BEIJING — The 24th Winter Olympics concluded Sunday after a 16-day extravaganza that saw top athletes shatter world records in the shadow of a doping scandal, but the biggest winner on and off the slopes may be China.
The host country shrugged off a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott and struck a fresh alliance with Russia that has set the stage for a new geopolitical order, as Chinese athletes took home a record 15 medals.
Enveloping the Olympic venues in a “closed loop” that kept around 10,000 athletes and officials away from the public, organizers declared victory by fending off a major COVID-19 outbreak that could have derailed Beijing 2022.
The U.S. and a handful of Western allies — including Australia, Canada and the U.K. — refused to send representatives to the opening ceremony over allegations of rights abuses in China. But there was little in the way of protest during the Games. Beijing, fearing a high-profile embarrassment, had warned there would be little tolerance for criticism from foreign competitors.
“China is again using sport to solidify its position as a global superpower,” Stacy-Lynn Sant, an assistant professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, told Nikkei Asia. “[Its] international standing in the West is likely even more precarious than it was prior to the Olympics.”
The closing ceremony kicked off at 8 p.m. local time Sunday at the circular-shaped Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, where about 3,000 performers put on a show against a colorful backdrop of laser lights.
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Zhang Yimou directed the closing event as he did the opening ceremony on Feb. 4, deploying high-definition LED technology to create visual effects as COVID-19 controls called for limiting the number of human performers in the half-filled stadium.
President Xi Jinping entered the stadium along with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and other officials. Few foreign leaders were seen, compared with the 2008 Summer Games at the same venue, which drew dignitaries from around 30 countries including then-U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf.
Bach in a closing speech paid tribute to the host country for an “extraordinary” Olympics and stressed unity.
“This unifying power of the Olympic Games is stronger than the forces that want to divide us: You give peace a chance,” he said to a cheering crowd. “May the political leaders around the world be inspired by your example of solidarity and peace.”
Before the speech, Bach passed the IOC flag to Giuseppe Sala, mayor of the Italian city of Milan, host of the next Winter Olympics in 2026.
The China-hosted showcase wasn’t all smooth, however.
Virus restrictions kept cheering crowds to a minimum with foreign spectators barred from attending. There were complaints of poor food and substandard accommodations, while Russian teen skating sensation Kamila Valieva was caught up in a doping scandal that marked the latest embarrassing drugs episode at the Olympics.
But China played up its winning athletes in move that was as much about politics as sports.
Among its champions was superstar freestyle skier Eileen Gu, a Mandarin-fluent teen born in the U.S. who switched from her native country’s squad to compete for China. Her tricks on the slopes and down-to-earth personality captured the hearts of millions of adoring fans across China, who embraced Beijing’s “Snow Princess” as she picked up three medals in her first Olympics.
“Gu has truly caught the nation’s eye and has successfully ramped up a new round of patriotism among ordinary Chinese citizens,” said Thomas Zhang, a China expert at London-based consultancy FrontierView.
“[U.S. President Joe] Biden’s boycott backfired completely. [He] should chew over it in bitterness,” a netizen wrote on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, referencing China capturing the third most gold medals with nine. The U.S. won eight gold medals.
The diplomatic atmosphere at the 2022 edition was starkly different from the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, had shared the spotlight with then-U.S. President George W. Bush and numerous other democratically elected leaders.
“Back then, China wanted very much to be recognized by the world for its superb economic growth and enormous progress in social development,” Zhang said. “That mission was largely accomplished.”
This time around, Xi welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to the opening ceremony as the pair talked business and a struck a new political alliance aimed at thumbing their nose at the West. China threw its diplomatic weight behind Putin, who was under fire over a feared invasion of Ukraine, a move that earned Beijing the assurances of the Russian leader that his country would never acknowledge an independent Taiwan.
Such displays of solidarity underscore China’s growing confidence in the face of Western mistrust.
“China’s motto for the Games, ‘Together for a shared future,’ was hopeful,” said Mattie Bekink, China director at Economist Corporate Network in Shanghai. “But it also alludes to China’s vision of a future in which China operates alongside other nations without the expectation that it will align with a Western-led world order.”