Winter Olympics in Beijing raise many questions

From China’s human rights issues to the International Olympic Committee’s claim of gender equity to sponsors walking the fine line of negative publicity, the 2022 Winter Olympics, which start next week in Beijing are loaded with complex issues overshadowing the quest for gold medals and world records.

Less than seven months since the rescheduled 2020 Summer Olympics wrapped up in Tokyo, the first competitions of the 2022 Winter Olympics will begin on Wednesday, Feb. 2, followed by the opening ceremony on Friday, Feb. 4.

Brock University has numerous experts who will be available to speak with the media in the lead-up to, and during, the Olympic and Paralympic Games on a variety of subjects. The Brock News will also produce a series of stories, videos and other content related to the Games over the coming weeks.

Sports marketing

With the controversy surrounding these Games, Brock University Assistant Professor of Sport Management Michael Naraine says Canadian brands will need to be careful in how they roll out their Olympic advertisements.

“There is a very real need for advertisers in Canada to focus on Canadian athletes doing amazing things and what it means to be Canadian,” he says. “Expect to see ads that disassociate from anything to do with China and COVID and instead focus on promoting themes such as women’s empowerment, diversity and inclusivity.”

Naraine says there are risks that come with advertising during a controversial and uncertain Games, but also potential rewards.

“The long-term value of being an Olympic sponsor is immense in terms of getting into the minds and wallets of young people and their parents,” he says. “Brands are able to create an ecosystem of proliferated consumption.”


Gender equity

Brock University Assistant Professor of Sport Management Michele Donnelly says the Winter Olympics are “significantly less equal than the Summer Games, especially when you take into account uniform differences.”

“There are more mixed-gender sports being praised as contributing to gender equality at Beijing 2022, even though there is no evidence to support the claim,” she says.

On the positive side, Donnelly points out “this will be the first Games at which women skaters and skiers will compete in a ‘women’s’ not ‘ladies’ competition,” but clearly more needs to be done. 

Shannon Kerwin, Associate Professor of Sport Management, says change starts at home.

“Canadian sport organizations need to work towards truly addressing inclusion through policy and practice related to women sport participants and leaders,” she says. “It is not enough to simply expect women to conform to traditional male ideals of sport, we need to create recruitment, training and orientation protocols that are mindful of the diverse needs and motivations of girls and women. These gaps become amplified when we look at inequities that our women athletes and coaches face during international competition on a global stage.”

Associate Professor of Sport Management Dawn Trussell agrees, saying women are often forced to make career-altering decisions that men rarely face.

“Although the 2022 Olympic Winter Games are being touted as the most gender-equal Games ever, the equity of women’s sport experiences still has a long way to go,” says Trussell, who was recently awarded the Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence for her work on allyship and activism in sport. “Gender equity in sport leadership remains an issue, particularly in competitive sport, with women often being forced to make decisions such as being a mom or a sport leader.”


Olympic history

Assistant Professor of Sport Management Taylor McKee, an expert in Olympic history and historical memory, believes a combination of factors could draw the focus and memory of the Games away from human rights abuses in China.

“I think Beijing 2022 will be remembered as another COVID Games,” he says. “China will want to turn the Games into a spectacle that ignores human rights abuses. With that focus and the ongoing pandemic, the story won’t be about potential boycotts because of a genocide of Uyghur people in Xinjiang but instead it will be about if we should have avoided attending for health reasons related to the pandemic.”


Environmental impact / Greenwashing

Huge numbers of international flights and the massive construction projects are among the factors that have increased the Olympics’ carbon footprint over the past few decades, and the Beijing Games are of particular concern.

Professor of Biology Liette Vasseur, who holds the UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global, points out that it will take an estimated 49 million gallons of water to make artificial snow for the ski slopes in a city that has been struggling with water shortages for years.

“Most of the Winter Olympics are held in the Northern hemisphere,” says Vasseur. “People don’t realize that with the current climate change, the Northern hemisphere is warming up faster than the average global temperature.”

Other concerns in Beijing include the clearing of forests in a nature reserve to build a ski slope and increased toxic waste from COVID-19 testing kits.

China and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) claim they have created the ‘greenest and cleanest’ Olympics through sustainable measures such as being fully powered by green energy. But Professor of Accounting and Governance Samir Trabelsi questions these statements.

“The claim of the green Olympics may be a form of greenwashing,” he says. “In the absence of reporting standards and independent assessments, countries such as China are largely their own arbiter of success in reaching sustainability goals.”

‘Greenwashing’ occurs when goods, services, policies and other practices are labeled as being sustainable or environmentally friendly when in fact, they are not, especially in the long term.

Trabelsi says given the limited list of countries willing to host the Olympics, the IOC likely won’t deny a country hosting the Games on the grounds of failing the sustainability test.

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