Beijing (CNN)The ice rinks have been smoothed out, the brown mountain slopes draped with artificial snow. The Olympic flame is on its final journey to the heart of Beijing, ready to light up the night sky.
Defying a raging pandemic and months of international controversy, the 2022 Winter Olympics will officially open as scheduled in the Chinese capital tonight.
Sealed off from its host city by a labyrinth of high fences, thermal gates and facial-recognition cameras, this is an Olympics like no other.
Politics, protests and Covid protocols have become an unavoidable part of the build-up to these Games, and if anything, events taking place outside the sporting arena during the next two weeks will receive as much attention as actions on the ice and snow.
How China responds will be a major test for the country’s leader Xi Jinping, who is gearing up for an unprecedented third term in power this fall.
“The world is turning its eyes to China, and China is ready,” Xi said Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony.
For China’s ruling Communist Party, the Games will offer a moment of national triumph, as Beijing becomes the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. It is also the first major global event inside of China since the country shut its borders two years ago in the wake of the initial coronavirus outbreak.
But among the Chinese public, enthusiasm for the Winter Games pales in comparison with 2008, when residents gathered in their thousands across Beijing to watch the Summer Olympics opening ceremony on large public screens, eager to be a part of history. This year, few viewing parties are taking place in a capital subdued by heavy-handed snap lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions.
“I think the Games are going to be declared a great success by the Communist Party — whether it’s gonna be perceived as such by other nations is another issue,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.
In a bid to keep the Games Covid-free — and to prevent the virus from spreading into the wider population — Chinese authorities have constructed a vast network of bubbles, known officially as the “closed loop,” that separates the Games from the host city.
Already, more than 300 coronavirus cases — about a third of them linked to athletes and team officials — have been detected in Beijing’s recent Olympic arrivals, including American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor and Belgian skeleton racer Kim Meylemans. Chinese organizers do not appear concerned, saying the situation was within their “expected controllable range.”
Inside the bubble, Covid protocol dominates every aspect of life, from daily testing to traveling between venues.
The sweeping control requires massive organizational efforts and manpower, but it is also aided by technology — which the organizers have made a point of showing off.
At the main media center in Beijing, workers in masks, goggles and face shields work alongside robots that make burgers, mix cocktails, sweep the floor and spray clouds of disinfectant; smart surveillance cameras monitor people’s epidemic prevention data as soon as they enter the venue, triggering alarms and tracing all their close contacts once any anomaly is flagged.
To those new to China’s “zero-Covid” approach, the meticulous control is both confusingly convoluted and alarmingly restrictive. Often, Covid prevention makes simple tasks unnecessarily difficult. Walking is rarely an option to get around the “closed loop,” even if the destination is just a few blocks away. Instead, participants must take dedicated vehicles.
On “closed loop” buses, drivers are sealed-off behind a thick transparent screen intended to protect against the spread of the virus — unfortunately, it’s also mostly soundproof. Passengers unsure about where to disembark are forced to shout through the screen, or rely on hand gestures.
“In terms of public health measures, this is the most ambitious, most stringent Olympics in history,” said Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Throughout the pandemic, the Communist Party has staked its political legitimacy on its ability to contain the virus better than other countries, specifically Western democracies, and as such, is unwilling to take any chances.
But Chinese authorities have a fine balance to tread. While overtly stringent measures risk causing unnecessary disruption to the Games, the last thing Beijing wants to see is an outbreak running rampant inside the bubble — or worse, spilling into the capital and beyond.
The Winter Games’ official motto — featured ubiquitously on billboards and banners across the city — is “Together for a Shared Future.” But in the lead-up to it, the event has only served to spotlight the growing chasm between China and the West.
The controversy has been building for months. Rights groups called for a boycott of the Games in protest of China’s human rights record, from its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang — which Washington has labeled a genocide — and its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s silencing of Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian, after she accused a former top party leader of sexual assault has further amplified such calls.
In December, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games, followed by allies including Britain, Australia and Canada. Last week, a coalition of more than 200 organizations called for more nations to join the diplomatic boycott.
China has shrugged off the criticism and lashed out at the West for politicizing the Olympics. But that hasn’t stopped it from using the event to convey its own political message.
As the torch relay got underway this week, state media reported a Chinese soldier who was involved in a deadly border clash with Indian troops was among the chosen few to carry the Olympic flame.
The move sparked immediate outrage in India. On Thursday night, the eve of the Games’ officially opening, New Delhi said it would join the US-led diplomatic boycotts.
“It is indeed regrettable that the Chinese side has chosen to politicize an event like the Olympics,” Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi said in a televised speech, as he announced the withdrawal of India’s top diplomat from the opening and closing ceremonies.
What a difference 14 years make
When the curtain is finally raised on Friday, the opening ceremony for the 2022 Games will be markedly different from that of 2008. Under the cloud of Covid and the international backlash, it’ll be a much more muted affair — with a very different guest list.
Of the just over 20 presidents, prime ministers, heads of state and royalty set to attend the event, around half hail from authoritarian countries — with Russian President Vladimir Putin set to be featured prominently in the spotlight. Notably absent will be leaders of major democratic powers.
That is a far cry from 2008, when then-US President George W. Bush attended the opening ceremony and was seen throughout the Games cheering for Team USA. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, also attended the event as the honorary captain of the US team.
“China is different now, the world is different,” said Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.”
Whereas the 2008 Beijing Olympics was seen as China’s coming-out party on the world stage, “now, Beijing is claiming ‘we are here, we are strong, we are powerful enough, you have to treat us with respect and accommodate the new China,'” Su said.
In the intervening years between the two Olympics, China has established itself as a rising superpower. Its economy has expanded by three times, ranking second only to the US. Its military might and technological prowess have risen fast and far, as has its global influence.
The sense of pride is palpable among the Chinese volunteers working inside the Olympic bubble. Mostly fresh-faced university students, they were born only a few years before the 2008 Olympics, and have grown up witnessing their country’s growing prosperity and strength.
Several volunteers told CNN this was the first time they had spent the Lunar New Year holiday away from their family. Like the foreign visitors, Chinese volunteers and staff are not allowed to leave the “closed loop” until the Games have ended — and not before they have completed three weeks of hotel quarantine.
Still, many consider it worthwhile, even for those whose sole duty involves standing in sub-zero temperatures at a bus stop near the ski slopes in the mountains, helping participants navigate a dauntingly confusing transport system.
For others, it’s a tougher sacrifice.
On the Lunar New Year’s Day on Tuesday, a mother stood outside the main press center in Beijing, waving to her two young sons behind layers of barricades and fences.
“Mom I miss you. Happy Lunar New Year!” the younger son shouted as he waved back on the other side, meters away.
It was the longest time she had been apart from her family, she said. Working for the Beijing organizing committee inside the bubble, she is not allowed to go home at the end of her work day. Instead, she lives in a designated hotel close enough to see her home.
“It’s really hard for me because as a mom I never … from the birth of them we have been separated for so long,” she said. “But it’s worth it … I feel very proud.”
She remarked on how different things seemed in 2008. “(At) that time, everybody felt very excited, and (it was) just a big party,” she said. “But this time because of Covid-19 everything is very tough.”
CNN’s Selina Wang and Simone McCarthy contributed.