BEIJING — A pile of figure skating rubble created by Russian misbehavior. A new Chinese champion — from California. An American ski ace who faltered and returned home empty-handed. The end of the Olympic line for the most renowned snowboarder in the world. All in an anti-COVID “closed loop” imposed by the authoritarian Chinese government.
The Winter Games terrarium that was Beijing 2022 came to an end on Sunday, capping an unprecedented Asian Olympic trifecta and sending the most global sporting event on the planet to the West for the foreseeable future, with no chance of come back to this corner of the world until at least 2030.
It was strange. It was messy and, at the same time, kind of sterile. It was controlled and calibrated in a way that only Xi Jinping’s China could pull off. And he was sequestered in a “bubble” that kept the participants and the city around them – and, by extension, the world watching them sporadically – at bay.
On Sunday evening, Xi and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach united in the transfer from Beijing to Milan-Cortina, site of the 2026 Winter Games. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” kicked off sending off a Western-flavored spectacle with Chinese characteristics as dancers with tiny flaming snowflakes glided through the stadium in a ceremony which, like the opening, was led by Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
Unlike the first pandemic Olympics in Tokyo last summer, which featured nearly empty seats at the opening and closing, a small but energetic crowd filled the seats at Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium. It was somewhat incongruous – a spectacle brimming with color, energy, excitement and even joy, the very things that couldn’t hold sway inside China’s COVID bubble.
“We welcome China as a winter sports country,” Bach said as he closed the Games. He called their organization “extraordinary” and thanked the Chinese people and their organizing committee for serving them “in such an excellent and safe manner”.
By many mechanical measures, these Games were a success. They were, in fact, quite safe – albeit in the carefully modulated, corporate-dressed way that authoritarian governments always do best. The local volunteers, as is usually the case, were charming, helpful and engaging, and they received high profile praise at the close.
There was snow – most fake, some real. The venues – many of which, such as the Bird’s Nest and the Aquatic Centre, harvested during the 2008 edition of the Beijing Olympics – have lived up to expectations. A new location, Big Air Shougang, carved out of a repurposed steel mill, was an alluring and daring mashup of winter wonderland and Rust Belt industrial landscape.
TV ratings were down, but streaming viewership was up: As of Saturday, NBC had broadcast 3.5 billion minutes from Beijing, compared to 2.2 billion in South Korea in 2018.
There have been no unexpected major logistical problems, only those created deliberately to stem the spread of COVID in the country where the coronavirus first emerged more than two years ago.
And it seemed to be. As of Saturday, the segregation system that has effectively turned Beijing into two cities – one sequestered, the other running quite normally – had produced just 463 positive tests among thousands of visitors entering the bubble since January 23. Unsurprisingly, the state-controlled media loved it.
“The success in isolating the event from the virus and keeping disruption to sporting events to a minimum also reflects the effectiveness and flexibility of China’s comprehensive zero COVID policies,” said pro-government newspaper Global Times, citing epidemiologists who say that “the COVID -19 prevention experience accumulated through these Olympics may also inspire Chinese cities to adjust their policies.
Look further, however, and a different story emerges about these Games.
Internationally, many criticized them as the “authoritarian Olympics” and denounced the IOC for staging them in concert with a government accused of gross human rights abuses against Uyghurs and Tibetans in its extreme west and harsh policies against Hong Kong’s democracy activists off its southeast coast. . Several Western governments boycotted by not sending any official delegations, although they did send athletes.
For its part, China has denied such allegations, as it usually does, and featured a Uyghur as part of its roster of Olympic torchbearers for the February 4 opening ceremony.
And then, of course, there were the Russians. And doping. Again.
15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva has tested positive for using a banned heart medication. The result was only announced by anti-doping officials after winning gold in the team competition, even though the sample had been taken weeks earlier.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed her to compete in the individual discipline, ruling that as a minor she had a protected status. But Valieva, though heavily favored to win, fell several times during her free skate routine, clinching her fourth place finish and prompting a cold reception from her embattled coach, Eteri Tutberidze.
“Rather than comforting her, rather than trying to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance,” Bach said the next day, proclaiming his outrage.
Valieva’s Russian teammates won gold and silver, but on a dramatic night, even the winners were in tears. The case produced a possible legacy for Beijing: Valieva’s ordeal inspired talk of raising the minimum age for Olympic skaters from 15 to 17 or 18.
American skier Mikaela Shiffrin also came to Beijing with high expectations, only to see them dashed when she failed to complete three races. She left without any medals. In one image to remember, television cameras captured Shiffrin sitting dejected in the snow with his head in his hands for several minutes.
The 2022 Games were controversial from the moment the IOC awarded them to Beijing, the often snowless capital of a country with no great tradition of winter sports. Almaty, Kazakhstan, was the only other city in play after four other bids were withdrawn due to lack of local support or high cost.
Geopolitical tensions have also clouded these Games, with the buildup of Russian troops along its border with Ukraine sparking fears of war in Europe even as the “Olympic truce” is believed to have begun. divided by conflict”, an apparent reference to a hug filmed between a Russian athlete and a Ukrainian athlete.
China swelled with pride and her social media swelled with comments, as Eileen Gu, a US-born freestyle skier who chose to compete for her mother’s native China, became an international superstar. His three medals – two gold, one silver – set a new record for his sport, and adulation for Gu literally broke the Chinese internet at one point, briefly crashing Sina Weibo’s servers. , the gigantic Twitter-like network.
And Chinese snowboarder Su Yiming, a former child actor, won over local audiences with a dominating gold medal in the big air.
Other highlights from Beijing 2022:
— With a near-perfect free skate and record-breaking short program, 22-year-old figure skater Nathan Chen became the first U.S. gold medalist in his sport since 2010.
— Snowboarding’s best-known surfer, Shaun White, qualified his career after finishing fourth in the halfpipe at his fifth Olympic Games, passing the torch to athletes like Su and the halfpipe gold medalist, Japanese Ayumu Hirano.
– American boarder and social media figure Chloe Kim won gold in the halfpipe for the second time, adding to her 2018 Pyeongchang medal.
— Norway, a country whose total population of 5 million is less than half a percent of that of the host country, led the medal count, as is often the case. Russia was second, followed by Germany, Canada and the United States.
These third consecutive Games in Asia, after Pyeongchang in 2018 and the Tokyo Summer Games delayed six months ago, were also the second pandemic Games. And the 16,000 athletes and other international visitors who spent the entire time away from the host city behind high chain-link fences couldn’t help but see the countless signs trumpeting relentless iterations of the Olympic slogan: “Together for a shared future”.
But for much of these Games stark and distant, wintry not just in their time but in their tenor itself, a shared post-pandemic future – the cuddly and harmonious variety around which the Olympics build their entire multinational brand – seemed almost out of reach.
AP reporter Brian Carovillano contributed to this report. Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and innovation at AP’s newsroom, is AP’s former director of news for Asia-Pacific and former news editor of the China and covers its seventh Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyte