China’s ambitions to be a global sporting hub took a heavy blow as the postponement of this year’s Asian Games further isolated a country already cut off by its hardline zero-Covid strategy.
The ruling Communist Party burnished its global image with an array of dazzling spectacles such as Beijing’s 2008 Summer and 2022 Winter Olympics, tennis and golf tournaments featuring all the world’s leading stars, and a showpiece annual Formula One grand prix.
The country also wants to host football’s World Cup.
But with the exception of this year’s Winter Olympics – held in a virus-secure, closed-loop Beijing bubble in February – the world’s most populous nation has cancelled or postponed almost all events since Covid emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.
The Olympic-sized Asian Games became the latest and biggest casualty on Friday as organisers decided to delay the multisports extravaganza “after carefully considering the pandemic situation and the size of the Games”.
No new dates have yet been given for the continental showpiece, originally scheduled for September 10 to 25 in the eastern city of Hangzhou with around 10,000 athletes due to compete across 40 sports.
The World University Games due to begin next month in Chengdu were also postponed for a second time citing “continued uncertainty over conditions”.
They were part of a blitz of announcements on Friday as the Asian Youth Games were also cancelled, having been delayed once already, and two prestigious Diamond League athletics meetings later this year in Shanghai and Shenzhen were shelved.
China’s costly and labour-intensive Winter Olympics bubble – when participants took daily Covid tests and were not allowed to mix with the public – now appears to have been the exception rather than the rule, experts said.
The Winter Olympic Games “were a huge political priority and nothing was going to stop them”, said Mark Dreyer, author of “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best”.
“The Asian Games are big, but not big enough,” he told AFP.
Beijing maintained strict Covid measures including snap lockdowns, mass testing and lengthy quarantines to extinguish outbreaks even as other countries learn to live with the virus.
Event calendars will remain in limbo as long as China sticks with zero-Covid, Dreyer said.
A revamped FIFA Club World Cup has already been suspended indefinitely, while big-ticket events such as Formula One’s Chinese Grand Prix and ATP Tour’s Shanghai Masters tennis have fallen by the wayside since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in early 2020.
The World Golf Championships HSBC-Champions tournament has not been held since 2019, when won by former world number one Rory McIlroy.
Stringent conditions leave any visiting athletes facing multiple Covid tests, difficult entry rules, reduced flights and potentially long isolation periods if they test positive.
Beijing has maintained that its Covid policy has saved lives, and one Chinese expert told AFP he saw “no problem” with the country continuing to bid for major tournaments.
“Once the pandemic has been brought under control, these events will be great spectacles,” he said, requesting anonymity to speak freely.
“It’s very good that the government controls outbreaks so strictly. If other countries don’t get it, that’s not our problem.”
But Dreyer argued uncertainty over Beijing’s Covid policy may force some to reconsider their China ties.
“Nowhere else has these restrictions,” he said.
“At what point do sporting bodies say: ‘Sorry, no, you can’t just keep postponing these events, because Covid’s not an excuse’?”
Global sports organisations have closely courted China in recent years, eyeing the revenue to be made from the country’s vast market.
Influential Chinese sports blogger Du Liyan said the notion that foreign sports capital would abandon the country was “not very realistic”.
“China’s market is still quite large, and its sports industry is still in its infancy and showing considerable growth,” he told AFP.
But foreign sports organisations have also faced headaches in China as political rows have diverted from the sporting agenda.
The Women’s Tennis Association pulled out of the country last year following sexual abuse claims by Peng Shuai against a former top Communist Party politician.
And the hugely popular NBA was frozen out after a team official tweeted support for Hong Kong democracy protesters in 2019.
Those problems are creating a “perfect storm” for disengagement with the Chinese market, according to Dreyer, adding: “China is seen increasingly as not worth the trouble.”