Just six months after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics wrapped up, Beijing 2022 has arrived — with clouds of uncertainty nearly as concentrated as they were in August.
With the coronavirus pandemic now in its third year, organizers have been forced to take unprecedented precautions in order to hold one of the world’s largest sporting events in a nation that has wielded its massive state security apparatus without restraint in order to keep infection rates low.
Controversy over the decision to hold these Olympics in China — making Beijing the first city to host both the summer and winter editions — has overshadowed the buildup to the Games, with 10 countries announcing a diplomatic boycott over the reported genocide of Uyghur minorities in the country’s Xinjiang region and the treatment of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.
But when the competition kicks off, Japanese audiences — freed from the emotional turmoil of the troubled Tokyo Olympics — will be able to enjoy the show simply as viewers from afar, with analytics firm Gracenote predicting that Team Japan will surpass its all-time high of 13 medals set at Pyeongchang 2018.
With 124 athletes — 49 men and 75 women — set to represent Japan in Beijing, here are some of the top storylines to follow over the next two weeks.
A historic third for Hanyu?
After missing the 2021 Grand Prix season due to injury, fears began to emerge that two-time defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu would not be able to make it three in a row in the men’s figure skating competition.
Instead, a dominant showing at December’s national championships was enough to punch the 27-year-old’s golden ticket to Beijing, giving him a chance to match the three-peat record set by Sweden’s Gillis Grafstroem at Antwerp, Chamonix and St. Moritz between 1920 and 1928.
In front of a rapt crowd at Saitama Super Arena, Hanyu attempted — and nearly landed — the quadruple axel, a jump so difficult that the next skater to complete it in competition will be the first.
“I wondered if maybe I should give up (on the quadruple axel),” Hanyu said after the nationals. “Everyone says, ‘Only you can do it,’ and that makes me happy, but I felt like I was at my limit.
“I struggled with it a lot and then I thought, ‘I can go a little further, because I’ve made it this far.’”
Even if Hanyu can ready the quadruple axel in time for Beijing, some will consider him the underdog when he takes to the ice at Capital Indoor Stadium for the men’s singles competition on Feb. 8 and 10. The role of favorite will be taken by U.S. skater Nathan Chen, the “Quad King,” who has won three straight world championships and will be looking for revenge after a poor short program doomed his Olympic debut at Pyeongchang 2018.
“Having the opportunity to have such a rough skate at the previous Olympics gave me the insight that skating, while it is incredibly important and the thing I’ve literally done every day since I was 3, is also just a passion project for me,” Chen said in October. “I have a limited number of competitions in my life, and I want to make the most out of every one and try to enjoy myself the best I can.”
Gracenote’s Olympic analysts have predicted gold for Chen, with Hanyu finishing in second. But the scenario approaching Beijing bears a striking resemblance to that of four years ago when Hanyu, who sat out most of the 2017 Grand Prix and missed that year’s national championships due to an ankle injury, stunned the Pyeongchang crowd and defended his crown with authority.
“I have managed to win twice, but the Olympics are something special,” Hanyu told the Olympic Channel in 2019. “The Olympic Games are what every athlete and figure skater wants to win.”
Battle of the halfpipe heroes
Snowboarding is expected to significantly contribute to Japan’s medal haul, with the country sending 20 athletes — more than any other discipline save for ice hockey — to the Games.
In the remote Zhangjiakou Zone, which will host many of the Games’ skiing and snowboarding events, all eyes will be on veteran snowboarder Shaun White as he prepares to contest his final Olympic men’s halfpipe competition. The American earned his third gold medal with a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Japan’s Ayumu Hirano in Pyeongchang and will look to make it four at Genting Snow Park.
“It is one of those things where I have accomplished so much,” White told People magazine ahead of the Games. “I think it would be a different story if I had come close to the gold four times and this was my last chance…. Having such a long and amazing career, now at this point in my life, I can go back and go, ‘Wow, it’s been incredible.’”
One of the few athletes capable of stopping White from claiming gold could be Hirano, who has captured silver at two straight Games and is eager to upgrade his medal display at Beijing with an avenging performance against his rival. The Niigata Prefecture native, just 23 years old, joined a rare class of athletes who have competed at both the Summer and Winter Olympics when he took part in the Tokyo 2020 skateboarding competition last year.
“There was a lot of drama in Pyeongchang, and I think when the snowboarding is strong and you’re up against a rival, it inspires some great competition,” Hirano said during a news conference last month. “I want to put out everything I’ve challenged myself to do over the past four years, and if I can perform in the way only I can, I think the end result will be good.”
Hirano will also find plenty of competition in the halfpipe from his fellow countrymen, including younger brother Ruka — the 2020 Youth Olympic Games champion — and reigning world champion Yuto Totsuka, whose nasty fall in the Pyeongchang final went viral. Some have suggested the three could combine for an all-Japan podium sweep.
“Four years ago was a disappointment and I hope I can sweep that away,” Totsuka said last month. “I want to keep trying new techniques in order to continue leading the sport.”
Women’s teams chase glory on ice
While Japan’s men failed to qualify for both curling and ice hockey, the country’s women’s teams will have chances to finish on the podium in two of the Winter Games’ most iconic disciplines.
The most favored of the two to do so will be Loco Solare, the Japanese curling team that captured bronze in Pyeongchang and whose frequent shouts of “Sodanē” (“That’s right”) were named Japan’s top buzzword of 2018.
The team features three of the four members from the squad that narrowly fell to silver-winning South Korea that year, with skip Satsuki Fujisawa joined by Yumi Suzuki as well as siblings Chinami and Yurika Yoshida.
They’ll be challenged from the start in Beijing, however, with a tough opening draw against reigning Olympic champion and current world No. 1 Sweden. Switzerland will be fielding the same team that captured world championships in 2019 and 2021, while three of South Korea’s four Pyeongchang members will be returning to the ice.
But just as one might expect from a team whose mid-match snack breaks — featuring strawberries and other treats from their native Hokkaido — became viral sensations, the members of Loco Solare aren’t feeling the pressure as they push for a second medal.
“It’s the Olympics, but what we’re doing is curling, so we want to play the Loco Solare way and not make any big changes,” Yurika Yoshida told NHK.
Team founder and Pyeongchang alternate Mari Motohashi echoed that sentiment, adding, “Rather than focusing on winning, they’ll get better results if they focus on their playing style and substance.”
In women’s ice hockey, sixth-ranked Smile Japan will face a challenging but manageable Group B — including Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark and host China — before potential advancement to the quarterfinals where perennial titans such as the United States and Canada await.
Veteran goalie Nana Fujimoto, a Sochi and Pyeongchang participant with further experience at six world championships, will be a key presence if Japan hopes to reach the podium — and she will do so with an auspicious new helmet featuring a koi, Mount Fuji and a tiger representing this year’s zodiac sign.
“I want to help the team win with my saves and defending, so I hope I can help create a good rhythm with my performance,” Fujimoto told NHK.
Jumpers take to the sky
Another venue Japan hopes will add to its gold total is the Kuyangshu Nordic Center and Biathlon Center in Zhangjiakou, where ski jumpers Sara Takanashi and Ryoyu Kobayashi will contest their respective normal hill events.
Takanashi, who holds three Guinness world records including one recognizing her overall best 61 World Cup victories, will be aiming to improve on her bronze-medal performance at Pyeongchang.
The 25-year-old has struggled in the buildup to the Olympics, but her first win of the World Cup season — on Jan. 1 in Ljubno, Slovenia — could indicate that she has recovered her form at just the right time.
“This will be my third Olympics and I’m getting excited,” Takanashi said ahead of her departure for Beijing. “I want everyone to see the jumps I’ve been preparing for four years.
“I’m about 90% ready; I’ve never jumped off the Beijing platform so that’s the last 10%. I want to do my best to perform flawlessly.”
On the men’s side, Kobayashi is considered a strong candidate for his first Olympic medal after finishing seventh in 2018. The 25-year-old captured his second Four Hills tournament in early January, winning three of four events to just miss out on what would have been a historic second grand slam.
“To be honest, I want to win gold, but it’s just about doing my jumps and that’s what I want to stay focused on,” Kobayashi told NHK.
While Takanashi is the more accomplished of the two, she readily admits that Kobayashi’s form off the platform is an inspiration.
“He’s very good at immediately adjusting his body to do what he wants to do,” Tanakashi said of Kobayashi in late January. “It takes me lots of practice to get to where I want to be, so I’m jealous of him.
“His performances have definitely given me ideas as to how I should be moving my body.”
Inside the ‘closed loop’
Beijing organizers had plenty of praise for their Tokyo counterparts after last year’s Summer Olympics — but also declared they would surpass the pandemic-postponed event both in terms of stricter coronavirus countermeasures and the admission of fans into venues.
Both have proven easier said than done.
While China has largely beaten back the coronavirus through a series of strict lockdowns since the virus’s initial outbreak in Wuhan, the country’s “COVID zero” policies have been tested by the easily transmitted omicron variant, which has continued to make its way toward Beijing.
That led to a January decision to close doors to the general public, although — just like in Tokyo — a handful of selected guests, including VIPs, sponsors and schoolchildren, will be able to watch the action in person.
Athletes, journalists and broadcasters who experienced the Tokyo “bubble” are facing even stricter circumstances within Beijing’s “closed loop,” where they will be completely cut off from the rest of the capital and undergo daily testing. A fleet of buses, Games-exclusive taxis and a “self-driving” high-speed train will be the only way for participants to travel between their hotels and competition venues — and nowhere else.
Although many broadcasters sent smaller contingents to Tokyo than would usually befit the Olympics, those numbers will be reduced even further for Beijing due to the impact of the omicron wave. U.S. broadcaster NBC’s announcers will cover the event remotely from its studios, as will commentators for Canada’s CBC.
While Tokyo became known as the “TikTok Olympics” for the creative ways in which athletes brought fans along for the journey on social media, there may be fewer viral moments such as the infamous cardboard bed jumps this time around — even as the “Great Firewall” is lowered for Olympic participants.
Several nations have urged athletes not to bring their personal devices to China over concerns that they may be targets for cyber-espionage, and a number of news agencies are taking similar precautions.
That’s not to say there won’t be the usual moments of lighthearted content from inside the bubble, however. Robot chefs serving customers at the media center and ice-suited panda mascot Bing Dwen Dwen are among things organizers hope will generate enough positive buzz to drown out safety concerns — as well as criticism of China’s record on human rights that has only increased in recent months.
Follow daily updates from the 2022 Beijing Games at jtimes.jp/beijing2022.