David Owen

A year ago, almost to the day, I was sitting in my Lausanne hotel-room writing up an interview I had just done with an Alibaba executive called Chris Tung.

I mention this for two reasons.

1. It means a year has passed since my last overseas assignment for insidethegames, and hence since I last physically encountered many of the Olympic decision-makers we regularly write about.

2. It was there that I first grasped how deeply the Chinese e-commerce giant was becoming involved with key processes in the Olympic machine, not just merchandising but also ticketing and the critical business of getting content - the right content - from Olympic arenas to screens, be they TVs, tablets or mobiles.

Back then, this partnership with the company founded by one of the world’s best-known business executives, Jack Ma, looked a fine example of what International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach might call "a win-win".

Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has not been seen in public since October ©Getty Images
Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has not been seen in public since October ©Getty Images

Lausanne got access to Alibaba’s Cloud computing technology and digital expertise; Alibaba got the global exposure that comes with association with the Olympic Games.

But then, in the final months of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic dominating world affairs, Ma fell foul of Chinese strongman-President Xi Jinping.

This leaves the IOC, with all its other current problems, facing the prospect of overseeing a Winter Olympics in Xi’s Beijing in little more than a year’s time with its most high-profile Chinese commercial partner at loggerheads with the host Government.

How Lausanne must be hoping that the Ma-Xi trial of strength has been resolved by then.

The fixation on Tokyo 2020 and COVID is all but monopolising attention at present - understandably enough.

But a daunting array of messaging issues relating to Beijing 2022 is piling up for the IOC, and the interval between events, if both proceed as planned, is less than six months.

Pressure over China’s alleged treatment of the Uighur people is plainly not going to go away.

Nor are complaints about Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong, Tibet, or for that matter Taiwan.

The IOC's partnership with Alibaba was initially considered as a win-win ©Getty Images
The IOC's partnership with Alibaba was initially considered as a win-win ©Getty Images

And then there is the uncertain trajectory, under a new United States President of the mounting trade tensions between the world’s main economic superpower and the nation it increasingly sees as its most serious rival.

Nor should ongoing questions over human rights and freedom of speech throughout China be left off the list.

Or indeed the matter of athletes and podium protests.

Faced with that little lot, I fail to see how a sports event featuring sports that much of the world outside North America, the frozen north, the European Alps and, to a degree, north-east Asia cares little about is going to drown out the background noise.

True, I felt similarly ahead of Beijing 2008 that politics would distract attention from the main event.

In fact, the calibre of the sport that was served up largely confounded these expectations.

But these were the Summer Games, featuring sports in which just about every country on earth is genuinely invested.

This was also the China of President Hu Jintao and the "peaceful rise" diplomacy which encouraged the notion that the country’s spectacular economic progress was no real threat to Western interests, if anything the contrary.

I have to say, I think it is quite possible that Beijing’s run-in with Ma, Alibaba and Ant, a financial technology company also founded by Ma that was set for the biggest initial public offering of shares in capital markets history until the listing was unexpectedly suspended, may be done and dusted before Bach’s Olympic circus touches down.

One possible analogy is the Russian clash between another strongman-President Vladimir Putin and businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, although the Chinese clampdown would have to escalate massively to warrant any real comparison with that saga.

But another point of comparison might be provided by the sort of legal cases pursued in Europe and the US against other tech groups.

Problems regarding Beijing 2022 are mounting for the IOC ©Getty Images
Problems regarding Beijing 2022 are mounting for the IOC ©Getty Images

Entrepreneurs have played a big part in the extraordinary economic success-story that underpins Xi’s growing international clout, and the innovative excellence of Ma’s corporate creations has made China a genuine e-commerce pioneer.

What the Chinese Communist party seems disinclined to tolerate is attempted encroachment into what it regards as the field of Government policy.

Of all the IOC’s Beijing 2022-related problems, Xi versus Ma is the storm that has blown up most abruptly and unexpectedly.

Accordingly, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that the storm-clouds could dissipate just as quickly, or indeed that Lausanne might play some small part in facilitating such a dénouement.

So treacherous does the geopolitical outlook appear at present though, even with US President Donald Trump poised to quit the scene, that sport, sadly, seems almost the last thing that Beijing 2022 may be remembered for.