Controversial Beijing Olympics reach finish line

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics concluded on Sunday, ending one of the most complicated and controversial summer-winter cycles in the history of the Games.

The last gold medal of the 16-day event was won by Finland, which beat the Russian Olympic Committee in the men’s ice hockey final. Norway topped the medal table with 37 overall, including a record 16 golds, while Japan had its best-ever showing at a Winter Games in terms of total medals, reaching the podium 18 times.

“The athletes are responding with outstanding performances and with, from my point of view, unprecedented Olympic spirit,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said on Friday. “The intensity of this Olympic experience was above and beyond what I have experienced before in Olympic Games.”

The decision to host these Games in a region that does not normally see significant snowfall is one of many moves that have been subject to intense scrutiny since July 2015, when Beijing beat Kazakhstan’s Almaty to become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

China’s notorious human rights record, including its widespread suppression of free speech, a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and accusations of genocide against the minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang province, pushed several nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, to declare a diplomatic boycott of the Games.

Fearing repercussions from Chinese officials, athletes were also urged to avoid making statements on human rights or political issues that could be considered a violation of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which bans any “kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.” Several delegations further asked athletes to leave personal electronic devices at home, fearing the potential for cyberespionage.

“We are very concerned with protecting human rights within our sphere, within the Olympic Games and within the staging of the Olympic Games and protecting the rights of the athletes and all participants of the Olympic Games,” IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said.

“We leave it to other organizations such as the United Nations and international organizations to look at aspects outside of what is happening here.”

A lack of political statements by athletes left China free to make statements of its own. The opening ceremony controversially featured Uyghur skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang lighting the Olympic cauldron at Beijing’s National Stadium, while organizing committee spokesperson Yan Jiarong declared Thursday that “Taiwan is an indivisible part of China” during a daily press briefing.

The Olympic cauldron, designed in the shape of a snowflake, is displayed outside Beijing's National Stadium following the Feb. 4 opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI
The Olympic cauldron, designed in the shape of a snowflake, is displayed outside Beijing’s National Stadium following the Feb. 4 opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI

The environmental impact of these Games drew further scrutiny.

Although Beijing drew praise for its repurposing of venues from the 2008 Summer Games — including the conversion of the National Aquatics Center into a curling rink — others questioned the resources needed to create 1.2 million cubic meters of artificial snow for skiing and snowboarding venues in Zhangjiakou, located some 170 kilometers from Beijing.

But the biggest cloud looming over Beijing 2022 was that of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to impact daily life more than two years since its initial outbreak was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Less than a year removed from the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed a year and held in a spectator-free “bubble” to reduce the risk of infections, Chinese officials enacted a restrictive but effective “closed loop” system that sealed Beijing participants off completely from the public.

Athletes, coaches, media representatives, organizers and volunteers alike underwent daily PCR tests for the entirety of their stays, traveling only between their lodgings, media centers and competition venues.

Yet with nearly all participants vaccinated against the coronavirus and organizers boasting strong scientific knowledge of the easily transmitted omicron strain, athletes were able under some circumstances to train and compete even after testing positive.

“The pandemic has threatened our lives and has also … put two Games at high risk,” Bach said.

“I think what we (learned) is that in the Olympic movement, if we are united, then we can be extremely resilient.

“And this has been demonstrated by being able to organize two Olympic Games within six months under such conditions like the pandemic and now even under the threats of this fast-spreading omicron variant.”

Participants in the Beijing Olympics entered a secure
Participants in the Beijing Olympics entered a secure “closed loop,” where they were tested daily and completely isolated from the general population. | REUTERS

Another change from Tokyo was that a limited number of fans — numbering from the hundreds at most competition events to as many as 15,000 for the Feb. 4 opening ceremony — were allowed to enjoy the festivities throughout, although tickets were not sold to the general public and instead distributed through municipal governments and other groups.

Free from the pressure of hosting duties, Japan smashed its previous Winter Games high of 13 medals, achieved four years ago in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The last of Japan’s 18 came on Sunday morning when popular women’s curling team Loco Solare outdid its bronze from that tournament with silver as Great Britain won the final at the National Aquatics Center.

Japan’s winningest athlete was speedskater Miho Takagi, who set an Olympic record to win gold in the women’s 1,000 meters and captured silver in the 500, 1,500 and team pursuit, the latter alongside sister Nana Takagi and teammate Ayano Sato.

“This isn’t something that I could have done alone, I really feel strongly about this,” Miho Takagi said of her achievement in the 1,000. “It’s because of the team. It’s the strength of the team, that’s what this gold medal proves. It’s something we worked for all together. That brings me much joy.”

Miho Takagi set an Olympic record to win gold in the women's 1,000-meter speedskating final. | REUTERS
Miho Takagi set an Olympic record to win gold in the women’s 1,000-meter speedskating final. | REUTERS

Ski jumper Ryoyu Kobayashi ended a 24-year gold drought for Japan when he won the men’s individual normal hill event. He finished second on the large hill, while Sara Tanakashi failed to improve on her normal hill bronze in Pyeongchang, landing just off the podium.

The most dramatic gold for Japan undoubtedly went to 23-year-old snowboarder Ayumu Hirano, who rebounded from a controversially underscored second run to overtake Australia’s Scotty James and win the men’s halfpipe event with a triple cork that had never previously been landed at the Olympics.

Following silver medals at the same event in Sochi and Pyeongchang, Hirano became the first Japanese athlete to medal at three straight Winter Games, and his embrace with retiring American legend Shaun White was seen by many as a generational passing of the torch.

“Shaun’s been challenging as he’s always been, he’s the oldest here and he’s always showing me things I can’t experience yet,” Hirano said. “He’s always been my motivation and I think (Beijing 2022) was a big challenge for him as well.”

Ayumu Hirano claims his first-ever Olympic gold in the snowboard men's halfpipe event in Zhangjiakou, China, on Feb 11. | REUTERS
Ayumu Hirano claims his first-ever Olympic gold in the snowboard men’s halfpipe event in Zhangjiakou, China, on Feb 11. | REUTERS

Japan’s figure skaters combined for four medals, including a silver and two bronzes, in an all-time high for the program. The color of the fourth medal, however, may not be decided for weeks or even months.

The victory ceremony for the team event, in which Japan placed third, did not take place during the Games after ROC skater Kamilia Valieva was found to have tested positive for a banned substance in a sample taken in December. The positive test came to light after the 15-year-old phenom had participated in the team event, where ROC placed first.

The firestorm over Valieva’s status overshadowed the final week of the Olympics after a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed her to compete in the women’s singles event. Despite taking a dominant lead in the short program, Valieva stunningly fell several times during her free skate and finished fourth behind Kaori Sakamoto, second-place Alexandra Trusova and winner Anna Shcherbakova, the latter two both representing the ROC.

“Before Kamila’s score was out, I wasn’t sure I was going to get another medal,” Sakamoto said. “Then I saw my name in third place, I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s just so unbelievable. I almost cried.

“The four years after Pyeongchang were very challenging, but I worked very hard … and my coaches didn’t give up on me.”

Kaori Sakamoto performs her long program in the women's singles competition at Beijing's Capital Indoor Stadium on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
Kaori Sakamoto performs her long program in the women’s singles competition at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

In the men’s event, Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno finished a respective second and third behind American Nathan Chen, whose two strong programs easily handed him the gold medal he had coveted since a fifth-place finish in Pyeongchang.

“This silver medal — ever since I started skating I’ve been dreaming about it,” 18-year-old Kagiyama said. “I feel like I’ve made a lot of growth, and as for my performance today there were some small errors but I think I proved that I grew to some extent.”

Absent from the men’s podium was two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, whose focus in Beijing was the quad axel — the sport’s hardest jump, which has never before been landed before in competition, and the last white whale remaining in his unparalleled career.

In his highly anticipated long program, the Miyagi Prefecture native completed the required 4½ rotations on his opening jump but fell on the landing, nevertheless writing himself a place in skating history by simply attempting the element as he finished the event in fourth.

Two-time Olympic figure skating champion Yuzuru Hanyu failed to capture a third straight gold medal in the men's singles competition. | AFP-JIJI
Two-time Olympic figure skating champion Yuzuru Hanyu failed to capture a third straight gold medal in the men’s singles competition. | AFP-JIJI

Hanyu, whose fanatic following has invigorated the sport over the last decade, left the door open for a potential encore in four years.

“I have an injury, but still I managed to get back on my feet and take on this challenge,” he said. “The Games are the only stage for a figure skater to be able to do something like that, so it made me really happy.

“Of course, I would love to skate at the Olympics once again.”

Perhaps the most visible face of the Games was San Francisco-born skier Eileen Gu, who chose to represent host China rather than compete for the United States.

Gu took gold in the women’s big air and halfpipe as well as slopestyle silver, cementing her superstar status. But the 18-year-old, whose mother is Chinese American, drew criticism from Chinese netizens over her evasion of questions regarding whether she had relinquished her U.S. passport in line with China’s policy against recognizing dual citizenship.

Gu took the harsh glare of the spotlight in stride, preferring instead to focus on her newfound status as a role model for millions of young viewers.

Freestyle skier Eileen Gu won three medals for host China, including a pair of golds in the halfpipe and big air competitions. | REUTERS
Freestyle skier Eileen Gu won three medals for host China, including a pair of golds in the halfpipe and big air competitions. | REUTERS

“I’m so honored to be here and I’m even more honored by this platform that I’ve been given to be able to spread this message and inspire young girls through my own passion for the sport,” Gu said following her halfpipe triumph.

Another popular figure throughout the Games was mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, with stores across China experiencing shortages of merchandise featuring the panda-inspired character.

The Winter Games have been seen as a major opportunity to boost the market for winter sports in China, the world’s second-largest economy with a middle class that had expanded to more than 700 million people by 2018 according to Business Insider.

Organizers said they had achieved their goal of getting 300 million people in the country to participate in winter sports, promising to continue those efforts well after Sunday’s closing ceremony.

“After the Games will be the real start of the development of winter sports in China,” Beijing 2022 Athlete’s Commission Chair Yang Yang said. “We have put winter sports in schools, will see a lot of effort from the education authorities and we will make more contributions to promote winter sports among the young people.”

The popularity of Beijing 2022 mascot Bing Dwen Dwen sparked a run on merchandise, leading to shortages across China. | AFP-JIJI
The popularity of Beijing 2022 mascot Bing Dwen Dwen sparked a run on merchandise, leading to shortages across China. | AFP-JIJI

After two consecutive events held in the midst of the pandemic, the IOC will now look forward toward what it hopes will be a return to normalcy when the 2024 Summer Olympics take place in Paris. The following two summer hosts have already been selected, with the Games returning to Los Angeles in 2028 and making their Brisbane, Australia, debut in 2032.

The 2026 Winter Games will take place in the Italian cities of first-time Olympic host Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, which last welcomed the event in 1956. Areas contending for the 2030 Winter Olympics include 1972 host Sapporo, 2010 host Vancouver and a joint Barcelona-Pyrenees bid, with 2002 host Salt Lake City among a number of other cities yet to formally declare their entry.

The 2022 Winter Paralympics will take place in Beijing from March 4-13, with over 40 nations currently scheduled to send athletes.

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