s Opening Ceremony alternated between boring and brutal.
Officially starting off with a solemn countdown video linking the Beijing Games and the recently launched Lunar New Year festival, the tone of spring rebirth, propaganda and imperial heritage was firmly established. While there were a few moments of beauty and grace, the privileged post given the goose-stepping People’s Liberation Army early on in the opening ceremony really said it all.
It was a high-definition LED and fireworks-propelled troika of themes that remained mind-numbingly consistent amidst heightened international tensions and Chinese domestic repression. No wonder Vladimir Putin looked to be asleep in the stands at one point.
Pandemic or not, the historic return to Beijing’s Bird Nest stadium almost 14 years after the last time the People’s Republic had the Games emphasized how much has changed and sadly stayed the same. Put another way, like in 2008 and with filmmaker Zhang Yimou back to pull all the high-tech strings, the authoritarian rulers of the world’s most populous and increasing powerful nation can still squeeze out a propaganda spectacle, but they just can’t put on a show.
After a middling Parade of Nations, the brevity of a digital snowflake dance dovetailed into welcoming speeches that were a litany of foot stomping on how China is writing “a new chapter in the history of the Olympic Movement” or the long-winded “give peace a chance” banalities of International Olympic Committee boss Thomas Bach. The thankfully brief one-liner from a snow coat-covered Chinese President Xi Jinping declaring the games open was a display of someone reading the room and very secure in his power.
Now an Olympic staple, the follow-up of John Legend’s cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” was an uneasy contrast to the wizardry of the vast digital floor of the National Stadium, the participation of so-called regular Chinese citizens, scarf-wearing singing children and the pounding pyrotechnics. By the time the multi-generational figurative lighting of the Olympic caldron occurred, the shorter than usual Opening Ceremony felt like it had actually started at the last Winter Olympics back in 2018.
Not that there weren’t some fireworks of a figurative nature too.
Joining NBC’s sports skipper Mike Tirico in the Bird’s Nest today, Bloomberg’s Andy Browne and Yale professor Jung Tsu were charged with providing on-site political context in what was likely to contain the term “genocide” in the present tense. The resulting balancing act saw Browne stating the obvious that the opening ceremony would lay out “subtle propaganda and not so subtle power politics.”
If this morning was any indication, in an increasing authoritarian world you can certainly take the subtle out that.
Making a very loud nationalistic statement to Joe Biden and the West, Xi distinctly doubled down by picking cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Nordic combined competitor Zhao Jiawen to hand-off the Olympic flame to a snowflake in the center of the stadium. While both are competing in this year’s games, Dinigeer Yilamujiang is a member of the Uyghur minority that the West says the Chinese government has been rounding up and hauling into concentration camps.
Perched back at NBC Sport’s Connecticut HQ, Today co-host Savannah Guthrie called the decision to have Dinigeer Yilamujiang in the spotlight as an “in your face” slap to the diplomatically boycotting Americans and their allies. A move the IOC perhaps inadvertently leaned into online:
The Olympic cauldron is lit by Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Zhao Jiawen! ? #StrongerTogether | #OpeningCeremony | #Beijing2022 pic.twitter.com/ATJjZVx3yQ
— Olympics (@Olympics) February 4, 2022
All of which left a Team USA-biased NBC in a rather rough-hewn position in the network’s first live morning broadcast of an Opening Ceremony, in more ways than one. Or, even with all the February 13 Super Bowl promoting weaved in by NBC today, to paraphrase political operative and poet James Carville, “It’s the politics, stupid!”
“Fourteen years ago this stadium was also where the 2008 Olympics opened in such stunning and memorable fashion,” declared the network’s Tirico from inside the National Stadium just before things kicked off in the 40% full venue. “And tonight the official start of these Games comes in a very different world surrounded by many different questions for nearly 3,000 athletes chasing lifelong dreams in the middle of it all,” an uncomfortable Tirico continued, clearly reading off the teleprompter.
In a far cry from the somber Covid-19 precipice of the Summer Games in Japan last year, the Comcast-owned NBC now has to also work within potential thorny jurisdictional circumstances. Leaning in too hard to the realities of Xi’s unsparing reign could see the network iced out fast. Skating over the repressive rule, eroding liberties and widespread allegations of genocide against the Uyghur population and other mainly-Muslim ethnic groups would be a slap in the face to human rights and bipartisan stances at home.
As a high-stakes conflict with President Biden and NATO over Ukraine looms, Beijing has the dubious honor of having the seemingly dozing Putin in attendance as their star guest. Other than the Sultan of Sochi and a few heavy handed Middle Eastern rulers, there are not many other world leaders or luminaries in the VIP boxes this morning as the U.S., the UK, Canada, Germany and others have instituted a diplomatic boycott of the games over human rights abuse concerns. At the same time, the White House has offered its direct support to Team USA:
Tonight the White House is lit up in red, white, and blue in support of all the Olympians and Paralympians proudly representing our country. Go Team USA! pic.twitter.com/tegcrcCoqs
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) February 4, 2022
“There is unquestionably more controversy and complications around these Games than any in our lifetime,” added a slightly subdued Guthrie first thing this morning. The Olympics opener vet quickly noted, “the question of politics, always an undeniable part of the games, but here much, much more intensely.”
In a lighter vein, even the fanfare for the Ralph Lauren-outfitted Team USA wasn’t quite as frenzied as NBC usually goes. Still, for a muted Parade of Nations that was part Trivial Pursuit and part fashion runway show, there was still a lot of love for the big American group led by flag bearers John Shuster (curling) and Brittany Bowe (speedskating).
Overall, like Tokyo in the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics, the panorama in the stadium this morning was dimmed as most of the 90 representing countries brought a mere handful of athletes due to pandemic concerns. While Winter Olympics superpowers Canada and the officially banned Russia (here under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee) had fair-sized contingents along with Team USA, snowcoated Greece, in their traditional first-place position, walked out on the giant digitally augmented floor with just five participants. Making its Winter Olympics premiere, Saudi Arabia had more VIPs in the surrounding seats than athletes on parade or in competition
Shirtless Tongan superstar Pita Taufatofua was absent from this year’s Opening Ceremony due to his relief efforts in the island nation after last month’s devastating tsunami. But Beijing did get a little skin thanks to American Samoa flagbearer Nathan Crumpton.
American Samoa brave the cold for the Opening Ceremony.#Beijing2022 #7Olympics pic.twitter.com/1Ymt7LHu8S
— 7Olympics (@7olympics) February 4, 2022
As always with the Olympics, some sports have started even before the attempted grandeur of the Opening Ceremony. This year, with Covid safety protocols in place, those Canadian obsessions of curling, hockey and figure skating have already begun competition in the state-of-the-art, near-empty venues.
The fact is, despite the abundant efforts of the PRC and the IOC, Covid-19 has found its way into the bubble of the Beijing Games with around 200 cases reported so far. With over 100 of those positive results being athletes and coaching staff, the seemingly never-ending pandemic poses no small risk to the Winter Olympics if a surge occurs, a state of affairs that would be one of the worst nightmares for NBC, which has paid billions to broadcast the ratings-dipping Games into the next decade.
Likely indicating how the “enhanced,” as NBC has called it, primetime version of the Opening Ceremony will look with all its bells and whistles, this morning’s coverage cut early to a backstage feel-good interview with speed skater Erin Jackson once Tirico and the stateside Guthrie hit their opening geopolitical notes.
“With the Winter Olympics, you don’t see a whole lot of diversity, so I just hope I can be someone who they can see and be like oh, maybe I’ll get out and try one of these sports, so that would be awesome,” the top-ranked Jackson replied as members of the Canadian and Swiss teams strolled by to NBC’s masked Lewis Johnson, noting what she wanted to show “other young Black girls.”
A subsequent slick package highlighting the likes of Team USA snowboarder Shaun White and skater Nathan Chen saw NBC back in their Olympic safe place of hype master, for now – amped up by live shots of White whipping off selfies in the corridors of the Bird’s Nest.
Beijing has already made Olympic history as the first city to host both a Summer and Winter games. Unlike 2008, a China burly in its economic and military strength today ripped off the mask of international sports détente and gashed its teeth in a very clear selfie of its own.
The result was dull TV, but arresting geopolitics.