Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 20, 2022

The Games That Ended The Olympic Movement

The Olympic flame has gone out.  On Sunday, the extinguishing of the torch at Beijing’s National Stadium symbolized the end of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games.  The closing ceremonies, as has become standard fare for these gatherings, featured pyrotechnics visible far beyond the 80,000-seat stadium nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, and elaborate special effects that were dramatic on television but either invisible or meaningless to those in attendance.  On that latter score, much of the stadium’s floor was a giant LED screen, but the images displayed on it were too big to decipher for the athletes and performers standing on top of them, and for many in the pandemic-limited crowd, which was mostly seated on the side facing the TV cameras, they appeared upside-down. 

Still, if one looked hard enough, Beijing 2022 offered the usual array of stories with endings equally distributed between happiness and heartbreak.  There was the remarkable dominance of Norway, a Nordic country whose people are certainly familiar with many of the sports contested at the Winter Games, but nonetheless a nation of just five million people.  The Norwegians won the very first gold medal at Beijing, and continued winning right up to the final day, 16 golds in all – a record for a single Winter Olympics – and 37 total medals.  That count put Norway well ahead of both Germany’s dozen gold and Russia’s 32 total.

In a men’s hockey tournament that was without NHL players, the Russians were the heavy favorites.  But when the final horn sounded at the gold medal game, it was Finland on top, 2-1 over Russia.  While the Finns were considered one of the better teams, the upset still amounted to at least a minor miracle on ice, but somehow this Ihme Jäälä didn’t garner the same attention as the 1980 version.

Closer to home, there were two more medals for American cross-country skier Jessie Diggins, who stunned her sport four years ago when she led the U.S. to a gold in the team sprint to claim just this country’s second cross-country medal ever.  There were also two medals for bobsledder Elena Meyers Taylor, giving her five over four Olympics, making Meyers Taylor the most decorated Black athlete in the history of the Winter Games.

But there was also no shortage of pathos, with American Mikaela Shiffrin the most prominent name on that side of the ledger at Beijing 2022.  Shiffrin arrived in China carrying the heavy baggage of expectations – both her own and those of fans and pundits who follow skiing.  She was the prohibitive favorite in the slalom events and a contender in other downhill disciplines as well.  Instead in her five individual events Shiffrin failed to finish three times and placed ninth and eighteenth in the other two.  She then delayed her departure to participate in the mixed team event on Sunday, saying that she owed it to the teammates who had rallied to her side through the previous two weeks of disappointment.  Yet even with Shiffrin’s help, the Americans could manage only a fourth-place finish, just missing out on the podium.

In these and other individual stories, these Games were like every other Olympics – tales of triumph and tragedy in equal parts.  But there was also an overarching theme to the 2022 Winter Games, one that was as unavoidable as it was dispiriting.  Athletes and reporters alike called the experience joyless.  Surely that was in part dictated by the times.  Even more so than Japan did at the Summer Games last year, China imposed severe pandemic-related limitations on everyone, sharply restricting movement and requiring frequent COVID-19 testing.  From a medical perspective the actions were both prudent and successful, but they also eliminated any chance that these Games would foster communication and comradeship among the young athletes of the world as they competed in the true spirit of sportsmanship, to borrow a phrase from the Olympic oath.  By doing so, these Olympics also reminded us of how that very notion is utterly naïve.

That’s why it’s appropriate that the enduring memory of these Games will not be the collective efforts of the Norwegians, nor Finland’s men’s hockey squad, nor the contrasting emotions of Diggins, Meyers Taylor, and Shiffrin.  When we look back on Beijing 2022, we will remember the women’s figure skating competition.

It is the premier event for many American viewers, for its artistry and grace, and not coincidentally, for the many U.S. skaters who have medaled over the years.  From Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss to Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill, to Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, American fans have cheered for an impressive list of gold medalists.  Along the way U.S. women have claimed another 15 silver and bronze medals.  That has changed in recent years, as it has now been four Winter Games without a single American woman reaching the podium.  Expectations going into Beijing were no different, with 15-year-old Russian Kamila Valieva the overwhelming gold medal favorite, and two of her teammates expected to join her at the medal ceremony.

But after the Russians won the mixed team competition at the start of the Games, the medal ceremony was delayed.  A day or two of confusion was followed by news that Valieva had failed a doping test at the Russian Championships in December.  While she was allowed to compete in the women’s event, and led the standings after the short program, this was all prelude to the chaos that ensued the night of the women’s final skate.  Valieva turned in an astonishingly bad performance and was hectored by her coach afterward.  Sasha Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in one program, then threw a temper tantrum when that incredible effort still left her short of the gold medal.  That went to Anna Shcherbakova, who sat alone and forlorn in a holding room as the drama played out just steps away. 

It was a debacle that unfolded in real time, with some translating help from NBC’s Johnny Weir, which left viewers with a long list of uncomfortable questions.  Are the Russians still doping?  Should anyone be surprised if they are, since the country’s athletes are still allowed to compete at the Games, just not under the Russian flag?  Why are young women barely into their teenage years being asked to perform at this level?  Is it for their benefit, or strictly for our entertainment?  And most important, for all the ugliness that we saw, will anything change?

The Olympic Games will go on, of course.  Paris in 2024 for the summer edition, followed by L.A. and Brisbane, and a joint Italian effort between Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo for the next winter gathering in 2026.  Billions will be spent, sponsors will line up for the opportunity to attach their brand names to an enterprise that long ago stopped being about the joy and power of youthful athleticism, and many of us will watch, because that is what we do.  But make no mistake.  The Olympic flame has gone out.

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