Ashraf Ali Siddiqui reports the completion of a gala sports event
As usual Beijing Winter Olympics left a trail of unforgettable left-overs such as a pile of figure-skating rubble created by Russian misbehaviour and, most interestingly a new Chinese champion hailing from California along with a classic heartbreak as an ace American skier faltering and going home empty-handed. The games also spelt the end of the Olympic line for the world’s most renowned snowboarder. Moreover, the strict and irritating, an all inside anti-COVID closed loop regulations by China’s over-controlling government.
The impression conveyed by this larger-than life event was quite weird and undoubtedly messy creating issues for the participants. It was extraordinarily calibrated revealing the single-minded uniformity exhibited by the exclusive Chinese leadership tightly controlled by authoritarian Xi Jinping. The entire period of games is now viewed as a magnificent bubble kept deliberately distant from the audiences as if the intention was to keep the world at arm’s length. The unfortunate fact is that the organisers succeeded in doing precisely that.
At the conclusion of the games President Jinping flanked by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach stood together as Beijing handed off to Milan-Cortina, site of the 2026 Winter Games. The notably Western-flavoured show ended with Chinese characteristics as dancers with tiny, fiery snowflakes glided across the stadium in a ceremony. Unlike the first pandemic Olympics in Tokyo last summer, which featured all but empty seats at the opening and closing, a modest but energetic crowd populated the seats of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. It felt somewhat incongruous as a show bursting with colour and energy and enthusiasm and even joy, the very things that could not assert themselves inside authorities’ COVID bubble.
It must, however, be emphasised that by many mechanical measures, these Games were a success. They were, in fact, 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, and they received high-profile accolades at the closing. There was snow — most of it clearly fake yet some of it quite real. The venues — many of them, like the Bird’s Nest and the Aquatic Center, harvested from the 2008 edition of the Beijing Olympics — performed to expectations. One new locale, Big Air Shougang carved from a repurposed steel mill, was an appealingly edgy mash up of winter wonderland and rust-belt industrial landscape. Understandably, TV ratings were down but streaming viewership was up as just NBC streamed 3.5 billion minutes from Beijing, compared to 2.2 billion in South Korea in 2018.
There were no major unexpected logistical problems only the ones created deliberately to stem the spread of COVID in the country where the coronavirus first emerged more than two years ago. The segregated system effectively turned Beijing into two cities — one sequestered, one proceeding very much as normal — had producing only 463 cases among thousands of visitors entering the bubble since 23 January 2022. The government, very obviously, took the credit of insulating the event from the virus and keeping disruption to sports events to a minimum. However a deeper look reveals it to be the strength of authoritarianism, a reality that made many to denounce the IOC for holding them in concert with a government accused of gross human rights violations against ethnic Uyghurs in its far west and harsh policies against Hong Kong democracy activists off its southeastern coast.
Consequently, several Western governments boycotted by not sending any official delegations, though 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. The games also witnessed the ogre of doping once again raising its head with the 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva testing positive for using a banned heart medication. Intriguingly, the result was not announced by anti-doping officials until after she had won gold as part of the team competition, even though the sample was taken weeks earlier. The Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared her to compete in the individual discipline, ruling that as a minor she had protected status.
Valieva, although 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 annoying IOC Bach denigrating the coach for not helping the athlete in her moment of trial. Valieva’s Russian teammates took gold and silver but on a night of drama, even the winners were in tears. The affair produced one probable legacy for Beijing as Valieva’s ordeal has inspired talk of raising the minimum age for Olympic skaters from 15 to 17 or 18. 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 medal at all and was shown sitting dejectedly on the snow, head in hands, for several minutes.
It must be borne in mind that 2022 Games were controversial from the moment the IOC awarded them to Beijing known to be the frequently snowless capital of a country without much of a winter sports tradition. Almaty, Kazakhstan, was the only other city in play after four other bids were withdrawn due to lack of local support or high cost. 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. 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 new 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.
And Chinese snowboarder Su Yiming, a former child actor, won over the home crowd with a dominant gold medal big air performance. With a nearly perfect free skate and a record-setting short programme, the 22-year-old figure skater Nathan Chen became the first American gold medalist in his sport since 2010. Snowboarding’s best known rider, Shaun White, called it a career after finishing fourth in the halfpipe in his fifth Olympics, passing the torch to athletes like Su and the halfpipe gold medalist, Japan’s Ayumu Hirano. American boarder and social media figure Chloe Kim won the gold in halfpipe for the second time, adding to her 2018 medal from Pyeongchang.
Norway, a country whose total population of 5 million is less than one half of one per cent of China led the medal count, as it often does. Russia was second, followed by Germany, Canada and the United States. These third straight Games in Asia, after Pyeonchang in 2018 and the delayed Tokyo Summer Games six months ago, were also the second pandemic Games and the 16,000 athletes and other international visitors who spent the entire time segregated from the host city could not escape the feeling that behind tall chain-link fences not only the weather but also the tenor of the Games was austere and distant. It essentially lacked the warmth and bonhomie associated with such global events. TW
Ashraf Ali Siddiqui is with electronic media