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The Beijing Olympics are rapidly approaching, with the opening ceremony one month away as the countdown continues with diplomatic boycotts, the coronavirus and the fate of Peng Shuai all hanging over the Games.

On Feb. 4, the Chinese capital will become the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Olympics, having staged the Summer Games in 2008, which at the time was seen as a coming-out party for what has since become the world’s second-largest economy.

This time, China’s communist rulers hope the Olympic will inspire 300 million winter sports enthusiasts and help unite the world in the face of the pandemic.

With the Games taking place inside a “bubble” cocooning the nearly 3,000 athletes together with non-competitors, it looks set to be the most restricted mass sporting event since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizers have pledged to make the Games “green, inclusive, open and clean,” but environmentalists question that claim, and smog remains a frequent hazard in China, especially in winter.

The government also hinted at the various controversies surrounding the Games.

“The political manipulation of a few Western politicians will not damage the excitement of the Olympics, but will only expose their own ugliness,”foreign minister Wang Yi told state media.

Rights groups have long called for a boycott over China’s human rights record, especially its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the northwest region of Xinjiang.

Last month, the Biden administration said it would not send U.S. diplomatic or official representation to the Games over China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.” Beijing warned that the United States “will pay the price,” but that did not stop Australia, Britain and Canada from joining the diplomatic boycott. Athletes of those countries will still compete.

China is also facing demands to guarantee Peng’s safety.

The 35-year-old, a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion, was not heard from for nearly three weeks after accusing former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.

Peng has since reappeared in public in China, but doubts remain about how free and safe she is, and the controversy will loom large over the Games.

Then there is the coronavirus.

China, where the virus emerged in late 2019, has pursued a zero-COVID strategy with tight border restrictions, lengthy quarantines and targeted lockdowns. Xi’an, a city of 13 million, has been locked down for nearly two weeks.

Omicron is not thought to have driven what is a small outbreak by the standards of other countries, but the highly contagious variant presents a fresh challenge to authorities.

Omicron has already impacted the Olympics, with the NHL pulling its players out of the Games.

David Shoemaker, chief executive and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee, also admitted that “we’re worried.”

“We’re confident that these Games can still be scheduled safely, but we’re taking it day-by-day,” he told local media.

The Olympics, which take place just six months after the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, will be held in a “closed-loop” bubble where all athletes must be vaccinated and have daily COVID-19. No one in the bubble will be allowed to leave.

The Games will be held in three “zones” and make use of both new venues and some from 2008, including the “Bird’s Nest” national stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies.

China has committed to having spectators — there were no fans at the Tokyo Olympics — but it is still unclear how many there will be and none will be from overseas.

Freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who will compete for China, could emerge as one of the breakout stars of the Beijing Winter Games. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who will compete for China, could emerge as one of the breakout stars of the Beijing Winter Games. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

In terms of star power, there had been doubt about the status of “Ice Prince” Yuzuru Hanyu, after he suffered an ankle injury. Hanyu, however, delivered a sizzling performance in Japan’s recent national championships and looks primed to pursue a third straight Olympic gold.

American skier Mikaela Shiffrin is also chasing her third gold, but her preparations have been hindered by COVID-19.

There will also be huge interest in Chloe Kim, the American snowboarder who melted hearts when she won gold at age 17 at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018, while Eileen Gu could one of the faces of the Games.

The 18-year-old student and model, born and raised in California, switched from the United States to represent China and is the favorite to take gold in freestyle skiing.

Sports forecasters Gracenote estimate that Norway will top the medal table for the second straight Winter Games.

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