BEIJING – All the while, Chinese officials insisted that the Olympics were not about politics, but rather about sports. In the end, controversy and scandal also haunted them.
For all of China’s efforts to continue the Winter Games with a festive vibe, Beijing 2022 unfolded as a joyless spectacle: narrowed by a global health catastrophe, filled with geopolitical tensions, again tainted by allegations of doping and overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.
Athletes marched into Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing on Sunday night to the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and concluded most controversial Olympics for years with a display of traditional Chinese knots, red lanterns and a final eruption of fireworks that lit up a cold, clear night.
In the midst of the pompousness of the closing ceremony, China was, after all, able to celebrate the settlement of the Games according to plan. However, it is a success, measured on the low bar to avoid total disaster.
The International Olympic Committee, which spent years averting doubts about choosing an authoritarian nation to host, spent much of the last two weeks avoiding controversy in Beijing.
In addition to troubling issues raised by the Valieva episode, it faced questions about the conditions of athletes who isolated themselves after testing positive for Covid; around The fate of Peng Shuai, the tennis player and former Olympian who accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault; about the inevitable injection of politics into an event that was to rise above them.
“What can you say except pull a sigh,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center for US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. “Such a festival, designed to promote openness, good sportsmanship and transnational solidarity, ended up being a highly politicized, crisp, Potemkin-like simulacrum of the Olympic ideal.”
End of the games
The IOC has since revised selection process for host cities, in part to avoid the chance of once again making a Faustian trade like the one seven years ago when Beijing knocked out Almaty, the former capital of another authoritarian nation, Kazakhstan.
During Sunday’s ceremony, Beijing Mayor Chen Jining presented the Olympic flag to the mayors of two Italian cities, Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, which will host the 2026 Winter Olympics.
The next summer games will be in Paris in 2024, in Los Angeles in 2028 and in Brisbane, Australia, in 2032 – places where it is hoped that human rights issues will not dominate the preparations.
China became the first nation to organize winter and summer editions in the same city, a feat that was hailed as a triumph for the power of the Communist Party. The country’s leader, Xi Jinping, attended the closing, as he did the opening 16 days ago, greeted by a roar that was only equal when the large Chinese team entered.
The 2008 Summer Olympics, which took place in many of the same places in the Chinese capital, felt at the time like an appeal for respect after decades of poverty and political chaos.
For China’s critics, these games instead felt like a demand for it.
Chinese officials accused the United States and other nations of politicizing the Olympics and condemned President Biden’s diplomatic boycott as “a farce.” And yet China also added its own political elements.
Xi met with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin just hours before the opening ceremony, an expression of support facing Western threats to punish Moscow if its forces invade Ukraine.
China also chose as an Olympic torchbearer a soldier wounded in a deadly border collision with India in 2020. The Olympic flame was lit by one cross-country skier from Xinjiangthe province experiences a mass imprisonment and re-education campaign which the United States has called genocide.
An official of the Beijing Organizing Committee warned participants not to violate the rule of the Olympic Charter against political statements. Another official violated it by reiterating China’s claims about Taiwan, the autonomous island democracy, and condemning criticism of its policies in Xinjiang as a lie.
These comments prompted Thomas Bach, chairman of the International Olympic Committee, to broadcast them a public reprimand of the hosts, though mild. The committee’s overall respect prompted fiery criticism from China’s critics, who said the games were allowed to “sport-wash” serious violations of fundamental rights.
Through it all, the sport shone through.
Norway, a nation of only five million people, repeated it extraordinary success in the Winter Olympics and topped the medal table with 16 gold, a record and 37 medals overall. Eileen Gu, an 18-year-old San Francisco skier who competed for China, stayed the breakout star of the event.
Some athletes who focused primarily on their sport praised China’s preparations. Nick Baumgartnerthe veteran American snowboarder who with Lindsey Jacobelliswon a gold medal in snowboardcross, describing mountain resorts northwest of Beijing as “amazing”.
“I would say that out of the four Olympics I have been to, the manicure and how precise and beautiful everything is, is beyond that,” he said after his victory race in Zhangjiakou.
The events unfolded inside what organizers called a “closed loop” system that turned hotels and venues into islands in an Olympic archipelago, separated from ordinary Chinese by temporary fences and checkpoints. Everyone inside received a daily test for Covid.
As a tool for China “nul Covid“Politics, it worked. Only a few athletes had to miss their competitions, and by the end there were days when not a single test came back positive. Many athletes accepted the measures. Some so the upside in them.
“To be honest, you get a mouthpiece every day and you get your own bedroom,” said Meryeta O’Dine, a Canadian snowboarder and winner of bronze medals, referring to the decision not to assign roommates to minimize close contacts. “It’s actually been pretty sweet.”
After the final parade for the closing ceremony, the national teams lingered on the stadium’s lit floor, which was supposed to look like an iceberg, as if they were eager to make the moment last a little longer.
Outside the closed loop, the mood around Beijing was subdued. No foreign spectators were allowed, and only specially invited and screened Chinese visitors could attend.
“It’s a Winter Olympics that makes China’s leadership happy,” said Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing. “It has nothing to do with ordinary people.”
The half-empty arenas rarely pulsated with excitement, although fans cheered on the Chinese athletes. The Chinese team had its best medal row in a Winter Olympics and won nine gold medals and 15 overall.
It was perhaps a result of Mr Xi’s promise to create a nation of more than 300 million winter sports enthusiasts in a country with little tradition for them.
Sir. Bach, the IOC president, praised this achievement on Sunday. “The positive legacy of these Olympics,” he said, “is assured.”
Outside of China, the Games are likely to have little effect on worldview. “Getting some positive coverage, or at least less negative coverage, does not necessarily translate into transforming public perceptions of China,” said Maria Repnikova, an expert at Georgia State University in China’s “soft power.”
Nils van der Poel, a Swedish speedskater who won two gold medals, said it was “terrible” to award the Olympics to China, and referred to Nazi Germany hosting the 1936 Games. “I think it is extremely irresponsible to give it to a country that violates human rights as blatantly as the Chinese regime does, ”he said told a newspaper.
In 2008, China’s holding of the Olympics actually led to more negative views of the country, according to global opinion polls, as international attention shed light on the nature of the political system.
At the time, many wondered if being an Olympic host would bring about positive change in the country. This time, few people have nurtured such hopes.
Claire Fu contributed research. Keith Bradsher contributed with reporting.