BEIJING (AFP) - The Beijing Olympics will "change the scale of winter sports forever", International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said on Thursday (Feb 3), on the eve of a Games beset by concerns about human rights and Covid-19.
China's ruling Communist Party hopes the Olympics will be a soft-power triumph but they have been overshadowed by diplomatic boycotts, fears for tennis player Peng Shuai, warnings about surveillance and the environmental impact.
The Games, which launch with an opening ceremony on Friday at Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium and last until Feb 20, are taking place in one of the driest regions of China and rely almost entirely on man-made snow.
American snowboarder Jamie Anderson, a reigning two-time Olympic champion, said she had been scared trying out the slopestyle course and its artificially made surface, calling it "bulletproof ice".
China has little tradition of winter sports but has consistently said that staging the Olympics are part of a drive to get 300 million people in the world's most populous nation to "engage" in ski and ice pursuits.
Bach said that goal had already been exceeded.
"Today we can say: China is a winter sport country," he told an IOC meeting, adding that "everything is in place for a safe and successful Winter Olympics".
Covid in bubble
China and the IOC hope that the rancour that has clouded the build-up will be relegated to the sidelines once the action gets under way.
The sport started on Wednesday with curling and there was a smattering of masked fans at the so-called "Ice Cube", the striking venue known as the "Water Cube" when Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Games, which was seen then as China's coming-out party on the world stage.
Women's hockey and freestyle skiing are also under way.
The Games are taking place in a vast "closed loop" bubble to thwart the coronavirus, with the nearly 3,000 athletes and tens of thousands of support staff, volunteers and media cut off from Beijing's general population.
China, where the virus emerged in late 2019, has pursued a no-nonsense zero-Covid policy nationwide and adopted the same approach to the Games, with everyone cocooned inside the bubble having daily tests and required to wear a mask at all times.
There were 55 positive Covid-19 results among Games-related personnel on Wednesday, the highest daily total so far, bringing the number since Jan 23 to 287.
Eleven people have been hospitalised with the virus but Brian McCloskey, chairman of the medical expert panel for Beijing 2022, said none were seriously ill.
Covid-19 is not the only challenge.
The United States, Britain, Canada and Australia are among countries staging a diplomatic boycott over rights, with the fate of China's Muslim Uyghur minority of particular concern.
Washington accuses China of perpetrating genocide in the region of Xinjiang. China warned that the US would "pay the price" for its diplomatic boycott.
Athletes of the boycotting nations will still compete.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will attend the opening ceremony as a guest of Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, hit out at the doping sanctions against his country.
In an interview with Chinese media, Putin said: "We oppose the politicisation of sports and attempts to use this as an instrument of pressure, unfair competition or discrimination." Russia, he said, "remains committed to traditional Olympic values".
Moscow was found to have orchestrated a state-backed doping programme at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and banned from international competition.
Russian competitors will take part in Beijing, but only under the banner of the "Russian Olympic Committee".
Bach also said he will meet Chinese tennis player Peng inside the "closed loop" of the Beijing Olympics.
The well-being of Peng, a former world No. 1 doubles player, became a matter of concern in November when she alleged on social media that a former Chinese vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her.
Last month Peng said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her and that the post she made had been misunderstood. Zhang has not commented on the matter.
The IOC has held several video calls with Peng in past weeks and Bach said a planned meeting would go ahead at the Feb 4-20 Games.
"We know from her explanations... that she is living in Beijing, that she can move freely, spending time with family and friends," Bach told a news conference. "Now we will be able to do the next step in a personal meeting to convince us in person of her well-being and state of mind."
Bach said if Peng wanted her allegations to be investigated, he would support her. "If she wants to have an inquiry we would also support her in this. But it's her life, it's her allegations," Bach said."We will know more about her physical integrity and mental state when we meet her in person."
Hanyu v Chen
The Games will be held in three zones. In addition to downtown Beijing, the two other areas are outside the capital and will rely on artificially made snow to cover what would otherwise be brown mountainsides.
Eileen Gu has captivated China and looks set to be the face of the Games.
The 18-year-old grade-A student, born and raised in California, switched from the United States to represent China and is hot favourite in freestyle skiing.
There will also be intense interest in Chloe Kim, the American snowboarder who melted hearts when she won gold aged 17 at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.
Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu is looking to make it a hat-trick of figure-skating Olympic titles but faces a stern challenge from his American rival Nathan Chen.
Norway are tipped to top the medals table for a second consecutive Winter Olympics.