I’m not sure how, but in 2017, the Winter Olympics got my personal email. I was sitting in my office in Beijing when my inbox lit up with an invite to a mysterious location called the “Ice Cube.” I clicked and learned that the “Water Cube,” the big blue box of a building that hosted aquatic events at Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics, had received a winter rebrand. The invite contained little information other than to say that “either you or an appropriate colleague” must RSVP.
Two weeks later I walked through the halls of the Water Cube—I mean, Ice Cube, and gazed down into the pools where Michael Phelps had won eight gold medals. Then I noticed there was a red carpet, and I followed it toward a massive auditorium, lit up in wintry shades of indigo and blue. As I took a seat in the press section, I looked at my comrades in the media and recognized with pride that together, for one night, we were united in one thing: confusion.
None of us knew what we were there for. A gong went off, at which point a chorus of children entered the stage and arranged themselves in a rigid phalanx. I naively thought this signaled the beginning of the event; in actuality, they stood there silently for 40 more minutes, engaging in a staring contest with the press corps. After nearly an hour fidgeting silently in my seat, I was ready to leave. But then a speaker emerged onto the stage and welcomed us to the night’s event, which would be featuring 成龙. Cheng Long.
The stage light brightened, and Jackie Chan himself walked out under a banner that read “Rendezvous on Pure Ice and Snow.” Several dancers in white tutus and silvery sequined tops appeared behind him. A piano struck its opening chords, and Jackie Chan began singing a ballad called “Wake Up Winter.” He stood in front of a screen that played a slideshow of photos behind him, Ken Burns effect in use: snow on the Great Wall, snow on the mountains of Northern China, snow on the cheeks of delighted children.
I sat there, dumbstruck. At the time, I was the editor of a Beijing lifestyle magazine geared toward expats, and as such, I was not normally invited to the same events that The New York Times correspondents were. But inside, it was like my Twitter feed had sprung to life—every China correspondent in town was in the room. I’d somehow gotten onto the official Winter Olympics listserv, which at that point in time had taken me more seriously as a journalist than most others had. The Winter Olympics listserv looked at my roundups of best happy hours in Beijing and thought, “This girl harbors dreams of breaking news one day.” The Winter Olympics listserv was right. Also: Jackie Chan has a wonderful singing voice. As I listened to his rich baritone I realized that, from that moment on, no matter how clogged my inbox became, no matter how busy I got, I would open and read every last Winter Olympics email.
The Winter Olympics have written me off and on since then, but recently, they are emailing me at a pace that makes me worried for them. The day I sat down to write this, I woke up to three emails from the Winter Olympics, all sent within the same hour. Two of them used listserv technology properly; one of them displayed the individual email addresses of every China reporter from the AP to the Washington Post. All three of them said absolutely nothing of value.
I suppose there is a wide array of listservs in the Olympics Extended Universe, but I am on the best one: the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’s (BOCOG) Media and Communications Team Newsletter.
The BOCOG newsletter is relentless, badgering, and delusionally cheerful—but nothing has taught me more about the Winter Olympics and how they work. BOCOG and I are going on over four years of communication now, and together we’ve seen the dawn of several new technologies, the rise of a pandemic, and the openings and closings of two other Olympics. Ultimately, I have learned more than any layperson would ever need to know about the machinations behind Mass Sports Events.
There’s a particular flavor to Chinese Communist Party-approved sporting events, recently demonstrated by the saga of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. The Party was ruthless in its censoring of Peng’s sexual assault allegations against former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, and similarly meticulous in scrubbing out mentions of the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag, which was trending worldwide. But the effort was also slapdash, relying sometimes on easily identifiable bot accounts to spread Party messaging, and also requiring topics as broad as “tennis” to be censored online. A New York Times article about the campaign called it “at once sophisticated and clumsy,” which perfectly describes how Party shit has always felt to me.
Take BOCOG, for example. Its headquarters are in an imposing gray building in the city’s south side with circular windows that make it resemble a tall cylindrical cheese grater. Many of the links on “beijing2022.cn/en” are broken. It wasn’t until the year 2020 that they figured out how to use listserv technology properly. But, with a few exceptions, Western media reports tend to obscure that clumsiness. From the outside, the Party is usually portrayed as sleek totalitarian machinery. On a macro scale—I think, anyway—this is probably accurate. But it’s my experience that beneath all this sinister sheen is a layer of mundane incompetence. When you live in China, you become very aware that the Party is made up of people. Like all big systems of government, it gets broken down into wings and working groups and committees; as it flows downward, its messaging grows more distorted. When you live in Beijing, the Party communications that reach you occasionally feel like they’ve been garbled through a game of Telephone.
“That must be intentional,” a friend in Pittsburgh said when I mentioned BOCOG’s inability to properly maintain a listserv. “The CCP wouldn’t make that kind of mistake.” Sure, yeah, the Chinese Communist Party wouldn’t want to make that kind of mistake, but the thing is, sometimes the Party is messy. Sometimes it makes dumb PR moves. As we enter a month with added media attention on China, it’s useful to remember: The Party, like any terrible organization, has interns.
The next time BOCOG wrote to me after my evening with Jackie Chan, it was to celebrate, gleefully, the end of the 2018 Games in South Korea. The closing ceremony featured a handoff to Beijing 2022, which doubled as an apt reminder that Olympics are, in fact, full-ass propaganda. The ceremony “projected an image of China in a new era” and “used modern methods and thinking to display a rich mixture of Chinese cultural elements with winter sports.” It featured “24 performers made up of 22 roller skaters and 2 performers who each play a panda captain.” (BOCOG did not bother to explain the concept of “panda captain” any further.) In the performance, skaters flitted across video projections of China’s greatest hits: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, high-speed trains, tall buildings. For several seconds, the skaters glided over glamour shots of China’s most technically impressive bridges. “By the end of 2017, the number of highway bridges in China exceeded 800,000, and its high-speed railway bridges had a combined length of more than 10,000 kilometers,” BOCOG wrote. To which I replied, to myself, “OK!”
A couple months later, BOCOG wrote to say, “Anticipation Mounting Among Global Press for Beijing 2022.” Their only source was a guy named Vincent, who had covered the 2008 Beijing Olympics for AFP, saying that he was looking forward to coming back.
When Beijing won that bid, for the 2008 Games, floods of people poured into the streets in celebration. Tiananmen Square filled up with Beijingers waving Chinese flags and singing. It was a potent symbol—after decades of seclusion and turmoil, China had grown into a mighty economic powerhouse. It had reentered the world stage. By the time it won the bid for 2022, China was so obviously on the world stage that no one gave a shit. Back then, I was one of 50 or so people, a good chunk of whom were security guards, milling around the stadium at the announcement. When the bid went to Beijing, polite cheers erupted. A group of older women in matching T-shirts waved miniature flags. And then they stopped. The crowd dispersed. I heard one guy say, “Skiing is going to be so much more expensive now.”
BOCOG is trying its hardest to recreate a moment of national glory that has passed. China may not have citizens flooding its streets with flags this time around, but it does have BOCOG, virtually flag-waving in my inbox every other week. It’s the old high school quarterback, showing up to games in his letterman jacket, years after graduation. Remember how great I was?
In 2019, the emails continued at a measured pace of once per month. Occasionally I looked through the “To:” list, which was never updated, to see whose email addresses were already obsolete. People don’t stay in foreign correspondent posts long, and BOCOG was sending updates about the designs of Team China’s red tracksuits to reporters who’d since moved on to Singapore, to Kenya, to Mexico. It was sending emails to four people at my rival magazine, Time Out Beijing, and every single one of them had quit.
I had also left my magazine job that year, but because the Winter Olympics had my personal email, I continued to receive its updates. I like to think that one day, after everyone has changed jobs, I will be the only human being reading the BOCOG newsletter, and BOCOG won’t notice at all. Maybe I’ll still have the company of the only other recipient with a personal email on the list, which is a correspondent I follow on Twitter. (I relish in the private knowledge that one of the blue-check verifieds uses Hotmail.)
Meanwhile, BOCOG said the Deputy Mayor of Beijing, Zhang Jiandong, was reflecting “on the important role the media has played and will continue to play in China’s ongoing overall development and helping to ensure the successful hosting of an Olympic Games.” He wrote: “With less than three years to go until Beijing 2022, we look forward to working more closely with media organizations and receiving their valuable feedback when it comes to successfully achieving the tasks that lie ahead.” Two months later his team at BOCOG sent me a Happy New Year e-card that was so huge it caused my browser to crash.
In 2020, BOCOG sent me another e-card for Lunar New Year, which also crashed my browser. For the first time, I was wary of opening BOCOG emails, but I persevered. I’m glad I did, because shortly thereafter, we entered the era of things Progressing Smoothly Despite Pandemic. Each month’s newsletter contained joyous news of things that were, Despite Pandemic, Progressing Smoothly. Things Progressing Smoothly Despite Pandemic included: preparations, venue construction, test events, pandemic prevention and control measures, snow removal on area roads, a “forestry carbon sequestration project” (whatever that means), the National Sliding Centre’s test of its emergency plan for the International Luge Federation’s International Training Week, the International Luge Federation’s International Training Week, and many others. I did a Gmail search—the word “smooth” appears in most communications since 2020.
I did not progress smoothly in 2020. I was visiting home in Pennsylvania when COVID-19 broke out in China. Flights back were stopped. In the meantime, my residence permit expired, and China’s borders shut to anyone without one. As of the time of writing, I have been “visiting home” for 23 months, which I guess just means I live here. In December 2020, I tried to reverse my luck by responding to a BOCOG email with an inquiry about freelancer media passes to the Olympics. (Shooters shoot.) In my email, I stressed that I had been eagerly following BOCOG’s newsletter updates for more than two years. I, like Vincent, could feel my Anticipation Mounting for Beijing 2022. The Winter Olympics did not respond.
It’s probably for the best. Because now, one week out, the list of things BOCOG has not emailed me about is as long as the list of things it has: the U.S. diplomatic boycott, Omicron outbreaks in China, citywide COVID-19 lockdowns. It prefers I read about something like the newly named official Olympic Tile Suppliers (congrats to Hangzhou Nabel Ceramic Co. Ltd.!). As fresh tensions swirl around the Games, BOCOG messaging continues to exist in a fantasyland. Which I guess, if you think about it, is a lot like the Olympics.
Recently, the newsletter team fucked up. For an update about the National Sliding Centre it reverted to its old format, which meant I could once again see the names of everyone on their list. I can confirm that, as of the end of 2021, the names still had not been updated. As I scrolled through it occurred to me that I may actually be the only one reading.
Ultimately, this is why the BOCOG newsletter is comforting to me—just not in the way it intends. In the 2010s, living in China and writing about it meant spending a lot of time noticing the ways the propaganda machine was getting slicker, and the ways regular people were powerless against it. I saw the Party’s messaging grow more sophisticated and its control more complete. Because I love Beijing and many people in it, watching this all happen made me feel hopeless and sick. I still am hopeless and sick.
But every time BOCOG lights up my inbox, I get to hate-read one of their dumb little emails, and it feels good. It’s a reassurance, however fleeting, that the propaganda machine isn’t all slick. Not just yet.