Well, here we go again. Another Olympics, barely half a year since Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) wrapped up their Summer Games.
Now it’s time for the Winter Games in Beijing, as a record-breaking Australia team chases the nation’s best-ever medal haul.
This 24th edition of the Winter Olympics takes place amid a backdrop of controversy, from a diplomatic boycott that includes Australia to significant concerns over the almost exclusive use of artificial snow.
And it all starts on Wednesday night.
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WHEN ARE THE KEY DATES?
The opening ceremony takes place on Friday February 4 at 11pm AEDT. The games will run until the closing ceremony, on Sunday February 20 at 1pm AEDT. Both of the ceremonies take place at the National Stadium in Beijing.
But as usual, competition starts two days early to fit everything into the packed schedule!
The first action will be the first two training runs of the group A and B men’s singles luge, kicking off at 10.30pm AEDT on Wednesday at Yanqing National Sliding Centre.
Australian Alexander Ferlazzo is part of Group B and will complete two training runs, starting around 00.15am AEDT on Thursday morning.
And you can see Australia’s first-ever curling team in action at 11pm AEDT on Wednesday night. The mixed doubles pair of Tahli Gill and Dean Hewitt will face the USA in a tough first-up match.
HOW DO I WATCH?
The Games will be broadcast in Australia by Channel 7 and streamed on 7 Plus.
WHERE IS IT TAKING PLACE?
While Beijing is becoming the first-ever city to host both the Summer Games (2008) and Winter Games (2022), the action will actually take place in three main sites.
One is in the city of Beijing itself, while another is in Yanqing, a suburban zone about 80km north of the city centre.
The third site is the Zhangjiakou zone, about 220km from Beijing’s heart in the neighbouring Hebei province.
Yanqing and Zhangjiakou are being used for their mountains.
WHO IS GOING TO WIN?
Organisers are anticipating around 90 countries and 2800 athletes to compete at the 24th edition of the Winter Olympics (the first was 1924 in the French city of Chamonix).
According to sports statisticians Gracenote, Norway is expected to take home 45 of the 109 medals on offer in Beijing, including 21 golds — almost as many as its two closest rivals together, Russia (11) and Germany (12).
That would shatter its record of 39 medals, from PyeongChang in 2018. And it’s hardly a surprise, given the country invented the words “ski” and “slalom” – and there’s the old saying that Norwegian children are born with skis on their feet.
The country of 5.4 million people is home to no less than 1,000 cross-country skiing clubs.
And the first king in modern times, Haakon VII, even ensured he was photographed on skis early in his reign to establish his legitimacy among Norwegians.
WHAT ARE THE EVENTS?
There are 15 disciplines at the games. In alphabetical order, they are: alpine skiing, biathlon, bobsleigh, cross-country skiing, curling, figure skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, luge, nordic combined, short-speed skating, skeleton, ski jumping, snowboarding and speed skating.
WHAT’S THE AUSTRALIAN TEAM LIKE?
The Australian Olympic team is our third-biggest ever Winter Olympics contingent with 43 members — 22 women and 21 men. It is also the strongest female representation Australia has ever had at a Winter Games.
The group was meant to be 44 members, but Aussie alpine ski-racer Madison Hoffman injured her ACL last week and was forced to withdraw.
And there could yet be another withdrawal, after a member of the Aussie Olympic team tested positive to Covid-19 on arrival in Beijing. Their name has not yet been released, nor have the details of a second PCR test.
The team ranges in age from 16 to 33 years old and boasts 19 debutants. Australia will compete across 10 of the 15 disciplines on offer.
The flag-bearers for the opening and closing ceremonies haven’t been announced yet.
HOW WILL AUSTRALIA PERFORM?
Australia finished 23rd on the medal ladder last time out in PyeongChang, with two silver medals and a bronze. That’s a fairly accurate reflection of our place in the winter sports world – but this year could be our best ever, with several solid medal chances.
Australia first competed in the Winter Olympics back in 1936, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. But it took until 1994 for us to claim a first medal.
The total now stands at 15 medals across the last seven Winter Olympics, with an even split of five gold, five silver, and five bronze.
AUSTRALIA’S WINTER OLYMPICS MEDAL HISTORY
1994: One bronze
1998: One bronze
2002: Two gold
2006: One gold, one bronze
2010: Two gold, one silver
2014: Two silver, one bronze
2018: Two silver, one bronze
Total: Five gold, five silver, five bronze
WHAT’S WITH THE FAKE SNOW?
The Beijing Olympics will take place on almost 100% artificial snow, a historic moment in the history of the games.
First used at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid 1980, artificial snow has become more commonplace at the games – but it comes with a significant risk, and a very big cost.
Around 1.2 million cubic metres of snow will be required for the games, which are taking place in one of the most arid areas of china. That will require – hold onto your hats here – an estimated 49 million gallons (222 million litres) of chemically-treated water to be frozen by around 130 snow-generators and around 300 snow guns.
Beijing is one of the most water-scarce cities in the world, so using all that water for the Olympics takes a major environmental toll (let alone the hit to the back pocket).
Plus, climate change has seen average temperatures soar in Beijing in recent years. Based on historical temperature data for Beijing, nearly every February day for the past thirty years has been above the freezing level for water. That means extra work for the snow-makers just to maintain the proper snow conditions for events.
And, put simply, fake snow just isn’t the same as natural snow. It contains almost 30 per cent ice and 70 per cent air, compared to natural snow’s 10 per cent ice and 90 per cent air.
Johanna Talihärm, an Estonian Olympic biathlete, recently told NBC News that racing on fake snow is very risky.
“Artificial snow is icier, therefore faster and more dangerous,” she said. “It also hurts more if you fall outside of the course when there is no fluffy snowbank, but a rocky and muddy hard ground,” she said.
“It can be really rock hard out there and falling can feel like falling on concrete, and so it does make it a little bit more dangerous than if it was natural snow conditions,” Chris Grover, the head cross country coach for the US ski team, told NBC.
For the athletes who get down their courses without a problem, records could tumble. But if the athletes themselves tumble, the injuries could be much, much scarier.
WHAT IS THE BOYCOTT?
The United States is leading a diplomatic boycott of the Games by a group of Western nations over China’s human rights record, in particular its crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs in the western region of Xinjiang that the United States has labelled “genocide”.
The countries taking part in the boycott are not sending officials to Beijing for Friday’s opening ceremony but their athletes will participate in competitions.
That includes Britain, Canada, Australia and Denmark.
Other nations such as Japan are not sending officials and have voiced concerns about China’s rights record while steering clear of formally announcing they are part of the boycott. Some countries such as the Netherlands and New Zealand have said they will not send officials due to China’s strict pandemic travel restrictions.
But there will still be a gathering of leaders at the opening ceremony of the Games, most with key political or economic links to China. That includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as officials from Mongolia, Egypt, South Korea and Saudi Arabia among others.
WHAT IS THE ‘CLOSED LOOP’?
It’s the organisers’ alternative name for a coronavirus bubble – and it’s as strict as it gets.
60,000 competitors, journalists and the Chinese workforce looking after them will be completely cut off from local people and tested for Covid-19 every day.
Media and workers have to stay in approved hotels within the “loop”.
Wire fences seal off the area containing the Olympic venues and media centre in Beijing from the rest of the capital and the only way in is by shuttle bus or approved taxi.
Security guards bar the way of anyone who tries to walk out of the hotel grounds.
Bags are scanned as guests leave their hotels. Before boarding the bus, they must walk over to two cabins where staff in full protective gear awkwardly carry out mouth swabs from behind a plexiglass screen.
Anyone entering the bubble must be fully vaccinated or face a 21-day quarantine when they arrive in China, and everyone inside must wear face masks at all times, apart from the athletes when they actually compete.
All the Chinese workers will have to quarantine for up to three weeks when the Olympic circus moves on.
WILL THERE BE CROWDS?
Yes. A senior Olympics official said on Tuesday that venues at the Beijing Winter Games could be up to 50 per cent full, countering fears that Covid-19 would lead to a second consecutive Games without spectators.
Last year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics took place largely behind closed doors and Chinese organisers decided not to sell tickets for the Beijing Games because of fears about the virus.
But Christophe Dubi, Olympic Games Executive Director at the International Olympic Committee, said he hoped venues in China would be filled to between 30 and 50 per cent.
“In terms of capacity we are not there yet, because it has to be finetuned at a venue-by-venue basis, but I’d say if we have one person out of three (available spots) or out of two, that would already be a good result,” Dubi said in an interview on the official Beijing Games’ website.
“It could also depend on whether it is outdoors or indoors. But the great thing is that we are going to have spectators,” he added.
Dubi said the spectators would not be restricted to Chinese nationals — foreigners living in China have also been invited.
“We were very insistent on that,” he said. “So they are also reaching out to the expat community and making sure, through the embassies and other ways and means, to identify those who live in Beijing and could attend the Games.”