Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
A giant Chinese knot symbolizing fortune and unity welcomed the athletes who paraded into Beijing’s Bird’s Nest for the Closing Ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
For an athlete who hasn’t won a medal, such as Jamaican bobsledder Rolando Reid, whose team ranked 28th, carrying the flag provides a special moment, but it is one enjoyed by medalists, too, such as Canadian speed skater Isabelle Weidemann, who leaves Beijing with one in every color.
The ups and downs of the Olympics might best be understood through the eyes of bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, who carried the American flag, wearing a navy face mask which could barely contain her grin. She was, of course, selected to be the flag bearer in the Opening Ceremony, but a positive COVID-19 test kept her confined to a hotel, watching the festivities on television.
While Meyers Taylor was left to lift weights in her room, her competitors got in early training runs. Her Olympics, however, turned out just fine, clearing Covid protocols in time for her to take silver in the inaugural run of the women’s monobob and bronze in the two-woman bobsled. With five career medals, she now stands as the most decorated female bobsledder, the oldest American woman to win a medal in the winter, and the most decorated Black athlete in Olympic Winter Games history.
Covid sidelined some athletes, to be sure, including American skater Vincent Zhou, who announced his withdrawal from the men’s individual event in a gut-wrenching Instagram post. But Beijing’s “closed loop” – in which athletes, officials, and media lived behind impenetrable barricades and endured daily swabs and temperature checks – ensured that by Closing Ceremony, the infection rate of The Games hovered around 0.01. Beijing was, according to IOC President Thomas Bach, “one of the safest places on this planet,” with just one positive test of the almost 70,000 administered on the final weekend.
But as Russian troops continue to aggressively move on the border of Ukraine, the war against Covid-19 is just one the world faces. The ancient Olympics served as a means to interrupt the conflicts of warring Greek states, guided by the spirit of ekecheiria, or truce so spectators and athletes could travel to and from The Games in peace.
In Beijing, however, a hug between Ukraine’s Oleksandr Abramenko, who marked his fifth Olympic appearance, and Russia’s Ilia Burov, silver and bronze medalists in men’s aerials respectively, defied Ukrainian officials who warned athletes against social contact with members of the Russian team, especially when photographers were around.
Just as a few weeks of sport did little to convince the ancient Greeks to lay down their weapons, Ukrainian athletes may wonder what they will return home to see. Sledder Vladyslav Heraskevych finished a run by holding a sign which read “NO WAR IN UKRAINE,” an ostensibly political act the IOC turned a blind eye to, but it has been impossible to ignore Russia at any moment of these Games.
Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s aggressions toward Ukraine are not much different from the country’s medal haul in Beijing, despite the fact the country is still serving out an Olympic ban because of systemic state-sponsored doping. Russian athletes, without their flag or anthem, have been allowed to compete throughout the “ban,” providing they pass drug tests. Putin not only attended the Opening Ceremony, he stood and cheered as the Russian athletes entered the stadium under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee.
During the Closing Ceremony, the continuously puzzling presence of the Russians got in one last word, with Alexander Bolshunov and Ivan Yakimushkin receiving their respective gold and silver medals in the men’s 50-kilometer cross-country race (shortened to 30 kilometers because of poor conditions), Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” replacing the banned Russian national anthem as is done whenever ROC received a medal.
Absent from the Closing Ceremony was 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, whose team, led by controversial coach Eteri Tutberidze, posted a video to their Instagram story of the young skater back on the practice ice in Russia, appearing as though it was time for business as usual, rather than reflection on what went down in Beijing.
The saga of the young skater, who competed despite a positive drug test, overshadowed much of the skating competition. While the IOC insisted on “quiet diplomacy” while the world demanded the safety of missing tennis star Peng Shuai, who largely disappeared from public life in November, the organization’s president, Thomas Bach, made uncharacteristic comments regarding Valieva’s implosion during the women’s free skate, and the “chilling” – his word – reception she endured from Tutberidze when she came off the ice. Tutberidze said she was “at a loss” over his comments.
The image of Valieva standing alone on the ice moments before her music began and the ensuing tumbles would take place, a look of terror in her eyes, a bottom lip that appeared chewed with worry, forced to deal with the consequences of the choices those around her likely made, remains one of the starkest of these Games.
Her story bled into the entirety of the women’s competition, perhaps especially seen in the competition’s aftermath: Gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova stood alone, seemingly shocked by the outcome and with no vibe of victory visible, as her entire team focused on the fallen Valieva and an angry Alexandra Trusova, who likely figured her five quads would ensure her the top spot.
Despite a timid hug offered by Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto – thrilled to have broken into the predicted Russian sweep with her bronze medal – Shcherbakova’s face, her solitude, in what should have been a moment of joy at a life’s dream finally being accomplished, reminded us again these are not normal times, and this is an Olympics taking place on a grim landscape, in a moment of global exhaustion.
The question remains, then, as to what comes next. It is not just the well-known Russian skating machine that failed its athletes, or even the Olympic movement that continues to allow Russia as much leeway as it needs to land 32 medals despite serving out its ban.
It is all of us, anyone who watched Sherbakova stand there, alone: We are letting this happen, right in front of us, out in the open, just as we are watching Russian troops assemble on Ukraine’s borders. Sport has, again, provided us with clarity as to what is happening in the world, with the avaricious corruption of young female skaters front and center.
In four years, the world, or at least those with prowess on ice and snow, will assemble in Italy, with Cortina d’Ampezzo and Milan serving as host.
We will watch in hopes of having the moments that make us happier than we thought we could be: snowboarder Chloe Kim smiling after laying down her gold medal run, pairs skaters Han Cong and Sui Wenjing finding redemption on home ice by just 0.63 of a point, cross-country skier Jessie Diggins collapsing after crossing the finish line for silver in the 30 km, just hours after suffering from food poisoning, and the continued rivalry in hockey between the US and Canada. At the same time, we will understand that moments such as a lost and alone Sherbakova or a confessional Mikaela Shiffrin, who walks away with nothing to add to her pile of victories but remains one of the greatest in her sport, might shatter our hearts.
That is the shambolic wonder of the Olympic Games, reinforcing our good, while ensuring the bad is never out of sight.