By Tony Munroe and Muyu Xu
Beijing was set to close the curtain on a Winter Games that will be remembered for the extremes of its anti-COVID-19 measures and outrage over the doping scandal that enveloped 15-year-old Russian skating sensation Kamila Valieva.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was on hand for the closing ceremony at the Bird’s Nest stadium where the Olympic flag was handed to Milan-Cortina, as the second Games in six months to be deprived by COVID-19 of much of its festivity came to an end.
The Olympics were also stalked by politics, with several countries staging a diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights record, and the spectre of invasion of Ukraine by Russia, with President Vladimir Putin attending the opening ceremony in a show of solidarity against the West with Xi.
Still, China was spared any embarrassing protests by competitors over its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority or anything else, and the thousands of foreign journalists on hand were stuck inside the closed-loop, unable to report more widely.
The tightly sealed bubble prevented the spread of the novel coronavirus at the Olympics or into the community, vindicating a zero-COVID policy that has isolated China inside what are nearly closed borders that shows no sign of easing.
However, many athletes had their Olympic dreams dashed by positive tests that prevented them from competing.
Dozens saw their preparations disrupted by enforced isolation, leading team officials and athletes to demand improved conditions including better food, internet, training equipment and more space.
On the snow, 18-year-old San Francisco-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu won two golds and a silver for host nation China, delivering on the hype generated by her dozens of endorsement deals and making her the youthful face of the Games even as her success raised questions about nationality and privilege.
Gu’s performance is a boon for the development of snow sports in China. Xi hopes that hosting the Games will get 300 million people involved in winter sports.
The closing ceremony began with the Olympic flame suspended inside a giant snowflake lowered to the floor of the stadium, as children held snowflake-shaped lanterns, to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach was seated next to Xi, with space between them.
On one side of the stadium, which was roughly half full, red Chinese lanterns projected a glow as Olympic athletes entered en masse to “Ode to Joy”, dancing and taking selfies. The Chinese team drew cheers that grew louder when Gu was shown on-screen.
Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, joined in the applause, and Xi was later shown looking through binoculars at the spectacle of athletes walking across the floor of the vast stadium.
Later, a group of 365 people bade farewell with a glowing green willow twig, enacting a traditional Chinese gesture of regret over parting.
China’s nine gold medals exceeded expectations, putting it in third place, while winter sports powerhouse Norway, with a population of just 5.5 million, won a record 16.
While Xi delivered a spectacle for a Chinese public that was unable to attend – tickets were not sold and many connected with the Olympics through the unexpected mania for panda mascot Bing Dwen Dwen – millions of Americans tuned out, with TV viewership reported to be far lower than during the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
The biggest legacy of the Beijing Olympics will be the controversy surrounding Valieva, who stumbled under pressure in her final skate, and the outrage directed towards Russian sports officials and the country’s history of doping, which meant its athletes could not compete under Russia’s flag.
Valieva failed a doping test at her national championships in December but the result was only revealed on Feb. 8, a day after she had helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win the team event.
She was nonetheless allowed to participate in the singles but finished fourth, her error-strewn performance prompting a harsh reaction from her coach Eteri Tutberidze that the IOC’s Bach later said he found “chilling”.
The saga, which dominated the Games, reopened debate over the suitability of the Olympic environment for minors and prompted the world’s top anti-doping authority to investigate Valieva’s entourage.
The Beijing Games, which began on Feb. 4, were the second Olympics of the COVID-19 era, taking place on time but without paying spectators, after the Tokyo Summer Games were delayed by a year.
Before Milan-Cortina stage the Winter Games in 2026, Paris hosts the Summer Games, with Tony Estanguet, president of Paris 2024, promising an Olympic “light at the end of the tunnel”.