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2022 Winter Olympics: Russia and China’s Olympic spin

Russia’s doping history and China’s internal Olympic propaganda.

A man rides a skeleton sled at the Olympics. The back of his uniform says Ukraine.
This story was published on our Need to Know: Beijing Olympics newsletter, An informative, entertaining email about a controversial Winter Games.
  • Morgan Haefner
By Morgan Haefner

Deputy email editor


Hi Olympic fans!

A weekend of historic victories, a Bing Dwen Dwen plushie shortage, and an evolving doping scandal has brought us through the halfway point of the Beijing Olympics. We’re looking forward to some ice dancing and aerial skiing—while these athlete couples anticipate Valentine’s Day dates at KFC and salons in the Games’ bubble.

Here’s what you need to know

A political bubble

Ukrainian skeleton athlete Vladyslav Heraskevych in training at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics
Image copyright: Reuters/Edgar Su
Vladyslav Heraskevych of Ukraine in action during training.

A Ukrainian skeleton rider Vladyslav Heraskevych flashed a small sign that said “No war in Ukraine” on Friday, which the IOC could have found in violation of official Olympic rules (pdf).

Instead, the committee chose to call it “a general call for peace.” If you’ll remember, Beijing’s opening ceremonies were all about imagining no countries—all of us together in one snowflake. But the truth is, the Olympics have always been a political battleground. After all, if you really wanted an event that symbolized complete global togetherness and is devoid of any partisanship, a series of cutthroat competitions that pit country against country is probably not the way to go about it.

Back in the ROC

Figure Skating - Team Event - Women Single Skating - Free Skating
Image copyright: Reuters/Aleksandra Szmigiel
Up in the air.

Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian skater who astonished the world by becoming the first woman to land a quadruple axel at the Olympics, is now at the center of a doping scandal. Of course, Russia is currently serving out its Olympic sentence for previous doping incidents—Valieva and every other Russian athlete at the Games competes as part of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). But by and large, the no-flag punishment doesn’t amount to much, as Russian president Vladimir Putin waves down at the ROC contingent at the Opening Ceremonies.

Here’s a timeline of the rather confusing turn of events—Valieva’s test was performed long before the Olympics even began—thus far:

  • Dec. 25, 2021: Valieva’s sample collected by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) during the 2022 Russian Figure Skating Championships in Saint Petersburg
  • Feb. 7, 2022: Team skating event at the Beijing Olympics
  • Feb. 8, 2022: The World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited lab in Stockholm reported that the sample from December contained trimetazidine. She is provisionally suspended by RUSADA with immediate effect, and won’t be able to compete in any further events in Beijing
  • Feb. 9, 2022: Valieva challenges the imposition of the provisional suspension before the RUSADA Disciplinary Anti-Doping Committee and a hearing takes place. By evening, RUSADA lifts the athlete’s provisional suspension
  • Feb. 10, 2022: “She is not suspended,” Russian figure skating federation spokeswoman Olga Ermolina says, offering no further detail
  • Feb. 11, 2022: ITA confirms the chronology of events. The IOC says it will make a decision before Valieva’s next scheduled skating event on Feb. 15.
  • Feb. 13, 2022: A hearing is held to determine if Valieva can continue skating at the Games.

China’s charm offensive

Just as the Games began, Russia announced a strengthening of ties with China, who had its own Olympic doping scandal in 2014. This Olympics has faced diplomatic boycotts from nearly a dozen countries including the US over China’s alleged human rights abuses. But China so far has managed to portray the Games in a positive light at home.

Beijing’s most effective tool so far is Eileen Gu, an 18-year-old US-born free skier, who crashed the Chinese internet last Tuesday when she won her first gold medal for China, prompting Chinese media and citizens to celebrate both her victory and the country’s win in Gu electing to play for China instead of the US. Gu has seemingly played along with Chinese propaganda, telling reporters that she was glad to see tennis player Peng Shuai “happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again,” after Peng, who accused (and later denied) a former Chinese leader of sexual assault, attended Tuesday’s competition. Gu also defended China’s internet freedom, posting on Instagram that “anyone can download a vpn is free on the App Store,” a claim quickly refuted by tech watchers who point out China has punished ordinary people for using the tool.

Besides Gu, the Games’ mascot Bing Dwen Dwen has been used to showcase the lovely, more cuddly side of China, continuing its long history of “panda diplomacy.” It’s worked—state media has pushed Bing Dwen Dwen from the start, leading to a buying frenzy of toy versions. (However, the panda lost some face when it began to talk.)

❄️ We’ll be back in a couple days. Want to get a fellow Olympic fan in on the action? Here’s where they need to go.

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