ZHANGJIAKOU (VG) The world’s strictest control regime for covid-19 contributes to the fact that the Olympic city of Zhangjiakou seems abandoned and deserted just days before the games start.
1 of 4Photo: ROMAN PILIPEY / EPA
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– It’s a little sad that it’s like that. There are fantastic buildings and arenas here. It could have been very nice, and it can still be, but it is dead here now, admits cross-country manager Espen Bjervig to VG here in northern China.
About 200 kilometers from Beijing is Zhangjiakou. The area around the rural town is known as part of the poverty belt that surrounds the nation’s populous capital. In recent years, the region has become one of China’s most important focus areas for winter sports.
In the coming weeks, Therese Johaug and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo will go for gold at the venue’s new cross-country stadium. Tiril Eckhoff and Johannes Thingnes Bø will fight for the same medals at the biathlon arena. At the same time, snowboarder Marcus Kleveland and the Norwegian jumpers are among the other Norwegian Olympic hopes that will be housed in the athletes’ village in Zhangjiakou.
– There will be no folk festival, but it is still a given to fight for Olympic medals. That in itself is probably more than good enough motivation for most people, says the biathletes’ national team manager, Per Arne Botnan.
At the time of writing, the temperature gauge shows minus 16 degrees, but the wind means that the weather forecast states -27 in practice. The dry climate means that the city almost 2000 meters above sea level is struggling with water shortages. All of the snow in the sports stadiums is artificially made – among other things with the help of water supplies from pipes connected to areas several hundred kilometers away.
China’s winter sports investment is carefully thought out. The country’s government has invested billions in an attempt to make Zhangjiakou China’s answer to the European Alps.
In connection with the successful Olympic application in 2015 where China was awarded this year’s championship, the authorities guaranteed that at least 300 million Chinese would take an active part in winter sports by 2022. Recently, the National Statistics Agency announced that China has exceeded the target – with a total of 346 million users in the time since the nation hosted the Olympic Games.
“The realization of the goal should be attributed to the investments in the development of facilities, the education of young people in school and the improvement of training at the grassroots level,” Wang Yuxiong told the state-run newspaper China Daily.
He is the director of the University of Finance and Economics in China.
– This is just the beginning of a sustainable investment in the winter sports sector in China, Wang believes. According to a new report published by the Olympic magazine “Inside The Games”, the turnover related to China’s winter sports activities may soon exceed NOK 140 billion a year.
This is partly due to increasing tourism following the development of infrastructure and ski resorts in cities such as Zhangjiakou. But right now the place feels abandoned. There are hardly any local people to be seen anywhere.
1 of 2Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB
Shops and restaurants are closed. The city appears to be closed. Ordinary audience tickets will also not be put up for sale. Those who get a role during the Olympics – athletes, supporters, volunteers and the media – are incorporated into bubbles in the Olympic cities of Beijing, Yanqing and here in Zhangjiakou.
You are never allowed to move out of the fenced areas on your own. Last summer, Japan hosted the Olympics under strict measures in Tokyo. The level of preparedness of the Chinese in the fight against the coronavirus is nevertheless something completely different.
– There is another dimension, says cross-country manager Bjervig.
While Europe is opening up, China is working hard to keep the Olympic bubbles closed. Daily PCR tests of around 2900 practitioners and all others involved, fully infection control equipment and enclosed areas are just some of the tools. During today’s breakfast, the staff conducted surface tests in search of the virus that has ravaged the world for two years. Behind tall Plexiglas stood a chef in a “space suit” making omelettes with a face mask and visor in front of his face.
Inside, sweat ran. The breath was heavy. For cleaning staff, receptionists and other Olympic staff, the situation is the same. However, no one deviates from the authorities’ instructions.
– Those who have come down here by athletes and support staff, experience infection control as very safe, says Norway’s Olympic doctor, Aasne Hoksrud.
Outside of the Olympic bubbles, China’s 1.4 billion people have lived with shutdowns, surveillance, mass testing and clear vaccine calls for a long time. Based on the number of infected and dead, the authorities have succeeded in the fight against the virus after experiencing a sharp increase in the number of corona cases at the beginning of the pandemic.
According to VG’s overview China has so far reported more than 4,800 covid-19-related deaths. In the United States, by comparison, more than 883,000 of the nation’s more than 330 million inhabitants have lost their lives to the disease.
Only the people of China can comment on the psychosocial costs of the strict regime, but freedom of expression is known to be a controversial topic. The same is true of other basic human rights. President Xi Jinping and the rest of the government have spent NOK 35 billion on the prestigious Olympic 2022 project.
In the coming weeks, the plan is for China to shine as a host nation for 90 different participating countries and hundreds of millions of TV viewers worldwide. Ideally, there should be no talk of either Uighurs or other vulnerable groups. Then you can be punished, something the authorities have warned about before the Olympic flame is lit in Beijing on Friday.
For Norway, the championship starts already on Wednesday, when Norwegian curling couple will play against Canada. On Saturday, several Norwegian medal candidates will be in action for the first time.
First out is the cross-country women’s 15 kilometers, where Therese Johaug is the favorite to take the first individual Olympic gold of her career. Discovery is the licensee on TV and shows the championship on TV Norway, among other places. You can read an overview of all competitions and Norwegian athletes in VG Sport’s Olympic studio.
Kilder: Bloomberg, Inside The Games, Reuters