The other, Britain’s Gus Kenworthy, said while China had put on a wonderful Games, “human rights factors had to be taken into consideration” by the International Olympic Committee.
The intimidation worked, smothering human rights as an issue in a Games that was otherwise dominated by a state-driven obsession with the peace-loving mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, the doping scandals of the Russian Olympic Committee, and the threat of Vladimir Putin ordering an invasion of Ukraine.
Kenworthy and van der Poel’s concerns are widely held by the international community, but they played no role in the perception of locals who filled stadium seats for hours in temperatures that got down to -25 degrees.
They were immaterial to volunteers standing outside in the snow in Zhangjiakou waiting for Eileen Gu to win three medals for her adopted country or see Xu Mengtao soar to aerials gold.
Those outside the bubble swelled with pride both at China’s development and its ability to pull off a pandemic Olympics in sports that it has had little to do with until it bid for the Games.
In the end, China won 15 medals, including nine golds, four silvers and two bronzes, beating the United States by one gold to end the Games third overall. It was a remarkable turnaround for a country that only won one gold four years ago.
The message that this was evidence of China’s rightful ascension to the top tier of the world stage was repeated relentlessly by Chinese state media. It stuck. From the ice rink in Beijing to the towns that dotted the high-speed rail line, to the volunteers that filled car parks, the conclusion was the same.
“First, we say China stood up and China became rich in the past. But hosting the Winter Olympics this time manifests that our country has become really strong,” said 82-year-old Ye Rulin, an Olympic volunteer in Sanlitun.
“Second, China has become a sports power as 300 million people are taking part in winter sports.
“Third, the Olympics coincided with the Spring Festival, so foreign friends could experience China as a cultural power. Fourth, while the pandemic is rampant all over the world, the Olympics are held smoothly which demonstrates China’s prevention and control capability.”
China opened the Games with a statement of intent and saw that through. It released a communique with Russian President Vladimir Putin condemning Western interference in territories that Russia and China see as their own. Then it sent a little-known Uighur cross country skier and first-time Olympian, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, to light the flame.
“It was like a middle finger to the rest of the world, saying ‘I don’t care what you say’,” said Yaqiu Wang, the China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
By Sunday night, when the Olympic flame went out and a hundred flag bearers, including Australia’s Sami Kennedy-Sim, walked into the Bird’s Nest to close the Games, the restrained ceremony showcased not only weeks of perseverance and success in challenging conditions for thousands of athletes but also China’s confidence in its place in the world.
“The Chinese people, with all their passion and strenuous efforts, have delivered their commitment to staging a green, inclusive, open, and clean Games,” said Cai Qi, the president of the Beijing Organising Committee.
At the centre of it all was the Chinese Communist Party and its vision for a “community of common destiny”, one of its favourite phrases – co-opted for 18 days into an Olympic slogan. On Sunday, that vision lit up an ice-covered LCD screen on the stadium floor, surrounded by 20,000 red lanterns and 1000 dancers.
The IOC had insisted for weeks that these Games were politically neutral but by Sunday, the Chinese Communist Party was ready to claim them as their own.
China’s largest state media outlet Xinhua reported that the closing ceremony and its “vision of a community with a shared future for humanity is the epitome of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era in China’s diplomacy”.
Thousands of spectators watched on in the stands – each one of them chosen for their belief in China’s national spirit. They were determined to wave their flags enough to fill a stadium that usually fits 80,000. They roared with approval as Xi and IOC President Thomas Bach took their seats high above the stadium floor.
As the athletes entered, a giant Chinese knot filled the air above them – a sign of China’s connection to the world and tying its fate to the rise of its next superpower.
“May the political leaders around the world be inspired by your example of solidarity and peace,” Bach told the athletes.
But China’s vision now has a powerful and unpredictable ally in Putin’s Russia, which ended the Games with 32 medals. Its final gold in the men’s 50-kilometre cross country race was presented at the closing ceremony for a Games they were officially banned from for years of state-sanctioned doping. Instead, they competed under the Russian Olympic Committee banner.
Xi and Putin are seeking a “new era” to replace the existing international rules, European Union President Ursula von der Leyen said hours before the closing ceremony began.
“They prefer the rule of the strongest to the rule of law; intimidation instead of self-determination; coercion instead of co-operation,” she said.
That night, near the border with Ukraine, 190,000 Russian troops were waiting. The closing ceremony – a celebration of Beijing’s motto of “together for a shared future” – finished with the spectre of war looming over it.