The Beijing Winter Olympics drew to a close Sunday, rounding off Games that will go down in history as much for their coronavirus restrictions and geopolitical tensions as for their nail-biting competitions and emotional moments.
The closing ceremony at Beijing’s famous Bird's Nest stadium opened with dancing children holding snowflake-shaped lanterns and ended with singing and the extinguishing of the Olympic flame.
Snowflake lights then floated up out of the stadium, and fireworks lit up the night sky spelling the message: “One World, One Family.” Inside, people celebrated on the stadium floor as the song “Auld Lang Syne” played.
The closing ceremony, like the opening one, was a simplified affair compared to the 2008 Summer Games, emphasizing children, Chinese tradition and ordinary people.
Earlier in the ceremony, flag bearers representing the countries that participated entered the stadium, followed by jubilant athletes, many clutching their phones to capture the moment. A small but enthusiastic crowd of invited guests watched on after organizers announced they wouldn’t sell tickets to the general public.
After it became the first city to host both the summer and the winter competitions, Beijing passed the baton to Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, which will host the 2026 Winter Games.
Two children, one from Cortina and one from Milan, then rolled a globe across cracking ice in what appeared to represent the fragile state of the planet.
Beijing had the strictest coronavirus restrictions yet for the Games. This year's Games were also marked by a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott over China's human rights record, the tension between Russia and Ukraine and a high-profile doping saga involving a 15-year-old figure skating phenom.
The ceremony was directed by the renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who also designed the opening ceremony, as well as the opulent opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
In a speech to conclude the Games, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach praised the athletes for their sportsmanship.
“You not only respected each other, you supported each other, you embraced each other, even if your countries are divided by conflict,” he said. “May the political leaders around the world be inspired by your example of solidarity and peace.”
Bach also called on the international community to give equal access to Covid vaccines to people around the world.
“If we want to finally overcome this pandemic, we must be faster, we must aim higher, we must be stronger, we must stand together,” he said.
Sunday's ceremony capped two weeks of drama even as Olympic heroes were born and the record books were rewritten.
For the U.S., Erin Jackson became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in speedskating. The win came after she stumbled during Olympic trials, and her friend and fellow skater Brittany Bowe offered Jackson her spot in Beijing.
Nathan Chen also shone for the U.S. He won gold in men’s figure skating singles, becoming the first Asian American man to earn an Olympic medal in the event.
There were some more humbling moments, too.
U.S. snowboarder Shaun White, the face of modern winter sports, closed out his Olympic career in Beijing last week without making the podium.
A long-running scandal also plagued the Games. Reports emerged this month that the Russian figure skating prodigy Kamila Valieva had tested positive for a banned heart medication before the Games. Valieva, 15, missed out on a second gold medal Thursday and stands to lose gold in the team event if she is found to have committed a doping offense.
One of the topics dominating the coverage in the run-up to the Games was the Chinese government’s treatment of ethnic Uyghurs, described as genocide by the U.S. government. Beijing has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of the largely Muslim minority, insisting its actions in the western region of Xinjiang have been taken to combat terrorism.
In the opening ceremony, Chinese officials delivered a defiant message to the world leaders boycotting the Games by choosing a Uyghur cross-country skier from Xinjiang to deliver the ceremonial flame, a moment that often carries symbolic weight.
Other noteworthy moments included a meeting between Bach, of the International Olympic Committee, and Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who vanished from public view last year after she appeared to accuse a former top government official of sexual assault. In a monitored interview with the French newspaper L’Equipe during the Games, Peng denied making the allegation.
A L’Equipe journalist who interviewed Peng later said he couldn't say for sure whether she was, in fact, free and safe.
In addition, Russia’s massing of troops on its border with Ukraine pierced the Olympic bubble.
The coronavirus pandemic, which first broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, also hung over the Games, with testing confusion and concerns about quarantine conditions adding another layer of stress for already anxious athletes. Athletes and their teams lodged complaints about the treatment and the standards in Beijing’s so-called quarantine hotels.
Norway, a country whose population is little more than 5 million, led the medal count, as it often does. Russia was second, followed by Germany, Canada and the U.S. China won 15 medals, compared to nine in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018.
As the lights go down on two weeks of Olympic drama, sports fans shouldn’t fear. While these Games may be at an end, the Paralympics in Beijing are still ahead.
They kick off March 4 and end March 13.