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Jun 16, 2022
Zero-COVID kicks Xi's goal of hosting China World Cup out of play Sporting bodies unable to entrust nation to host flagship events Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Paralympics on March 4. © Reuters JOHN DUERDEN, Contributing writer SEOUL -- Beijing this year became the only world city to host both Olympics, but February's Winter Games looks set to be the last major international sporting event that China will stage for some time. China's pursuit of zero-COVID means the capital and Shanghai are still to return to normality after strict lockdowns, and travel in and out of the country is restricted. Sport, inevitably, has taken a back seat. A slew of postponements, cancellations and switches mean that major sporting organizations now have to weigh up when they can entrust the country with their flagship competitions. Soccer's FIFA Club World Cup was originally scheduled to be played in China last year, but the host was switched to Abu Dhabi in February. The East Asian Football Championships, set for July, have been moved to Japan, while Formula One's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai has not taken place since 2019. The Asian Games, a 40-sport event scheduled to take place in Hangzhou in September was postponed in May; and in the same month, China pulled out of hosting the 2023 Asian Cup, the continent's biggest soccer tournament. None of this is surprising to Beijing-based sports consultant Bi Yuan. "People were disappointed but there was nothing they could do," Bi told Nikkei Asia. "The general public has to submit to the reality: Sport is far less important than life." While the quadrennial Asian Games, which usually involves around 11,000 athletes from across the continent, is a huge event, China's relinquishing of the Asian Cup is more significant in terms of its sporting ambitions. The soccer tournament was due to take place in 10 cities across the country, with nine brand-new stadiums and the rebuilt iconic Beijing Worker's Stadium. It was meant to be the final step before China was expected to bid to host the World Cup in 2030 -- a long-term target of President Xi Jinping, who was keen to see China become a force in soccer after decades of underachievement in the world's most popular sport. Chinese President Xi Jinping, centre right, stands with former British Prime Minister David Cameron at Manchester City's football academy in England on Oct. 23, 2015. © Reuters "Zero-COVID comes first," Simon Chadwick, professor of the Geopolitical Economy of Sport at Emlyon Business School, told Nikkei Asia. "The mood music coming out of China right now is that hosting the 2030 World Cup is not even on the agenda. Priorities lay elsewhere now." For Chadwick, China's interest in getting back in the hosting game in the future will be a useful indicator of Beijing's attitude to COVID. "The point at which authorities bid for the World Cup or let the Asian Games go ahead will show that the government is confident that COVID has been completely eradicated or the threat level is so small that its dogged target of zero COVID is not really threatened." Bi describes the pulling out of the Asian Cup as the end of an era for Chinese sport. "I don't think the general public has any interest in hosting the World Cup at the moment," he said. "It depends on the attitude of the authorities -- there is no prospect of opening up within the next one or two years or hosting in the next five to 10 years." Even if China does open its arms to the rest of the world, the international sporting community may not immediately rush into the embrace. "China is probably seen as an unreliable partner by FIFA, AFC [Asian Football Confederation] and the IOC [International Olympic Committee] after relinquishing the string of tournaments and needs time to repair relationships," said Bi. An official at the AFC, which organizes the Asian Cup, said that the relationship with the China Football Association is currently nonexistent. As well as having to scramble around for a replacement for a 24-team event with a year to go, the AFC is unhappy at Chinese clubs withdrawing from the Asian Champions League, the continent's premier soccer club competition, earlier this year. FIFA is not usually short of potential World Cup bidders so it can look elsewhere in its decision for the 2030 and subsequent tournaments. The WTA, the women's tennis tour, has excluded China from its 2022 calendar after a standoff with the country over the well-being of retired tennis star Peng Shuai. But with the global economy going through a difficult time, China is too big a market to ignore in the long term. "Wherever there is money, sport will go," said Chadwick. "However, China has proved to be a far more complex market in which to do business than many initially imagined. My sense is, therefore, that for the foreseeable future the world of sport will be somewhat more cautious about embracing China."
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