David Owen

It is unusual for the Winter Games to be diverting attention when the Summer Olympics are in full swing.

This is certainly the case in Washington DC, however, where today sees representatives of five multinational corporations which spend heavily to sponsor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) "invited" to a Congressional Hearing to discuss "how they can leverage their influence to insist on concrete human rights improvements in the People’s Republic of China."

This sort of thing ought to worry the IOC.

Assuming they accept the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC)’s invitation, this is unlikely to be an especially pleasant experience for the executives concerned, who are from Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble and Visa.

Indeed, based on my reasonably extensive exposure to Parliamentary Committee meetings in the United Kingdom, there could be moments that leave one or two of them squirming in their seats.

The IOC, and hence the rest of the Olympic ecosystem, is becoming increasingly reliant on sponsorship, which, by my reckoning, is poised to overtake broadcasting rights as the Movement’s biggest income source. 

If, after their frustrating - at least until now - experience with Tokyo 2020, sponsors are also to face interrogation about the nature of their, admittedly indirect, association with Beijing 2022, some of them may start questioning whether the game is worth the candle, or so you would have thought.

At the very least, post-Beijing sales ledgers and market research findings are likely to be scrutinised even more assiduously than usual for evidence of a post-Olympic sales and/or image boost.

The CECC’s chief concern is human rights.

But there is of course another sub-text to the mounting US-China tensions in the run-up to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, now barely six months away.

This is that China, with its vast 1.4 billion population, is on track to challenge US global economic hegemony like nothing else this side of World War II.

(Yes, the old Soviet Union challenged it in other ways, but not as an economic behemoth.)

Tensions are increasing between the United States and China in the run-up to the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Tensions are increasing between the United States and China in the run-up to the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

This is the bust-up that - by narrowly picking Beijing over Almaty in Kuala Lumpur six years ago - the IOC has stumbled its way into the midst of, like a child bursting in on a parental row.

Perhaps IOC President Thomas Bach and his colleagues will be able to use their diplomatic contacts to persuade the great powers to soft-pedal their differences until the show is over.

I would be surprised if Bach had not taken advantage of Jill Biden’s presence in Tokyo to have a quiet word on this score in the US First Lady’s ear.

But, because of the timetable the IOC signed up to when it sanctioned Tokyo 2020’s one-year postponement, Bach and his colleagues are going to have to switch focus to Beijing and the equally complex, yet wholly different, challenges it presents as soon as the Tokyo Cauldron is extinguished.

This when they have every right to be utterly exhausted after the impossibly taxing 18 months they have just lived through.

To be frank though, the next six months could see US-China tensions ratchet up (or, just conceivably, down) on pretexts so wide-ranging and unpredictable that the IOC would be largely powerless to do anything about it even if Bach and his underlings were fresh as daisies.

To give just one possible flashpoint, a vast factory - the size of 22 football pitches - that will make the world’s most advanced computer chips is expected to begin mass production next year.

Where do you suppose this technological marvel is located? Would you believe, Taiwan.

How things go between now and next March may also have profound internal IOC ramifications.

Beijing 2022 could be important in any ambitions that Juan Antonio Samaranch has to be the next IOC President ©Getty Images
Beijing 2022 could be important in any ambitions that Juan Antonio Samaranch has to be the next IOC President ©Getty Images

Juan Antonio Samaranch, son of the most influential IOC President since Pierre de Coubertin himself, is chair of the Beijing 2022 Coordination Commission.

Aged 61, he is also a possible candidate to succeed Bach, if the German steps down in 2025, as currently scheduled.

Beijing 2022 may well be critical to any such ambition Samaranch might entertain.

Should the event be subject to a widely observed diplomatic, or even athletes’, boycott and embarrass China’s strongman-President Xi Jinping, or even be severely afflicted by COVID-19, it would probably damage his prospects.

If, however, it goes off well, with a good turnout of VIPs, multinational crowds appreciating some of the country’s shiny new infrastructure and enthusiastic locals heading to rinks and pistes to try out the showcased disciplines and provide a major lift to the winter sports industry, it would amount to a jaunty feather in his cap.

The Spaniard would probably need the support of Beijing and Moscow, where his father served in the 1970s as Spanish Ambassador, to emerge as a really formidable candidate for the top job.

It is destined to be a tense six months, but, if I may coin a phrase, the light at the end of the tunnel for the IOC is that if they can somehow navigate their way to March 2022 without one of several sets of wheels falling off, the political outlook should start to become much more benign.

The hosts of the next five summer and winter Olympic Games after that, stretching through until 2032 are France, Italy, United States, unknown and Australia.

In other words, post-Beijing, there is nary a seriously controversial national leader in sight - provided, that is, the French can refrain from electing Marine Le Pen, and the Americans from re-electing Donald Trump.