Beijing’s safe but odd Olympics close

Ted Anthony |

Beijing’s COVID-19 bubble created a different atmosphere at the Olympics, but it worked.
Beijing’s COVID-19 bubble created a different atmosphere at the Olympics, but it worked.

There was a pile of figure-skating rubble created by Russian misbehaviour.

China celebrated a new champion – from California.

An ace American skier faltered and went home empty-handed, while her compatriot and the world’s most renowned snowboarder reached the end of the line.

It all happened inside a COVID-19 “closed loop”, strictly enforced by China’s authoritarian government.

The terrarium of a Winter Games that has been Beijing 2022 ended on Sunday, capping an unprecedented Asian Olympic trifecta and sending the planet’s most global sporting event off to the West for the foreseeable future.

The Games will not return to Asia until at least 2030.

It was weird. It was messy and, at the same time, somehow sterile.

It was controlled and calibrated in ways only Xi Jinping’s China could pull off.

And it was sequestered in a “bubble” that kept participants and the city around them – and, by extension, the sporadically watching world – at arm’s length.

By many mechanical measures, these Games were a success. They were, indeed, quite safe – albeit in the carefully modulated way that authoritarian governments always do best. The local volunteers, as is usually the case, were delightful, helpful and engaging.

“The Chinese people embraced these Games. Even in the closed loop, we could make this experience of excitement, of warmth, of hospitality and of friendliness,” IOC President Thomas Bach said on Friday.

There was snow, most of it fake, some of it real. The venues – many of them harvested from the 2008 Olympics – performed to expectations.

TV ratings were down, but streaming viewership was up: By Saturday, NBC had streamed 3.5 billion minutes from Beijing, compared to 2.2 billion in 2018.

There were no major unexpected logistical problems, only the ones created deliberately to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the country where it first emerged.

And stemmed it seemed to be. As of Saturday, the segregated system that effectively turned Beijing into two cities – one sequestered, one proceeding very much as normal – had produced only 463 positive tests among thousands of visitors entering the bubble since January 23. Not surprisingly, the state-controlled media loved this.

Look deeper, though, and a different story emerges about these Games.

Internationally, many critiqued them as the “authoritarian Olympics” and denounced the IOC for holding them in concert with a government accused of gross human rights violations.

Several Western governments boycotted by not sending any official delegations, although they sent athletes.

For its part, China denied such allegations, as it typically does, and featured a Uyghur as part of its slate of Olympic torch-carriers for the opening ceremony on February 4.

Then, of course, there were the Russians. And doping. Again.

The 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for using a banned heart medication. The result wasn’t announced until after she’d won gold as part of the team competition, even though the sample was taken weeks earlier.

She was cleared to compete in the individual discipline, with the ruling that as a minor she had protected status. But Valieva, heavily favoured to win, fell several times during her free skate routine, landing her fourth place and prompting a cold reception from her embattled coach, Eteri Tutberidze.

“Rather than giving her comfort, rather than to try to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance,” Bach said the next day.

Valieva’s Russian teammates took gold and silver, but on a night of drama that seemed destined to define these 2022 Games, even the winners were in tears.

The affair produced one possible legacy for Beijing – Valieva’s ordeal has inspired talk of raising the minimum age for Olympic skaters from 15 to 17 or 18.

Star American skier Mikaela Shiffrin also came to Beijing with high expectations, only to see them dashed when she failed to finish three races. She left without any medals.

The 2022 Games were controversial from the moment the IOC awarded them to Beijing, the frequently snowless capital of a country without much of a winter sports tradition.

Geopolitical tensions also shadowed these Games, with Russia’s buildup of troops along its border with Ukraine spurring fears of war in Europe even as the “Olympic Truce” supposedly kicked in.

The unease didn’t stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from showing up at the opening ceremony after meeting privately with Xi.

He waved from a luxury box to Russian athletes unable to compete under their nation’s flag as part of sanctions imposed for a massive state-sponsored doping operation uncovered after the 2014 Sochi Games that Putin hosted.

China swelled with pride, and its social media swelled with comments, as Eileen Gu, an America-born freestyle skier who chose to compete for China, her mother’s native country, became an international superstar.

Her three medals – two gold, one silver – set a record for her sport, and adulation for Gu literally broke the Chinese internet at one point, briefly crashing the servers of Sina Weibo, the massive Twitter-like network.

Snowboarding’s best-known rider, American Shaun White, called it a career after finishing fourth in the halfpipe in his fifth Olympics.

Norway, a country whose total population of 5 million is less than one half of one percent of the host country’s, led the medal count with a record haul of 16 gold.

These third straight Games in Asia, after PyeongChang in 2018 and the delayed Tokyo Summer Games six months ago, were also the second pandemic Games.

The 16,000 athletes and other international visitors who spent the entire time segregated from the host city behind tall chain-link fences couldn’t help but see the countless signs trumpeting unremitting iterations of the Olympic slogan: “Together for a Shared Future.”

But for much of these austere and distant Games, wintry not only in their weather but in their tenor itself, a post-pandemic shared future – the hug-and-harmony variety that the Olympics builds its entire multinational brand around – seemed all but out of reach.