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From the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics to the 2022 Winter Games, the Olympics return to a different and more assured China

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Apr.1

Scenes from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, February 4

In the run-up to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, there was much uncertainty about the Games amid the threat of a new Covid-19 wave fueled by the Omicron variant and a US-led “diplomatic boycott” among some Western countries. But when the Games’ opening ceremony kicked off on February 4, everything seemed to be just fine. 

Opening Ceremony 
Held in China’s National Stadium, commonly known as the Bird’s Nest, the same venue where the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics were held 14 years ago, the show featured songs, dances and fireworks aided by the latest technologies and were received well among both international and domestic viewers.  

But compared to the spectacular and stunning show that lasted for four hours in the 2008 Summer Games, the opening ceremony of the 2022 Olympics presented a drastically different atmosphere. Instead of dazzling dances involving thousands of participants and hordes of professional entertainers in 2008, the two-hour show in 2022 featured a non-professional cast from all over China, and presented a much calmer, more subtle, but still impressive performance.
Much of the difference was due to the ongoing global pandemic, as the Omicron variant has caused new outbreaks in China, but the organizing committee assured that the Games would be “streamlined, safe and splendid.”  

But the calmer and more easy-going tone of the opening ceremony also reflects how China is a much different country and how the sentiment Chinese society holds toward the Olympic Games has changed.  

The change of mood was eloquently explained by Zhang Yimou, China’s most celebrated film director who directed the opening ceremonies in both 2008 and 2022.  

“In 2008, China was eager to present itself to the world, telling the stories of its 5,000- year history and rich cultures,” Zhang said in an interview with the State-run Xinhua News Agency. “But it is different now. With China’s rising status having been widely recognized in the world, we need a new perspective, and instead of focusing on ‘me,’ we focus on ‘us,’” said Zhang, referring to the change of the Olympic Motto, which added “Together” to become “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together.”  

Zhang said that in directing the opening ceremony in 2022, he no longer felt the burden to explain China to the world in an impeccable way. Instead, he enjoyed the freedom to “showcase China people’s confidence, pride, love, affection and our philosophy and values to the world” in an “artistic, emotional, and subtle” way.  

The most unconventional part of the opening ceremony is how the main cauldron was lit. In almost all previous Olympics Games, this was the most guarded secret and reserved for the grand finale.  

In the Beijing 2022 Games, to many people’s surprise (and some’s disappointment), there was no “lighting of the cauldron.” Instead, when the last torchbearers came in, they put their torches onto a large snowflake consisting of 90 small snowflakes with the participating country names written on top.  

According to Zhang, the revolutionary idea conveyed the concept of low-carbon and environmentally friendly ideas, as well as reflecting the Chinese philosophy of “imaging the big from the small.”  

“This is China’s innovative contribution to the Olympics,” Zhang said, “People will forget the performance over time, but how the cauldron was lit up will be remembered in history.” 

New Generation of Athletes 
Besides an unconventional opening ceremony, what struck Chinese audiences the most was the emergence of a new generation of Chinese athletes who are notably different from their predecessors, and less a product of the State system of sports development.  

Chinese athletes were known for being extremely hardworking and said to be more tolerant of pain which came at the expense of a happy and healthy childhood and quality personal life. While this perception has only been gradually transformed over the past years, there are persistent stereotypes about Chinese athletes, who were seen to be too burdened with trying to say and do the right thing while on the podium, while being less eloquent in expressing their personal feelings.  

To put it simply, Chinese athletes are perceived to lack character and to live a less desirable life compared to their Western counterparts. But the emergence of a new generation of energetic and charismatic young Chinese athletes in the 2022 Winter Games presents a brand-new image of Chinese athletes.  

The most celebrated athlete competing for China is no doubt Gu Ailing Eileen, perhaps the most talked-about athlete of the Games. Born in the US to an American father and Chinese mother, Gu is the world’s best freestyle skier, and an influencer with a lucrative modeling career, who has already graced the cover of Vogue. She has endorsements and contracts worth more than US$2.5 million, media reported. 

Raised by her mother Gu Yan mostly in the US, and regularly returning to China to spend summers with her Chinese grandma making her fluent in both Chinese and English, Gu announced in 2019 that she would represent China in the Winter Games. After winning gold in the women’s freeski big air and silver in slopestyle, she completed her hat trick with a gold in the freeski halfpipe, catapulting her to media sensation and possible China’s most adored athlete.  

If Gu is not convincing enough, given her American background, Su Yiming is snapping at her heels. A homegrown teen snowboarding sensation, Su was born in Northeast China’s Jilin Province to parents who are snowboarding enthusiasts. Su started the sport when he was just 4. When he was 8, he played a skiing prodigy in the action blockbuster The Taking of Tiger Mountain.  

After being cast in several movies after that, Su had established a solid career as a child actor and was on track to becoming a movie star before he decided to become a professional snowboarder. In October 2021, 17-year-old Su was the first person in the world to ever pull off an “insane” backslide 1980 Indy Crail, a feat recognized by Guinness World Records.  

In the first snowboard event of the Games, Su won a controversial silver that many thought should have been gold, after a judging error saw Canadian Max Parrot awarded top spot. Head judge Iztok Sumatic later admitted that they failed to notice a knee grab by Parrot that should have seen him docked three points.  

But instead of filing a complaint as many Chinese fans urged him to, Su’s team called on them to stop criticizing the judges and move on to enjoy the rest of the Games. Su won the men’s snowboard big air title with an unbeatable score of 182.50, just three days before his 18th birthday, adding him to the roster of China’s new teenage heroes.  

On Sina Weibo, a major social media platform in China, the hashtag “Su Yiming wins gold” was viewed 1.5 billion times in the 24 hours after his win. While many started talking about his prospects in future Olympics and winning more medals, Su,who can speak three languages, Chinese, English and Japanese – his coach is veteran snowboarder Yasuhiro Sato – told the media he is open to a return to the silver screen.  

“My dream was to compete in snowboarding and be an actor at the same time,” Su said, “I want to put these two things together and make something new, something different.” Gu and Su are not the only youngsters to make an impression. Yan Wengang, 24, won bronze in the skeleton, China’s first Olympic medal in a sliding sport, and Rong Ge, a 19-year-old snowboarder, became the first Chinese finalist in the women’s snowboard big air, finishing fifth.  

They showed the world that Chinese athletes are able to make breakthroughs in sports previously dominated by Western athletes as well as enjoy their lives and be inspirational role models like their Western counterparts.  

While China’s success in the summer Games is often said to be mostly driven by State-funded projects focusing on elite athletes, China’s enthusiasm for the winter Games is strongly supported by mass participation in winter sports, which are more closely associated with alternative and trendy lifestyles and are very appealing to China’s growing and prosperous middle income group. 

Gu Ailing Eileen of Team China skis her goldwinning run in the freeski halfpipe at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, February 18

Su Yiming of China claims gold in the men’s snowboard big air of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Big Air Shougang, February 15, 2022

Unexpected Stars 
Just like the new generation of Chinese athletes, the new generation of Chinese spectators are also more relaxed, ready to enjoy all the fun and excitement the Games offers regardless of the medal tally, which gave rise to two unexpected stars of the Games.  

One is Wang Meng, a four-time Olympic champion and former head coach of China’s national short-track speed skating team. But in this Games, her popularity came not from her prowess as an athlete, but from her turn as a witty, humorous and passionate commentator.  

With her strong northeastern accent, shared by many of China’s winter sports athletes, Wang, now 36, can barely sit still as she commentates on events, which have been extensively streamed online. Calling Chinese athletes by their nicknames and talking assertively about her observations, Wang is nothing like traditional Chinese sports commentators and China’s netizens could not get enough.  

On Sina Weibo, the hashtag “Wang Meng the commentator” was viewed more than 2.66 billion times by February 16, making her arguably even more popular than Gu Ailing Eileen and Su Yiming.  

The other unexpected star is Bing Dwen Dwen, the official mascot of the Games,  
commonly known as “ice chubster.” Featuring a playful panda, the same as the Beijing 2008 Summer Games and other sports events, the design was at first considered by many to be a cliché.  

But as the Games hit its stride, people couldn’t help falling for the charm of a chubby panda, and the mascot quickly became a must-have for Olympic participants and fans. It became so sought-after that there was a serious supply shortage, as many lined up for hours in cold weather to get their hands on one.  

According to Cao Xue, head of the mascot’s design team, the popularity of Bing Dwen Dwen may lie in the rising confidence in domestic brands and domestic designs among Chinese consumers. But Cao said that to create a design that can transcend national boundaries and languages goes far beyond combining a cute panda and Chinese elements.  

Liu Pingyun, a co-designer of the mascot told NewsChina that the design has an ice shell, which was originally inspired by a traditional Beijing winter snack of hawthorns with a hard sugary glaze and sold on a stick, known as bingtang hulu. At the same time, the ice shell also represents winter sports, and provides a feeling of technology with the look of a space mask. 
Liu believes that the secret to the unexpected popularity of Bing Dwen Dwen lies in the delicate messages the design conveys, with a paradox of being both cold and warm simultaneously, hard and soft, yin and yang. “The ice shell looks cold at first glance, but inside, there is warmth, representing harmony and peace, two values cherished by Chinese people.” 

China-West Interaction 
For some Western analysts, all the changes, big or small, are nothing but a show that is carefully orchestrated by Chinese authorities behind the scenes. But the truth is the transformation in both the image of Chinese athletes and the mood among China’s general public toward the Olympics is deeply rooted in a new reality in Chinese society.  

If China’s primary concern was to gain recognition and acceptance from the West in 2008, when China’s economy accounted for 7 percent of the world’s total, the country has become more confident and comfortable with itself, when the share of its economy has more than doubled to reach 17.4 percent in 2020.  

It is also notable that much of China’s newly gained confidence came from the past couple of years, when China not only withstood a relentless trade and technological war launched by the US, which now identifies China as its top strategic rival, but has handled the global pandemic more effectively than most Western countries in terms of both total and per capita fatality rates. 

Taking place when geopolitical tensions between China and the US-led West are on the rise, the 2022 Winter Olympics, which revealed a new mentality among the Chinese people on how they view themselves and the rest of the world, will inevitably have a spillover effect beyond the realm of sports to affect the overall interaction between China and the West in the future.