Winter Olympics Open Amid Walls, Masks and Clouds of Disinfectant

There will surely be wonders, because there always are at an Olympic Games. Someone — quite possibly someone you have never heard of — will dazzle with speed or grace or ferocity or pluck.

But there is a certain sadness to the Beijing Winter Games, which officially open on Friday. Be it politics or policy or pandemic, the Olympics have become subdued in the very city that, in 2008, made them into a wondrous, ambitious and abiding spectacle.

Thousands of visitors from all corners of the world have descended on China’s sprawling capital and into its surrounding mountains, cutting daily through the heart of the city with no way to touch or taste or interact with it. Residents of Beijing peer at their Olympic guests through the towering fences that ring every venue and through the glass windows of the private buses shuttling them from place to place.

For the second time in a year, the Olympics will serve mostly as a soundstage for sports: active and emotional and exciting inside the ropes, consumed by viewers locked out a world away, watched by sparse crowds in nearly silent stands. That was the case when women’s hockey opened on Thursday, at least, when a carefully selected set of spectators was invited in to see Canada and Switzerland play. They did not clap. They did not cheer. Many, it seemed, did not always even follow the puck.

The so-called bubble, a region the size of a small city surrounding the Olympic buildings, is designed to contain a deadly pathogen, one that kept all but selected spectators away. There are rumblings of protests, and fears over how a proud, defiant China might face them. There is a sobering landscape of barbed wire and disinfecting mist, and of a city disconnected from another treasured turn on the world’s stage. There is a mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, but exactly who the giant panda is there to entertain isn’t always obvious.

Perhaps that will change on Saturday. The first medals will come this weekend. The Olympics, whatever they will be, are here.

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