Olympics-Beijing to close Games marked by COVID measures, Valieva doping scandal

Figure Skating - Women Single Skating - Free Skating
2022 Beijing Olympics – Figure Skating – Women Single Skating – Free Skating – Capital Indoor Stadium, Beijing, China – February 17, 2022. Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee falls during her performance. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

February 20, 2022

By Tony Munroe

BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing hands the Olympic flag to Milan-Cortina on Sunday after a Games that will be remembered for the extremes of its anti-COVID-19 measures and outrage over the doping scandal that enveloped 15-year-old Russian skating sensation Kamila Valieva.

The Olympics were stalked by politics, with several countries staging a diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights record, and the spectre of invasion of Ukraine by Russia, with President Vladimir Putin attending the opening ceremony in a show of solidarity against the West with President Xi Jinping.

Still, China was spared any embarrassing protests by competitors over its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority or anything else, and the thousands of foreign journalists on hand were stuck inside the closed-loop, unable to report more widely.

The tightly sealed bubble prevented the spread of the novel coronavirus at the Olympics or into the community, vindicating a zero-COVID policy that has isolated China inside what are nearly closed borders that shows no sign of easing.

However, many athletes had their Olympic dreams dashed by positive tests that prevented them from competing, and dozens saw their preparations disrupted by enforced isolation. Team officials and athletes demanded improved conditions including better food, internet, training equipment and more space.

On the snow, 18-year-old San Francisco-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu won two golds and a silver for hosts China, delivering on the hype generated by her dozens of endorsement deals and making her the youthful face of the Games even as her success raised questions about nationality and privilege.

Gu’s performance is a boon for the development of snow sports in China. Xi, who will attend Sunday night’s closing ceremony at the Bird’s Nest stadium, hopes that hosting the Games will get 300 million people involved in winter sports.

China’s nine gold medals exceeded expectations, putting it in third place, while winter sports powerhouse Norway, with a population of just 5.5 million, won a record 16.

While Xi delivered a spectacle for a Chinese public that was unable to attend – tickets were not sold and many connected with the Olympics through the unexpected mania for panda mascot Bing Dwen Dwen – millions of Americans tuned out, with TV viewership reported to be far lower than during the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

DOPING SCANDAL

The biggest legacy of the Beijing Olympics will be the controversy surrounding Valieva, who stumbled under pressure in her final skate, and the outrage directed towards Russian sports officials and the country’s history of doping, which meant its athletes could not compete under Russia’s flag.

Valieva failed a doping test at her national championships in December but the result was only revealed on Feb. 8, a day after she had helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win the team event.

She was nonetheless allowed to participate in the singles but finished fourth, her error-strewn performance prompting a harsh reaction from her coach Eteri Tutberidze that International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach later said he found “chilling”.

The saga, which dominated the Games, reopened debate over the suitability of the Olympic environment for minors and prompted the world’s top anti-doping authority to investigate Valieva’s entourage.

The Beijing Games were the second Olympics of the COVID-19 era and also the second in just six months, after the Tokyo Summer Games were delayed by a year.

Before Milan-Cortina stage the Winter Games in 2026, Paris hosts the 2024 Summer Games, with Tony Estanguet, president of Paris 2024, promising an Olympic “light at the end of the tunnel”.

(Reporting by Tony Munroe; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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