Liam Morgan ©ITG

Whenever the International Olympic Committee (IOC) conducts one of their Coordination Commission visits, you can be sure the words "on track" will be used to describe the progress of the respective organiser.

Their recent trip to Beijing was no different. Coordination Commission chairman Alexander Zhukov was full of gushing praise, stating the Organising Committee for the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games had "already laid the foundation" for a successful event, even with five years to go.

You get the sense, however, that his sentiments were more genuine than with hosts of previous Games and were not laced with the usual public relations rhetoric forced on IOC officials by the organisation's communications department.

I distinctly recall a time where one leading IOC member was thought to have read out the wrong address at the start of a Coordination Commission visit - one that was slightly more negative than the IOC would have liked. It did not exactly go down well with the locals.

Zhukov went on to say Beijing 2022 had made "great progress" with its preparations so far, although this must be taken with a pinch of salt as the Coordination Commission only inspected venues in the Chinese capital, the majority of which are existing facilities being converted into winter sports arenas.

Due to the season and a tight schedule, they did not travel the 190 kilometres or so up into the mountain resort of Zhangjiakou, due to be the home of snowboarding, freestyle skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined and biathlon. It meant they were unable to paint a full picture of the current state of Beijing 2022’s plans.

Although the visit was not as comprehensive as the one back in October, the IOC officials and winter sport representatives I spoke to in the lobby of the InterContinenal Beijing Beichen Hotel, located a stone's throw from the Beijing 2008 Olympic Park, were unanimous in their positivity.

Coordination Commission chairman Alexander Zhukov was full of praise for Beijing 2022 during the visit ©Getty Images
Coordination Commission chairman Alexander Zhukov was full of praise for Beijing 2022 during the visit ©Getty Images

CK Wu, the IOC Executive Board member who heads the International Boxing Association, described the venues as "first-class", while World Curling Federation President Kate Caithness said Beijing 2022 were "so far ahead" of schedule and that she "could not believe how much they had done in the short time" since they were awarded the Games in July 2015.

Christophe Dubi, the IOC's executive director for the Olympic Games, even eulogised about the troublesome sliding centre, which was a concern for International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation President Ivo Ferriani back in October. He insisted progress there was "very stable and very positive".

During the last visit, a site for the venue, due to be built around 90km from Beijing in Yanqing, was not even chosen. Although that particular box has now been ticked, reservations still remain and Ferriani will certainly be keeping a close eye on how organisers tackle the remaining issues.

The fact that they only toured the Beijing venues must be taken into account. It is widely accepted that constructing facilities for skiing and snowboarding provides any Organising Committee with a challenge - just ask Pyeongchang 2018 - and next year's trip to the mountains may provide a better barometer for Beijing 2022's progress thus far.

Still, you cannot help but be impressed by the state of facilities on offer. I took a quick stroll to the Olympic Park one evening and venues such as the Water Cube, which will be transformed into the "Ice Cube" for the Winter Games, and the famous Bird's Nest Stadium, remain striking and are surely the envy of cities across the world.

Any concerns over venue construction were allayed by one IOC member, who told me they had every faith in Beijing 2022 simply because it is China. The fact that 50 per cent of the current staff were involved with Beijing 2008 in some capacity will also work in their favour.

What also hit me was the level of fervour and enthusiasm among those I witnessed on the Olympic Park. It was a Monday evening, so not even a weekend, and yet it was still doused with tourists and locals snapping photographs, sampling the carnival-style atmosphere and participating in impromptu sporting competitions. Rio 2016, take note.

One of the sporting events was a roller skating track set up to mimic the short track speed skating equivalent at the Winter Olympics. A small crowd had gathered to witness a group of youngsters power their way around the course as quickly as they could, egged on by eager parents and relatives on the sidelines.

Close to the Water Cube, a medium-sized Chinese pop festival was also underway, while a group of performers danced down the road to the backing of hand-made percussion instruments. It was as if the Olympics were still in town.

Of course, nothing is ever perfect and there are certainly areas where Beijing 2022 will look to improve as they continue on their history-making path.

Coordination Commission members toured venues in Beijing but did not venture into the mountain clusters ©IOC
Coordination Commission members toured venues in Beijing but did not venture into the mountain clusters ©IOC

Zhukov, the President of the Russian Olympic Committee, cited "ecological" issues when asked about what he thought the main challenges were for Beijing 2022. The Chinese capital is notorious for the thick smog which litters the air around the city and the matter was outlined as a main weakness of the city's bid for the Games by the Evaluation Commission back in 2015.

"Scale of regional air quality issues is very significant," the Commission’s report read. "In spite of major environmental improvement programmes, Games-time mitigation measures may be needed to reduce negative impact on Games participants".

The Russian is confident, however, that this will be addressed by Games time and claimed Beijing 2022 had "embraced the Olympic Games as an opportunity to improve the health of the population".

Communications is another area where Beijing 2022 could improve. Barely two days before the IOC delegation was due to arrive for the visit, Guo Jinlong had been swiftly replaced as President by Cai Qi. The Organising Committee made no formal announcement. Instead, the appointment went under the radar, with the only confirmation from Beijing 2022 coming in the form of organisers changing the name of the President on their official website.

I was told an official unveiling of Cai, the former Mayor of the Chinese capital and now Communist Party Secretary of Beijing, will take place at some point in the near future, but it all seems too little, too late to me.

The decision to replace Guo, made as part of a State Council reshuffle, has still not been fully explained. Surely the IOC want continuity? Have they been given any guarantees that Cai himself will not be replaced in the near future?

IOC officials were positive about Beijing 2022's progress so far ©Getty Images
IOC officials were positive about Beijing 2022's progress so far ©Getty Images

Away from Games preparations themselves, IOC onlookers must have felt more than a tinge of relief at the positive sentiments emanating from the Chinese capital. At a time where "losing" has become associated with the Olympics, largely because of IOC President Thomas Bach's "too many losers" comment regarding the bid process, it seems Beijing 2022 are on to a winner.

With the 2024/2028 Olympics double award and changes to the Tokyo 2020 programme dominating discussion and debate, Chinese organisers have been able to sail through the early stages without much scrutiny. That is likely to change once Pyeongchang 2018 has been and gone, and it is after February’s event where the Winter Olympic attention will turn fully to Beijing 2022.

Only then will we begin to know just how "on track" they really are. The signs are good but, to coin a skiing analogy, they have barely left the starting gate and they must ensure they stay on piste between now and 2022.