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Can these winter games soothe a troubled world?

It has often been said of the Olympic Games that this gathering of the world’s finest athletes represents a respite from the world’s troubles. With the Winter Olympics set to begin, however, little could be further from the truth.

Like the Summer Games postponed in 2020 and held in 2021, the Winter Games will be radically transformed by a persistent global pandemic. Spectators will be few, marquee events like figure skating conducted largely in front of empty seats. Athletes will be tested daily for COVID-19 and confined to a “closed loop” from living quarters to their events and back again. Is it too much to hope that the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris will be free of this scourge?

The presence of the Olympics has cast a harsh light on China’s dismal human rights record, with the main focus on the treatment of Dr. Gulshan Abbas, an Uyghur-American activist who vanished in 2018 shortly after criticizing China for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims while at an event in Washington D.C. It was revealed two years ago that she was being held in a Chinese prison.

Calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics for this and other incidents have gained little traction beyond a diplomatic boycott by the U.S. which won’t trouble the Chinese government. This apathy may be a holdover from the futile boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, which really only punished American athletes. The U.S. was protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, a country the U.S. invaded following Sept. 11, 2001 and was mired in for two decades before last year’s botched withdrawal.

As the Olympics approached, China was reported to be rounding up potential trouble-makers. American athletes were being warned not to engage in any human rights protests that might cause them to be detained by the authorities. Not exactly a kumbaya moment in Olympic history.

The area around Beijing is not built for winter sports, which is why China will be the first Olympics host to rely solely on artificial snow for skiing and snowboarding. While athletes worry about the quality of the conditions they sadly acknowledge that global warming threatens the future of their sports, necessitating even greater reliance on fake snow wherever they compete.

All of this aside, there is still reason to believe that the Winter Olympics will be enjoyed by Americans safely ensconced in their living room watching hours of coverage by NBC and its affiliates. The Winter Games can be thrilling and beautiful to behold.

For those in areas like the Northeast, where downhill and cross-country skiing are popular, the Winter Olympics have a particular resonance. Many competitors in the dramatic sledding events hail from the Northeast and/or train at Lake Placid, N.Y. The appearance every four years of curling is a reminder that clubs devoted to the niche sport are competing every winter around upstate New York and northern New England.

So is it possible that these Games will meet the Olympic ideal of distracting the world from its many problems? That is a lot to ask in 2022, but there may be premier skiers, sledders, skaters and snowboarders from the U.S. or other nations poised to do just that.

Bill Everhart is the former editorial page editor of The Berkshire Eagle and is an occasional Eagle contributor. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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