The story of the 2022 Beijing Olympics
The 2022 Winter Olympics wrapped up with fireworks lighting up the sky over Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium Sunday night, bringing an end to a Games fraught with controversy. From COVID protocols to gold-medal triumphs, the sordid backstory of China to the sordid ongoing drama of skating, the Olympics left the world inspired, outraged and — of course — polarized. Here’s the story of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, as told by the people who lived it.
The Beijing Olympics were conducted inside a closed loop — athletes, officials, journalists and volunteers inside the loop would have no contact or access to those outside, including the Chinese people. Everyone entering the loop had to undergo multiple tests, the most notorious of which was a deep-in-the-sinus-cavity probe that officials at the Beijing airport administered to arriving foreigners with one single, impossible-to-follow word.
“To be negative for COVID."
German speed skater Claudia Pechstein, who made her record eighth appearance at a Winter Games, offered the perfect, fitting reply when asked what her main goal was in Beijing. Everyone inside the loop was tested every day, and those who tested positive were immediately sent to an isolation facility.
“The fact you wake up every day and you’re a little nervous about who's knocking on your door, that’s definitely not the good start you want to the Olympics.”
Nordic combined skier Espen Bjoernstad of Norway summed up the dread that loomed over the early days of the Games, as everyone inside the loop wondered if this would be the day they’d get the call.
“My stomach hurts, I’m very pale … I want all this to end. I cry every day. I’m very tired.”
Russian biathlete Valeria Vasnetsova was one of many athletes sent to isolation facilities after testing positive for COVID. Her images of the terrible food — served over and over again — galvanized action against the IOC and Chinese Olympic authorities, forcing them to treat isolated Olympians with more humanity. Eventually, the bubble worked as it was supposed to, with new cases dwindling to zero by the Games’ second week.
“Everything just feels like it’s crumbling.”
Although she was chosen to be flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony, Team USA bobsledder Elena Meyers Taylor missed out on that opportunity because she was in COVID isolation. Fortunately, she got out in time to win both a silver and a bronze … and she was named to bear the flag at the Closing Ceremony, too.
“Why such concern?”
One of the most significant stories coming into the Games was the whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who briefly disappeared after making allegations of sexual assault against a retired Chinese government official. Peng met with IOC President Thomas Bach, who dutifully reported that she was healthy and in good spirits. She also held a highly choreographed interview with the French newspaper L’Equipe, in which she wondered what all the fuss was about, claiming she’d neither made the accusation nor disappeared for several days afterward.
“Limit One.” “Today Sold Out.”
The most popular figure at the Games was a chubby panda by the name of Bing Dwen Dwen. The mascot drew such widespread love that lines at official Olympics stores stretched hundreds of customers long and lasted hours. Bing Dwen Dwen was everywhere in Beijing, but even that wasn’t enough to satisfy the Chinese people who couldn’t see the Games in person, but wanted a little bit of Bing Dwen Dwen all the same.
“I’m an American when I’m in America, and I’m Chinese when I’m in China.”
Eileen Gu, raised in America but skiing for China, came into these Olympics already a hero in her adopted nation, and after winning two golds and a silver, left them a legend. Gu’s citizenship became a matter of considerable debate — some Americans considered her a traitor for competing for the nation of her mother’s birth, others questioned her motivations or her understanding. Gu, for her part, was practiced and at ease in front of cameras, endorsing winter sports for China and pointedly dodging any and all geopolitical inquiries.
“Ah, you gotta talk to the Chinese staff about that one.”
Jake Chelios, son of Chris and a player on China’s hockey team, skated right around questions of whether he’s a Chinese citizen.
“Please take all your belong[ing]s and get off the bus.”
In the closed-loop system, there were only three possible destinations: the hotel, the media/broadcast headquarters, and the competition venues. For most in the loop, the only way between these was a system of shuttle buses that always seemed to leave riders waiting 20 minutes for the next bus in their itinerary. The gentle, recorded female voice telling riders to “get off the bus” went from grating to hysterical over the course of the three weeks of Beijing.
“I think it's completely unfair to the rest of the competitors. ... It's the fact that everybody else is clean and she tested positive.”
Early in the Olympics, Russia won the team skating event, paced by the brilliant 15-year-old Kamila Valieva. But before the Russians could collect their medals, Valieva was found to have tested positive for a banned medication on Dec. 25. The Court for Arbitration in Sport ruled that she could continue to participate in the individual event, which did not sit well with Chinese skater Zhu Yi or many others.
“Why did you let it go? Why did you let it go? Tell me.”
Valieva qualified first for the women’s final, but her last performance was a disaster, and she fell to fourth. Coming off the ice, she was met by her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who offered neither comfort nor encouragement, but immediately ripped the broken skater for failing. The world got an up-close look at the harshness of Russian training methods, and even the IOC expressed outrage about Tutberidze’s cold callousness.
“Let’s say the Bengals are not doing good. That might upset my performance and my competition.”
As important as the Super Bowl was in the United States, it was a virtual non-event in China, with kickoff coming at 6:30 in the morning and the Rams’ decisive drive happening about 10 a.m. Nick Goepper, a freestyle skier who loves the Bengals, decided not to watch … and he wasn’t alone. The only reliable place to find a Super Bowl broadcast on Monday morning in Beijing was on the laptops of American journalists.
“I don’t let our country's politics get in the way of what’s going on. Let other people at the government level talk about that. But when we’re at these curling events, getting a chance to both play the game that we love, there’s just a lot of mutual respect of each other … At the end of the day, man, we all bleed the same blood and play the same game.”
China’s documented human rights violations are so severe that the United States and several other Western nations boycotted the Olympics. Concern about possible Chinese reprisals for athletes speaking out chilled the protest ambitions of some; others, like curler Christopher Plys, chose to focus on the micro level, looking at his opponents as human beings, not as representatives of an enemy state.
"These questions are very much based on lies.”
As it turned out, the only person that openly politicized the allegedly apolitical Games was Yan Jiarong, a spokeswoman for the Beijing Organizing Committee. At an IOC press conference that ripped open the long-simmering dispute over the host nation’s woeful record on human rights, Yan took issue with questions about the independence of Taiwan and the possible use of slave labor in harvesting cotton used in Olympic clothing. The IOC pointed out that cotton is not used in the clothing at all, but Yan continued to interject. “I think the so-called forced labor in Xinjiang is lies made up by deliberate groups,” Yan said. Satellite imaging, human rights organizations, and multiple foreign governments, including the United States, contend that up to 1 million Uyghurs are imprisoned in so-called “re-education camps.” China has denied the charge, but has also denied the United Nations access to the area. The issue remained largely below the surface during the Olympics, except when one of China’s own officials brought it briefly back to the forefront.
“I think about Nodar. I think about him all the time. Everyone in my family is in luge. After Nodar, I didn’t want luge to die in Georgia. I wanted to keep it going.”
Every athlete at the Olympics has sacrificed for their sport, but Saba Kumaritashvili of Georgia spent his time in Beijing attempting to pay tribute to his cousin, Nodar, who had died 12 years before almost to the day during a training run at the Vancouver Olympics. Saba finished 31st out of 34 lugers, but the fact that he made it all the way to the Olympics was a powerful tribute to his fallen cousin.
“Snowboarding, thank you. It's been the love of my life... Sorry, you're going to get me ugly crying here.”
Shaun White ended his stellar career at Beijing, finishing a surprising fourth in the snowboard halfpipe — fourth because it’s clear that the younger generation has learned from his example and pushed the sport further into the future. At the bottom of the halfpipe, in one of the Games’ most emotional scenes, White bade a tearful farewell to the sport he loves so much.
“In Ukraine, it’s really nervous now. A lot of news about guns, about weapons, what’s to come in Ukraine, about some armies in Ukraine. It’s not OK. Not in the 21st century.”
Even as the Games rolled on, Russian forces massed on the border of Ukraine, whether as a show of force or as a prelude to an attack. Ukrainian athletes thus competed with the specter of fear and worry for their loved ones back home, and skeleton rider Vladyslav Heraskevych held up a “No War In Ukraine” sign following his race.
“Not finishing the (giant slalom) and the slalom kind of took the pressure off because it can't really... it can get worse, actually. It can get a lot worse.”
Mikaela Shiffrin came into these Olympics a medal favorite in multiple events. She left them emptyhanded, a victim of uncharacteristically poor runs in almost all her events. The immensely quotable Shiffrin refused to stay down, however, even delaying her trip home to ski in the mixed team event. She didn’t win any medals, but she did earn back a measure of her shattered self-confidence and the respect of a nation.
“I told her I feel pretty badass about winning one slalom in my career, but she has 47, so she is 47 times as badass as I am.”
Michelle Gisin of Switzerland, who won gold in the Alpine combined event, offered up a bit of perspective on how vast and impressive Shiffrin’s career is, even with this Olympic stumble.
“Many people told me during the beginning of my career that this was a crazy dream. People were always laughing or telling me it wasn't possible for a Mexican to qualify.”
Figure skater Donovan Carrillo of Mexico, who once trained at a shopping mall ice rink during business hours, was one of many athletes from nations not traditionally associated with winter sports to compete in Beijing. Nations like Haiti, Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago sent athletes, and New Zealand claimed the first two gold medals in its nation’s history in snowboarding and freestyle skiing.
“Women are here and women are hungry and they are not holding back anymore.”
The Olympics is steadily moving toward gender equality — only one sport, Nordic combined, is still restricted to men only — and the daring riders of snowboarding, like gold medalist Anna Gasser of Austria, are leading the way.
“Probably not, and I probably would have quit the sport at that point because I wasn't really having fun with it.”
After 16 years, Lindsey Jacobellis finally redeemed one of the Olympics’ most cringeworthy and heartbreaking moments: when she was leading snowboardcross in 2006 and tried a stunt off the final jump, only to fall and lose gold. She didn’t lose it in 2022, and she added a second one to her collection by winning the mixed competition, too. When asked if she would still be riding had she won, she made it clear that the failure hadn’t defined her, but instead had driven her.
The sponsor on the base of Julia Marino’s snowboard that the IOC deemed inappropriate. The IOC forced Marino to paint over the sponsor logo, and the disrupted board caused Marino so many problems during Big Air practice that she dropped out of the competition entirely. A reminder that the IOC praises athletes, but values sponsor money above all.
“Throwing first pitches at baseball games, dropping pucks at NHL games. But it got back to being husband and dad.”
No sport seems more approachable and accessible than curling, mainly because the dudes that do it on the men’s side look less like athletes and more like the guys hanging out at your local sports bar. Team USA skip John Shuster summed up the fleeting nature of Olympic fame when recalling how his life changed, briefly, when he won gold in 2018. Sadly for Team USA, history would not repeat, as the Americans finished fourth in the men’s competition and didn’t make the playoffs on the women’s or mixed sides.
“My butt hurts.”
Chloe Kim’s first words after throwing down a magnificent gold medal run in snowboarding exemplified why she was beloved after her big win in 2018, and why she’ll be beloved all over again after a second straight sterling performance.
“If I get my luggage or not, I'm still an Olympian.”
Like so many other athletes, Casey Dawson, a Team USA speedskater, tested positive for COVID right before the Games. Unlike others, Dawson tested his way out of protocols, undergoing 45 tests. He then traveled around the world to arrive in Beijing on the day of the Olympics, and had to borrow skating blades because his luggage got lost along the way. Regardless, he’s now and forever will be an Olympian.
“I feel that the whole crew was over it, barely hanging on by a freaking strand of hair, tired of the food, homesick, tired of the pressure.”
Snowboarder Jamie Anderson admitted to crumbling under the pressure of performance expectations and COVID protocols, not making the podium in one event and not even making the finals in another. Like Simone Biles at the Tokyo Games, Anderson and others gave voice to the mental health struggles of Olympians, opening the door for future athletes to prepare for mental challenges as well as physical ones.
“Every time we go against them, we want to make a statement and show them that they don't belong on the ice with us.”
The two best women’s hockey teams in the world, by far, are the United States and Canada, which have fought for the gold medal every Olympics but one since 1998. But there’s a clear big sister of the two; Canada has five gold medals to America’s two. After the U.S. won an overtime shootout in South Korea in 2018, Canada made certain no shootout would be necessary, blitzing the U.S. 4-2 in a gold medal game that wasn’t anywhere near that close.
“Pretty unbearable pain.”
Cold and wind wreaked havoc on the mountain-venue competitions; wind gusts of 40 mph and temperatures with wind chill below –20 degrees Fahrenheit caused postponements, cancellations and adjustments. Finland’s Remi Lindholm, competing in the 50km cross country race shortened to 28km because of the cold, suffered an agonizing injury: the freezing of one particular part of the body that men very, very much do not want to freeze.
“Maybe I will drink a schnapps today and then everything is fine.”
Downhill skier Kira Weidle summed up the feelings, and the remedy, of anyone who finished fourth in their event, as she did.
“I've made everything late in life. Since I was a young boy. That's why my mother said, that I take extra time to do everything. Walking, speaking, everything. Apparently, for my sport career, it's quite the same.”
Johan Clarey of France, 41, who won an Olympic silver after never even winning a World Cup race, showed that age is just a number.
Ivo Niskanen of Finland won gold in the rugged men’s 15km cross country event, then waited at the finish line for a half hour for the last-place finisher, Carlos Andres Quintana, to cross the finish line, greeting him with two words. “Everyone has done lots of work to be here,” Niskanen said afterward, “and it means a lot to take him across the finish line.” That’s the Olympic spirit right there.
“I'm a bit sad because you have to wait four more years to live all this.”
Italian giant slalom silver medalist Federica Brignone, summing up the feelings of all Olympians … who probably hope that Milan-Cortina in 2026 is a bit more relaxed than Beijing. But closed loop or not, the Olympics remain a life’s goal for so many, and a must-watch scene for millions more. Next stop: Paris 2024.