North country corespondent who covered 2022 Olympics witnessed collision of politics and sport – NNY360

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Updated: March 8, 2022 @ 4:14 am
North country NPR corespondent Brian P. Mann says the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing were a complicated mixture of international politics, the pandemic and top-tier athletics. Photo courtesy of Brian P. Mann
Health care workers in full hazmat suits, like these at the Beijing airport, were a constant sight throughout the 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo courtesy of Brian P. Mann
A view of the scoreboard near an alpine ski hill in the mountains near Beijing. Photo courtesy of Brian P. Mann
Jonny Gustafson is the first Olympian from Massena in more than 50 years. Photo courtesy of Fred Zimny

North country NPR corespondent Brian P. Mann says the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing were a complicated mixture of international politics, the pandemic and top-tier athletics. Photo courtesy of Brian P. Mann
A view of the scoreboard near an alpine ski hill in the mountains near Beijing. Photo courtesy of Brian P. Mann
A north country National Public Radio corespondent who covered the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing says although the athletic performances were inspiring, they were set against a backdrop of authoritarian politics and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brian P. Mann was in Beijing for last month’s games. He is also a former Adirondack bureau chief for Canton-based North Country Public Radio.
He said being there in person “was definitely more complicated” than just covering two weeks of some of the best athletics in the world.
“It was an extraordinary experience to be there. It really was. I was glad to be there. It was a complicated thing. It wasn’t the big party that some had hoped for,” he said. “It was complicated, but it was still something where I got to have a front seat for some kind of remarkable events.”
Mr. Mann described his experience as “this weird collision of history” involving the COVID-19 pandemic and “the tension around Vladimir Putin and the Chinese government that was really present there.” He said the 2022 event “was not an Olympic games where you could put politics aside.”
“During the opening ceremony, I was sitting in this massive national stadium in Beijing, up there on this big screen are the leader of the Chinese communist party and the leader of China, also (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, and he was there (in the stadium). Sadly, these Olympic games were ushered in against the backdrop of these two authoritarian leaders,” he said. “(Putin) was really in, what we all knew … (were) initial stages of preparing for an invasion of Ukraine. That tension was there. The Olympic officials were being asked daily about this.”
Mr. Mann said the omnipresence of authoritarian leadership in some way defined the 2022 Olympics.
“Just the fact that the games were held in Beijing … I think the evidence is clear that they (the Chinese government) have committed extreme human rights violations,” he said. “There were questions of what the (International Olympic Committee) did or didn’t do to question those facts.”
He pointed out a moment during an event when a Chinese official at the podium “started spouting propaganda about the Chinese human rights violations.”
“This was supposed to be apolitical … here was a Chinese official being allowed to use the podium to express the Chinese party line,” he said.
Mr. Mann said a doping scandal involving a Russian athlete “swallowed a lot of my time.”
Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old Russian figure skater, tested positive for a heart medication that’s banned as a performance-enhancing substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Despite the positive drug test — which was from a December sample taken by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency but not confirmed until February — she was still allowed to compete.
“It revived debate about Russia’s role in international sport. It is well documented Russian teams have doped and used banned substances for years,” Mr. Mann said, adding that Russian officials have “deep historic ties” to the IOC.
Many Olympic commentators and fans talked about the disparity between Miss Valieva, who is white, using a banned performance-enhancing drug and still being allowed to compete, and American runner Sha’Carri Richardson, who is Black, testing positive for marijuana and not being allowed to compete in the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year.
Russia’s history of using performance-enhancing drugs led to Team Russia being banned from all 2022 competition. Russian athletes instead competed as the Russian Olympic Committee.
“It’s really impossible to set aside this complicated relationship with the IOC and Russia. It was impossible to set aside the political tension that existed,” Mr. Mann said. “U.S. Olympic officials have been dismayed by the position of the IOC allowing Russian athletes to compete.”
“It was a test of how the Olympics can operate in this world. We’ve seen the IOC evolve its posture” and allowed Russians to compete, he added. “(The IOC has) since pivoted. They think Russian athletes should be blocked from all international competition.”
In addition to the politics of the games, there were constant reminders of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Health care workers in full hazmat suits, like these at the Beijing airport, were a constant sight throughout the 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo courtesy of Brian P. Mann
“We were constantly surrounded by this COVID security bubble,” he said, adding that health workers in full-body hazmat suits were “just a permanent sight everywhere we went. People in full-body hazmat suits tested us, enforced the quarantine bubble around officials, around journalists.”
He said the COVID health measures worked.
“They successfully really kept the pandemic outside and there were few infections detected inside the quarantine bubble,” Mr. Mann said.
Despite the complicated political and social backdrop, he said his experience in Beijing “was not entirely joyless” and he “came away really inspired.”
Mr. Mann, who is 56 years old, said he was “inspired by these athletes in their 30s and 40s.”
He said he was impressed seeing the older athletes compete with “elements of skill that continue to improve through your 30s.”
“These are also athletes who are remarkably disciplined and careful and know how to compete and win in ways that were remarkable,” he said, adding that despite the “incredibly disruptive” COVID-19 pandemic, they still managed to show up and put on a world-class performance.
He said he was particularly impressed with north country luger Emily C. Sweeney, who lives and trains in the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid area.
“She had a devastating crash four years ago, really astonishingly violent crash,” Mr. Mann said. “She trained and came back and kind of reinvented herself as a sledder. She had amazing support from the Adirondack community.”
“The stories I came away with from Beijing were not so much about the people who medaled or won … in watching Emily slide again this year and compete, she crashed again and she struggled. I have to tell you, again, in the context of this time we’re living in when very few of us are living perfect lives, it was a moment of compromise.”
“You’ve damaged your body on an icy sled track in front of the whole world … it was an amazing thing to see,” he added — Sweeney “overcoming amazing fear.”
He said he also enjoyed seeing performances from freestyle skier and snowboarder Eileen Gu, an American-born 18-year-old who competed as part of Team China. She won several medals in those events, including a gold in freestyle skiing.
“She was one of the stars of these games and truly an amazing athlete,” Mr. Mann said.
He wasn’t able to see Massena luger Johnny Gustafson compete in person but did see him on a screen. It was difficult to see all the events he wanted to because everything was spread out over a huge area.
Jonny Gustafson is the first Olympian from Massena in more than 50 years. Photo courtesy of Fred Zimny
“Because of the pandemic rules, it was very difficult for us to be at all the different events. They were spread out so you had to take a bullet train to get to the core city and out to the mountains where all the venues are,” he said. “Whenever possible, I did watch the Adirondack and north country athletes and followed them in real interest and excitement. It is really cool to me that, it waxes and wanes a little bit, but I think it is remarkable the north country continues to have this Olympic culture. It’s kind of crazy how many athletes we have.”
He said another regional athlete who left an impression was Vermont cross-country skier Jessie Diggins.
“She’s really been a history-making athlete for the U.S. She won gold four years ago in Pyeongchang and this year, she won bronze and silver. She was one of the people you could really see by the end of the race, especially in the 30K endurance ski race, she absolutely poured everything out. She collapsed on the snow. It took her several minutes to be able to stand on her own,” Mr. Mann said. “It was one of the moments I was doing little fist pumps, I guess. It was really exciting to watch. She was honored with a medal ceremony at the closing ceremony, and it was really dramatic to see her leaping and celebrating. It was really fun to see how resilient and powerful she really is.”
All of the snow at Beijing was artificial, made by snow machines similar to the kind used at local ski hills like Titus Mountain. Despite the lack of natural snow, he said this year’s games were “bitter cold” and “one of the coldest Olympics we’ve seen in a long time. They were really facing pretty extreme conditions.”
“The Chinese did an amazing job, because they had the cold weather and they made a strong infrastructure, they manufactured really quality snow” that the athletes were satisfied with, he said. Artificially created snow is “increasingly the norm for a lot of these competitions … with climate change. These are venues that used to have reliable snow. That’s something people just can’t depend on anymore.”
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