With the closing ceremony of the Olympics, China celebrates a joyless triumph

BEIJING — From the start, Chinese officials have insisted that the Olympics were not about politics, but rather about sports. Ultimatel...


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.

For all of China’s efforts to continue the Winter Games in a festive spirit, Beijing 2022 unfolded like a joyless spectacle: constricted by a global health disaster, fraught with geopolitical tension, marred once again by doping accusations and eclipsed by the Ukrainian crisis.

As athletes marched through the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing on Sunday evening to close the Most Controversial Olympics Over the years, China has been able to celebrate the Games on schedule, despite everything. It’s a success, however, measured by the low bar of averting total disaster.

The most indelible memory of these Winter Olympics – alongside images of Olympic workers and volunteers shrouded in hazmat suits – will most likely be that of 15-year-old Russian skater falls on the ice after being cleared to compete despite a test showing traces of a banned heart medication.

Skater, Kamila Valieva, broke down in tears after her dismal performance, only to be reprimanded by her coach, leaving organizers and observers alike. to think about what they are asking athletes who are, after all, still children.

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 after 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; about spell 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 revised the selection process for host cities, in part to avoid repeating a Faustian bargain like the one seven years ago, when Beijing overtook Almaty, the former capital of another authoritarian country, Kazakhstan.

After Sunday’s ceremony, China will pass the torch of the 2026 Winter Games to the Italian cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo. The 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 the country’s leaders have touted as a triumph of Communist Party will.

The 2008 Summer Olympics, held in many of the same venues, then seemed like 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.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin just hours before the opening ceremony, a show of support in the face of Western threats to punish Moscow if its forces invaded Ukraine.

China has also chosen a soldier injured in a deadly border clash with India in 2020. The Olympic flame was lit by a Xinjiang cross-country skierthe province knows a massive campaign of detention and re-education that the United States has called genocidal.

An official from the Beijing Organizing Committee knowledgeable attendees not to violate the rule of the Olympic Charter prohibiting making political statements. Two weeks later, another official violated it by reiterating China’s claims to Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy, and denouncing criticism of its policies in Xinjiang as lies.

These comments prompted Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, to publish the committee’s report only public reproach hosts, even though the weather was mild. The committee’s general deference drew heavy criticism from Chinese critics, who said the Games were allowed to “wash the sport” of serious violations of basic political and human rights.

“The government is not just committing crimes against humanity,” Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for the advocacy organization Human Rights Watch, said on Friday. “The government flaunts its atrocities.”

Through it all, the sport shone.

Norway, a nation of just five million people, repeated its extraordinary success at the Winter Olympics, topping the medal table with a record 16 golds 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 Baumgartnerthe American snowboarding veteran who, with Lindsey Jacobelliswon a gold medal in snowboard cross, described the mountain sites northwest of Beijing as “incredible”.

“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.

For the thousands of athletes and other participants who attended, Beijing 2022 was unlike any previous Games, not even the delayed Summer Games in Tokyo last year, which also had to contend with the impact of the pandemic.

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”zero covid“politics, 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 seen the bright side in them.

“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.”

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 had its best collection of medals 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.

Mr Bach, the IOC President, suggested the number could rise further, creating “a totally different landscape” for international winter sports in the future. “Imagine,” he said.

Mr. Bach’s comment alluded to concerns of the Olympic movement. For much of the world, these Games came with a shrug of the shoulders. TV viewership in the United States is down about 50% from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics; there have been similar declines in Canada, Britain and other countries.

Mr. Bach tried to put a brave face on things, pointing to 2.7 billion “engagements” on the committee’s social media accounts. The Olympics, he said, had “reached” 600 million people in China alone, such an indefinite metric that is impossible to verify.

What the Games mean for China itself ultimately remains to be seen. In the other closed loop, that of the country’s media and propaganda ecosystemChina triumphed.

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, Swedish speed skater who won two gold medals, said it was “terrible” to award the Olympics to China and referred to Nazi Germany which hosted the Games in 1936. “I think it extremely irresponsible to give them to a country that violates human rights as blatantly as the Chinese regime does,” he said. told a Swedish newspaper after returning home.

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.

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Newsrust - US Top News: With the closing ceremony of the Olympics, China celebrates a joyless triumph
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