Philip Barker

From the window of our hotel, it is just possible to see the Olympic Cauldron which was so memorably lit by the celebrated Chinese gymnast Li Ning at the Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony.

To this day, there are reminders of those Olympic Games all round this city.

For those of us who were here 14 years ago, the opportunity to revisit a city which had changed so much in the intervening years provided an added fascination at these 2022 Games.

The impact of the pandemic has of course, made these Games like no other.

From the moment we arrived to be greeted by airport staff in full hazmat suits, worn even by those guiding us to the buses, the contrasts have been coming thick and fast.

Everyone is tested every day and in the hotel. 

The tests are conducted in the open air. 

Testing staff sit in a little cubicle behind a perspex screen from where they hand out the tube and then a simple mouth swab is taken.

The whole process takes less than 20 seconds and has been conducted with efficiency and courtesy.

They are big on slogans here, "Safe Splendid Games" is the mantra organisers have applied to the COVID measures.

The other important one is "Together for a Shared Future." 

This could be interpreted as a political statement as many minorities have complained that their individuality is often compromised here.

Beijing is a fascinating city as many who visited in 2008 will testify.

Personal protection has been taken to a new level during Beijing 2022 ©ITG
Personal protection has been taken to a new level during Beijing 2022 ©ITG

The big difference in 2022 is that it will be impossible for visitors to explore the city.

All visitors must remain inside the "bio bubble" known as the "closed loop system."

This has meant that a network of buses ferries all of us from the hotel to the media centre and from there to each venue, even those within sight and walking distance.

In 2008 it was mostly possible to walk across the park to the Birds Nest, which is more formally known as the National Stadium.

On Friday February 4, it became the first to host the Opening Ceremony of both a summer and winter Games.

That the temperature was about thirty degrees colder was perhaps also a reflection of the political climate which seemed to have become distinctly chillier.

In 2008, United States President George W Bush was amongst the head of States who attended and he happily posed with US flagbearer Lopez Lomong.

It was very different this time. 

US President Joe Biden was amongst those to stay away to register their disagreement with the host nation’s human rights record.

Many felt that the choice of Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang as one of the final Torchbearers was heavily politicised.

The receptacle in which the Flame was placed was unlike any in which it had previously burned.

For the first time, an Olympic Torch was placed in a rotating "snowflake."

Within a few minutes, a Beijing 2022 volunteer placed it in an identical mobile outside.

This has rotated in the shadow of the stadium all week.

Much of the build-up to the Games had centred on the possibility of protests taking place against the host nation and there had been extensive discussion on Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.

Performances at the medal plaza featured images celebrating Chinese New Year ©ITG
Performances at the medal plaza featured images celebrating Chinese New Year ©ITG

It had been the same story in 2008 when the then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge had warned against protesting in Olympic arenas or on the podium.

As it happened in 2022 the first flashpoint was with a flash card.

Last night Ukrainian skeleton competitor Vladyslav Heraskevych held up a card saying "No War in Ukraine." 

Many will feel that such a message was every bit as consistent with Olympic values as the call made by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch and organising chief Gerhard Heiberg for the fighting to cease in Sarajevo at the Lillehammer 1994 Opening Ceremony.

In 2008 it was possible to visit the downtown Beijing including the Games superstore in Wangfujing not far from the Forbidden City.

Both destinations are sadly forbidden to all visitors this time.

The Opening Ceremony prompted a frenzied hunt for Bing Dwen Dwen mascots.

There were reports of people camping outside the stores in sub zero temperatures and stocks selling out in just a few hours.

I may be wrong, but I don’t recall quite the same level of enthusiasm for the coloured Fuwa or Friendlies in 2008.

Then again they weren’t pandas.

Online e-commerce was in its infancy in 2008, but now you can even order a special "Spring Festival" version of Bing Dwen Dwen through the Tmall portal.

There is one surefire way of making sure you take home a mascot.

Quite simple really, all you have to do is win an Olympic medal. 

A few lucky Beijingers have been allowed to come and watch the sport that is on offer.

We’re told that they have to take tests before and after attending events.

For most other people, the closest they will get is to watch the whole thing on television or on the various streaming services.

Mascots of Bing Dwen Dwen have been highly prized since the Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
Mascots of Bing Dwen Dwen have been highly prized since the Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

It was in Beijing 2008 that this became a viable proposition.

This week the broadcasters have not ceased to tell us that viewers no longer sit down to watch an event live in quite the same way.

Even so, official television figures for the Opening Ceremony of the Games claimed a domestic audience of 316 million, roughly the number of people the IOC insist are becoming enthusiastic about winter sport in China.

In 2008, IOC figures claimed 739 million people in China watched at least one minute of the Opening Ceremony.

How you go about collecting such data is mind boggling.

Over the last two weeks, the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year celebrations have been taking place. 

Everywhere has been festooned with traditional lanterns to mark the occasion.

The city also has the Olympic "look".

Banners bearing the official logo of the Games line the "Olympic Green" .

Back in 2008, the predominant colours were orange and red.

Here it is mostly a blue background.

One thing that certainly was not there in 2008 was the medals plaza. 

At the Summer Games, the presentations are generally made in the stadium or venue immediately after an event.

It is only at the Winter Games that the awarding of medals takes place in the evening.

There are plazas in Zhangjiakou and in Beijing. 

The latter stands in the shadow of the Birds Nest which is lit up in red light each evening.