Beijing Warms Up to the 2022 Winter Olympics

CBC hosts Andi Petrillo and Scott Russell preview a second COVID-era Olympics, as Canada's finest head to Beijing

CBC hosts Andi Petrillo and Scott Russell preview a second COVID-era Olympics, as Canada’s finest head to Beijing

The Winter Olympics officially begin on February 4th, but the excitement for an event that normally attracts thousands of live spectators is this time offset by the realities of just keeping these second pandemic-addled Games on track.

Longtime CBC Olympics sportscaster Andi Petrillo saw the writing on the wall for another atypical Games soon after the Summer Olympics wrapped in August of 2021. “About a month or two after the Tokyo Olympics, I was doing interviews with a lot of winter athletes, and they had already been warned that there weren’t going to be any spectators, family and friends [in Beijing],” says Petrillo. “It was going to be very much business: get into your competition, get out.”

And that’s if you’re even lucky enough to make it to the competition without testing positive for Omicron, which is currently ripping through the global population. “I’m just holding my breath for these athletes. I really feel for them,” she explains. “Talking to them, you can see the fear in their eyes. I can’t imagine having to live essentially a month-and-a-half with that type of anxiety.”

For journalists trying to prep their coverage, the threat of athletes having to drop out poses its own unique challenge. Additionally, there are fewer boots on the ground, forcing correspondents to report on events from a vast distance. “Not being on-site is a challenge in being able to tell the story of the Canadian athletes,” admits fellow CBC host Scott Russell, who is set to cover his 16th Olympics. “We will have a crew on the ground in Beijing, but we will have a smaller footprint than we would have liked. And the access to the athletes is not optimal. It’s a closed-loop management system, where the athletes basically will be travelling between the [Olympic Village] and their competition venue and back again. But through technology, we can still speak with them, albeit virtually.”

Thankfully, the most important aspect of the Games should go unaffected, as the focus for most viewers will be on the sporting events themselves. “I think that’s what most Canadians love to see anyway—Canadian athletes succeeding at what they do,” says Russell. “We can capture every move they make in terms of competition, and I think that’s what people really want to get engaged with.”

There is no doubt in either Russell’s or Petrillo’s minds which sports Canadian viewers are most excited to tune in to, should the nation’s greatest hopes hit the ground without incident. “We love our hockey,” says Petrillo, who nevertheless has queries: “What is this roster, especially on the men’s side, going to look like now, without NHL players? Can they defeat the team from Russia, who are now considered the favourites? And can the Canadian women avenge their 2018 loss to the Americans?”

Russell concurs that, this year, women’s hockey is a real nailbiter. “The Canadians were able to win the World Championship in 2021 for the first time in nine years, when Marie-Philip Poulin scored that goal. She has the ability to decide things. I think that story will be really interesting, as they try to reclaim the gold medal, which they lost in dramatic fashion in PyeongChang in 2018, in overtime.”

Beyond that, these two sportscasters expect great things from pretty much any Canadian hitting the slopes. “We’ve been on just about every single podium, whether it’s ski cross, snowboard cross, big air slope style. Can we keep that up?” wonders Petrillo. Her colleague adds: “I think the story of Mikaël Kingsbury, who is the mogul skier Olympic champion for Canada, will be really interesting. He’s the most prolific freestyle skier in the history of the sport,” says Russell. “Speaking to him, he is a driven individual who has come back from major injury during the pandemic season. That’s a great story.”

In figure skating, the 2018 Olympics marked a golden age for Canada. But the entire team, with the exception of two athletes, has since retired. “We’re better than any other nation in figure skating at the Games, but this is a brand-new team,” Russell explains. “The holdovers are Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier in ice dance, and they now have the task of continuing that great Canadian ice dance tradition. They were World Championship bronze medallists and have been together for more than a decade. They’re tremendous skaters and I’m really looking forward to their performances.”

With many questioning why we should care about sports when the world is in crisis (again), Petrillo understands, but also knows that a little Olympic magic can go a long way. “Does it heal all wounds? No. But does it ease pain? Yes. All you have to do is look at the numbers, right? There’s a pull to sports that oftentimes can be difficult to explain. It’s human nature to look at the negative in things or be the naysayer. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a Canadian who represents your country, and they’re doing something extraordinary, and you can’t look away.” 

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics airs Saturday to Friday on CBC