BEIJING (Reuters) – The Beijing Winter Olympics, which saw sporting drama and milestones but was marred by a Russian doping scandal, came to an end with an uplifting closing ceremony on Sunday.
The Games will be remembered for new stars like Eileen Gu but also for the doping controversy that engulfed 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva and because they took place in a vast COVID-secured ‘bubble’.
The “Bird’s Nest” stadium, which also took center stage when Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Games, was the scene of a festive snowflake-themed closing ceremony attended by the President Xi Jinping and a socially distanced crowd seated among red lanterns.
Declaring the Games closed and handing over to the 2026 hosts, Milano-Cortina, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach hailed an “unforgettable Olympic experience”.
There was no dreaded massive COVID outbreak at the Games or in the wider community in the Chinese capital, but Bach said: “If we want to finally beat this pandemic, we have to be faster, we have to aim higher, we must be stronger – We must stand together.
“In this Olympic spirit of solidarity, we call on the international community: Provide equal access to vaccines for everyone in the world.
Fireworks lit up the night sky as the ceremony reached its crescendo, spelling out the words “ONE WORLD”.
Since the February 4 opening ceremony, a new global star has emerged in the form of 18-year-old freestyle skier Gu, who was born in California but moved to China in 2019 and became the unofficial face of the Games.
There was a new men’s figure skating champion in honor of 22-year-old Nathan Chen of the United States, who dethroned two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, in what may be the final appearance of the Japanese legend at the Games.
Another winter sports icon, American snowboarder Shaun White, is unlikely to return to competition after quitting.
The 35-year-old’s latest event ended abysmal without medals and he was in tears as he bid farewell to snowboarding – ‘the love of my life’.
Bitter disappointment for fellow American alpine ski star Mikaela Shiffrin, one of the biggest names in the Games but who walked away without a medal.
There were tears from Valieva after it emerged she had failed a pre-Games drug test, catapulting her to the forefront of yet another Russian doping controversy to spoil the Olympics and exerting intense pressure on the teenager.
In what will go down as a notorious episode in Winter Olympics history, the pre-tournament favorite for singles gold fell to the ice multiple times in the final, to audible gasps from the socially distanced crowd hand-picked spectators.
His doping case is expected to drag on in the coming months, long after the Games are over. She was allowed to skate in the Chinese capital but was not cleared for doping.
In a first at the Games, the skating team‘s medals were not awarded after Valieva played a leading role in propelling the Russians to gold, ahead of the United States and Japan.
The American skaters made an 11th-hour bid on Saturday to get their hands on their medals before heading home, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected it. China and its ruling Communist Party will remember a soft power success.
Fears of a massive COVID outbreak in the ‘closed-loop’ bubble sealing the nearly 3,000 athletes and around 65,000 others never materialized.
Some athletes did catch the disease, however, and the pandemic was never far away – Russia and Canada’s women’s ice hockey teams faced off in medical face masks after their daily PCR test results failed to arrive on time.
Human rights concerns had dominated the buildup, with the US leading a diplomatic boycott by its closest allies over China’s rights record, particularly the plight of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. . Their athletes, however, competed.
China warned in the difficult preparation that foreign athletes criticizing the authorities could face consequences, but in the end any protest against the hosts was extremely silent.
There were many records – among them American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor becoming the most decorated black athlete in Winter Olympics history.
Snowboarder Zoi Sadowski Synnott made New Zealand history by winning her country’s first Winter Games gold medal; with Gu pocketing two golds, the hosts enjoyed a significant medal bump and finished third in the medal table with nine golds.
It was by far their best performance at the Winter Games, one place ahead of the main geopolitical rival of the United States, with eight gold medals.
For the second consecutive Games, Norway leads the medal table with 16 gold medals. Germany was second out of 12.