BEIJING — From the start, Chinese officials have insisted that the Olympics were not about politics, but rather about sports. Ultimately, controversy and scandal haunted them as well.
Despite China’s best efforts to continue the Winter Games in a celebratory spirit, Beijing 2022 unfolded as a joyless spectacle: constrained by a global health catastrophe, fraught with geopolitical tension, marred once again by doping charges and overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis. .
Athletes marched through Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing on Sunday evening to the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, capping the most controversial Olympic Games in years with a display of traditional Chinese knots, red lanterns and a final burst of fireworks. artifice that lit up a cold, clear night.
In the splendor of the closing ceremony, China was able to celebrate despite everything the holding of the Games on schedule. It’s a success, however, measured by the low bar of averting total disaster.
The International Olympic Committee, which has spent years dispelling doubts about choosing an authoritarian nation as host, has spent much of the past two weeks avoiding controversy in Beijing.
In addition to the troubling issues raised by the Valieva episode, he faced questions about the conditions of athletes who self-isolated after testing positive for Covid; on 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 meant to rise above them.
“What can you say but sigh,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. “Such an august occasion, designed to promote openness, sportsmanship and transnational solidarity, ended up being a highly policed, fragile, Potemkin-esque simulacrum of the Olympic ideal.”
The IOC has since overhauled the host city selection process, in part to avoid remaking a Faustian bargain like the one of seven years ago, when Beijing edged out Almaty, the former capital of another authoritarian country, the Kazakhstan.
During Sunday’s ceremony, Mayor Chen Jining of Beijing presented the Olympic flag to the mayors of two Italian cities, Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, which will host the Winter Olympics in 2026.
The next Summer Games will take place in Paris in 2024, Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane, Australia in 2032, places where it is hoped that human rights issues will not dominate preparations.
China has become the first nation to hold winter and summer editions in the same city, a feat billed as a triumph of Communist Party power. The country’s leader, Xi Jinping, attended the closing, like the opening 16 days ago, greeted with a roar matched only by the entry of the great Chinese team.
The 2008 Summer Olympics, held at many of the same venues in the Chinese capital, came as a call for respect after decades of poverty and political chaos.
For critics of China, these Games were more like a request.
Chinese officials have accused the United States and other countries of politicizing the Olympics, denouncing President Biden’s diplomatic boycott as “a farce”. And yet, China has also injected its own political elements.
Xi met Russian President Vladimir V. Putin just hours before the opening ceremony, a show of support for Western threats to punish Moscow if its forces invade Ukraine.
China has also chosen as its Olympic torchbearer a soldier injured in a deadly border clash with India in 2020. The Olympic flame was lit by a cross-country skier from Xinjiang, the province that is experiencing a massive campaign of detention and re-education that the United States has called genocidal.
A Beijing Organizing Committee official warned participants not to break the Olympic Charter’s rule against making political statements. Another official violated it by reaffirming China’s claims to Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy, and denouncing criticism of its policies in Xinjiang as lies.
Those comments prompted Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, to issue a public rebuke of the hosts, albeit a moderate one. The committee’s general deference drew heavy criticism from Chinese critics, who said the Games were allowed to “wash the sport” of serious human rights abuses.
Through it all, the sport shone.
Norway, a nation of just five million people, repeated their extraordinary success at the Winter Olympics, topping the medal table with a record 16 gold medals and 37 medals overall. Eileen Gu, an 18-year-old skier from San Francisco who competed for China, became the star of the event.
Some athletes, focused on their sport first and foremost, hailed China’s preparations. Nick Baumgartner, the American snowboarding veteran who, along with Lindsey Jacobellis, won snowboard cross gold, described the mountain sites northwest of Beijing as “amazing”.
“I will say that out of the four Olympics I’ve been to, the manicure and the precision and beauty of everything is above and beyond,” he said after his victory in Zhangjiakou.
The events took place inside what organizers called a ‘closed loop‘ system that transformed hotels and venues into islands in an Olympic archipelago, separated from ordinary Chinese by fences and checkpoints. temporary. Everyone inside received a daily test for Covid.
As a tool of China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy, it worked. Only a few athletes had to miss their competitions, and in the end there were days when no test came back positive. Many athletes accepted the measures. Some saw advantages in it.
“To be honest, you get a mouth swab every day and you have your own room,” said Meryeta O’Dine, a Canadian snowboarder and bronze medalist, referring to the decision not to assign roommates to minimize the close contacts. “Actually, that was kinda nice.”
After the final parade of the Closing Ceremony, the national teams lingered on the illuminated stadium floor, supposed to look like a patch of ice, as if they were eager to make the moment last a little longer.
Outside of the closed loop, the mood around Beijing was subdued. No foreign spectators were allowed, and only specially invited and selected Chinese visitors could attend.
“It’s a Winter Olympics that makes Chinese leaders happy,” said Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing. “It has nothing to do with ordinary people.”
The half-empty arenas rarely vibrated with excitement, although fans cheered for the Chinese athletes. The Chinese team won its most medal count at the Winter Olympics, winning nine gold medals and 15 overall.
It was perhaps the result of Mr. Xi’s promise to create a nation of more than 300 million winter sports enthusiasts in a country with little tradition of it.
IOC President Bach hailed the achievement on Sunday. “The positive legacy of these Olympic Games,” he said, “is assured.”
Outside of China, the Games are likely to have little effect on global perception. “Getting positive coverage, or at least less negative coverage, doesn’t necessarily translate into a transformation of public perceptions of China,” said Maria Repnikova, an expert at Georgia State University on China’s “soft power.” China.
Nils van der Poel, a Swedish speed skater who won two gold medals, said it was “terrible” to award the Olympics to China and referred to Nazi Germany hosting the Olympics. Games in 1936. “I think it is extremely irresponsible to give them to a country that violates human rights as flagrantly as the Chinese regime does,” he told a newspaper.
In 2008, China’s hosting of the Olympics actually led to more negative opinions 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 positive change to the country. This time, few people harbored such hopes.
Claire Crazy contributed to the research. Keith Bradsher contributed report.