The same loyalty has fuelled the Beijing Games inside the COVID bubble where workers and volunteers have been separated from their sons, daughters, fathers and mothers for up to three months and will have to do at least 14 days of quarantine before being allowed back into their normal lives.
One volunteer who spent three weeks in temperatures of -20 in a carpark in Zhangjiakou said he did not get a chance to go to any Olympic events.
“We just stay here in the carpark,” he said. “But it’s exciting. I’m so happy to serve you.”
The Chinese government marshalled $4 billion and the collective goodwill of its people to pull off a pandemic Olympics with very few infections, and built a Winter Games from nothing with little natural snow and a winter sports industry in its infancy.
In Beijing, fans were swept up in China’s sudden 13-medal haul – the product of massive state subsidies for winter sports and aggressive recruitment of international coaches and players. By the time the Games finish on Sunday, China could add a couple more. It will then be its best Olympic result ever and a great start to its goal of 300 million people taking up winter sports.
At an ice skating rink in Shichahai, Beijing, 4000 skaters had swept through the gates in the early morning, 5000 by noon. “I like short-track because the competition is very fierce,” said nine-year-old Yan Quan.
Yan, like millions of other locals, rode the waves of the national stars gasping when 31-year-old veteran Xu Mengtao won gold in the aerials and lining up for hours to snatch up Bing Dwen Dwen, the Olympic mascot whose viral popularity was driven by state media campaigns.
But the national pride that has dominated China’s Games has also clouded the lens through which it has viewed its Olympic stars.
The country embraced Eileen Gu – the multimillion-dollar superstar freestyle skier who left the US team to compete for her mother’s birthplace – and then disowned Nathan Chen, the gold medal winning US skater of Chinese heritage who was labelled a traitor in China.
Both of their fates were inextricably tied to geopolitical competition and overshadowed by politics and power. China made sure that these Olympics were not just about sport when Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping released a joint statement as they took their seats in the Bird’s Nest Stadium decrying the use of “advocacy of democracy and human rights” to criticise others. It was released moments before athletes prepared to walk in for the opening ceremony.
They did it as Putin assembled thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border and a week after China sent another dozen warplanes towards Taiwan, the democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.
When questions were asked about allegations of China’s human rights abuse of Uighurs in Xinjiang, Beijing Olympic Committee spokesman Yan Jiarong said the “questions are very much based on lies”.
When the International Olympic Committee was asked if Chinese Taipei should compete under its preferred name of Taiwan, Yan intervened “there is only one China in the world”.
When Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian figure skater was found to have tested positive to a performance-enhancing drug, Chinese state media suggested it was part of a Western conspiracy designed to hold down China and Russia, the two nations that had founded a new “unbreakable friendship” under the Olympic rings.
“Few nations know how to politicise the Olympics quite like China,” said Biao Teng from the University of Chicago.
Liu Haiming, a professor of Communication at Chongqing University, said the Games were much bigger than sport – they were an examination of China’s overall strength.
“The Beijing Winter Olympic Games is such a big test for the Chinese government,” he said. “I believe it delivered a satisfactory answer to the international community.”
De Montfort University Olympic historian Heather Dichter is not so sure. “The focus on China has brought increased global attention to issues to which China does not want attention focused – human rights, Hong Kong, press freedoms,” she said.
“Sport and politics have never been separate, but the IOC continues to promote that line.”
In a sign of just how far freedom of expression has deteriorated in China since it last hosted the Olympics, Ai WeiWei, the exiled Chinese artist who helped design the Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Summer Games, last week put his finger up at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne signalling “his disdain for an institution which has put itself at the service of Chinese propaganda”.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying the Olympics were a celebration of a “sports-washing dictatorship”, a claim that China denies by pointing to the human rights records of Australia and the United States, two countries that led a diplomatic boycott of the Games.
In the middle of the most controversial Games in decades were 3000 athletes. Most of them were only going to get one shot at it – and they were determined to make it count.
Among them was the Turkish speed skater Furkan Akar who brought his father to tears after doing a Steven Bradbury in his heat to make the 1000-metre final. “My family is going crazy, and my dad was crying,” he said as he came off the ice skating track.
And the Mexican figure skater Donovan Carrillo who practised in a shopping centre – the only rink in Guadalajara – to become his country’s first figure skater in 30 years.
“I didn’t want it to end,” he said. “I wanted to keep skating and living the Olympic dream.”
Then were the Australians, who somehow defied predictions to finish with their best Winter Games ever. Leading them was Jakara Anthony, 23, the moguls star, now home with a gold medal around her neck and Scotty James, 27, the snowboarder who grew up idolising Shaun White only to beat the US legend to silver in the halfpipe.
Finally, there was Jackie Narracott, the sprinter from Bracken Ridge, now a silver medallist in skeleton – a sport that does not exist in Australia. Narracott, 31, ended a decade of perseverance, sacrifice and determination with a four-minute run down the “snow dragon” sliding track.
“My gosh,” she said. “This is what it is supposed to be like”.
They did it by building a sense of community in some of the most challenging circumstances of their careers. Away from home for months, isolated from their family, they made it like home, complete with a barista, high up on the mountains between Beijing and the Mongolian Plateau. The COVID isolation from the other teams meant they bonded tighter than ever before, with everything from cooking to entertainment staying in-house.
“The vibe was amazing,” said snowboarder Tess Coady, who won bronze in the snowboard slopestyle. “The team set up was unbelievable. Just having friends there on the team to chat and not even having to talk about snowboarding. They went out of their way to say the right thing and make you feel confident.
“I just remember from my first Games something that I just found so addictive was the team culture. It is always the best thing to get good results and then getting them at the Olympics was really epic.”
The Australian chef de mission, Geoff Lipshut, said he could not ask for anymore. He started these Games hoping for at least two medals and got four.