What is quite possibly the most contentious Olympic Games since the Cold War, has begun in China today, as some 2,900 athletes from over 90 countries gather in Beijing for the opening of the 2022 Winter Games.

Various factors make this an Olympics of note. Perhaps the most harmless quirk is that athletes will be competing almost entirely on artificial snow for the first time.

It will also be the second Olympics to unfold during strict Covid regulations, as China continues to push a zero-Covid approach. Tickets have not been sold to the general public and foreign fans are banned entirely. Chinese spectators comprise exclusively of members of the ruling Communist Party and staff from government-controlled companies.

Foreign athletes, coaches and press have all been placed inside strictly managed “bubbles” and segregated from locals. They will only be allowed to visit designated Olympic venues using special transportation that keeps them separate from Beijing’s 21.5 million citizens. 

The health of athletes will be monitored daily via an app created specifically for the Games. Trust in the host nation is so low that many Western countries have urged their athletes to bring burner phones. 

Geopolitical dynamics have changed dramatically since the last time China hosted the Games. The 2008 Summer Olympics, attended by the likes of George W Bush, marked China’s “coming out” as a global superpower. 

This time round, the tone has distinctly soured. The spectacle comes at a time of intense criticism of China over human rights abuses, with countless Western powers boycotting the opening ceremony. 

Critics are calling it “the genocide games”, a reference to atrocities against its Uyghur minority that China still denies committing. The boycott is also a protest against the crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms, China’s treatment of Tibetans and most recently, the disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. 

A boycott won’t prevent athletes from those countries attending the Games, but it does mean that dozens of countries – including the US, UK, Canada, Australia – have decided against sending diplomats to the opening ceremony. Delhi has taken similar last-minute action after Beijing chose to place a Chinese soldier injured in a 2020 border clash with India on its Olympic torch relay. 

Boycotts aren’t new to the Olympics but this is the most significant to have been staged since the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. 

Speaking of Moscow, one world leader who did not boycott, and who featured prominently at the opening ceremony, was Vladimir Putin. Hours before, he received a warm greeting from President Xi Jinping. Tim Marshall has more on this.

Politics aside, it would be remiss not to mention the sport. 

Norway is a country to keep an eye on – generally considered the global supernation of winter sport. The Netherlands, meanwhile, is likely to clean up on long-track speed-skating. The US and Canada are both solid all-rounders, while Scottish curlers could conjure up some British pride. 

China itself isn’t a power renowned for its winter sports. But vast financial investment in sporting infrastructure over recent years will ensure it has a few tricks up its sleeve for the spectacle on home turf.