Despite the high-tech tricks, political posturing and pyrotechnics, the best part of the Closing Ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics proved to be the athletes.
Competing the past two weeks amidst rising international tensions, pandemic quarantines and with a heavy-handed host, the participants injected a bit of fun Sunday into the tightly scripted affair. Following the traditional flag-waving parade of nations into the reasonably full Bird’s Nest, Team USA flag-bearer Elana Meyers Taylor and her fellow masked athletes from around the globe let off some steam cavorting on the giant stadium’s floor to a loop of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” over the protests of Chinese officials, who repeatedly asked everyone to take their seats.
This year’s Winter Olympics was unique in many ways, but it may not be a bad idea for future Games to let the actual athletes rule the roost more often.
Certainly it would be a vast improvement in comparison to this year’s stilted Closing Ceremony. Starting out with a rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” amid a cluster of shiny coated children on ice and ending with fireworks disingenuously proclaiming “One World” in the sky and an “Auld Lang Syne” remix as a masked Chinese President Xi Jinping and International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach looked on, this was primarily a box-checking predicament hopelessly in search of an effective exit strategy.
As the fallout from doping scandals continue and a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine looms, the icy two-hour affair from China’s capitol simply pretended that diplomatic boycotts and other criticism of the Middle Kingdom’s alleged genocide against the Uyghur population and other mostly-Muslim ethnic groups never occurred as Beijing sought to present a formidable face to the world and its domestic audience.
“You give peace a chance,” Bach ventured in his predictably banal speech during the ceremony. “May the political leaders around the world be inspired by your example of solidarity and peace,” he added in what appeared as a pivot to larger swirling geopolitical storms.
But, jut as quickly that flame was extinguished, as the IOC and Bach once again proved there is rarely a bad situation or actor that they won’t kowtow to. The Olympic spirit “could only shine so brightly thanks to the Chinese people,” he went on to say, praising the “magnificent sites,” “extraordinary organization” and “gracious hosts.”
In that vein, the mild rebellion of tardy competitors was one of the few spontaneous moments in an otherwise unsurprising didactic event shown live and without commentary on Peacock, NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. Undoubtedly NBC will sprinkle some utterances on China’s human rights records and pre-taped segments to pump up the volume on its “enhanced primetime presentation” tonight hosted by Terry Gannon, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. However, the fact is with the exception of the people of Ukraine, this Olympics couldn’t end fast enough for many.
Hobbled by double-digit dropping viewership from 2018 for NBC, even with some Super Bowl bounce, the XXIV Olympic Winter Games were overall, like today’s belabored closer, an exercise in endurance – and not in the best way. Besides the leap for joy from Norway’s Therese Johaug upon being awarded her cross-country skiing gold medal during Sunday’s ceremony, the Spring Festival-themed pageantry lumbered under the weight of propaganda and an iron fist in mittens.
In but one example, if the People’s Republic wanted to display to the watching world its strong standing among the league of nations, it may have not been the best idea to quell cheering in the National Stadium this morning. Looking just over half full, with lights in many seats instead of human beings, the 80,000-capacity National Stadium was literally devoid of enthusiasm on a cold Beijing night as onlookers were left just to clap in their muted mittens and gloves.
Accentuated by endless national anthems that had those in the stadium up and down like the Team USA medal count, by the time the baton was passed to Milan and Cortina for the 2026 Winter Olympics, it was thankfully arrivederci to Beijing. Accompanied by a fast-footed violinist, the presence of pop star Malika Ayane singing Italy’s national anthem easily outshined even the perpetual giant floating snowflake in the stadium.
Maybe it was the contrast to the literal and figurative chill of China’s games this year, but by the time the vigorous video welcoming the world “to the sunny mountains of Italy” rolled out, it sure felt like even today’s closing ceremony producers felt like 2026 couldn’t come fast enough.
Over to you, #MilanoCortina26!
For the first time ever, the Olympic Games emblem was chosen by popular vote. #StrongerTogether | #ClosingCeremony pic.twitter.com/jSZjqeJl30
— Olympics (@Olympics) February 20, 2022
Facing a much more forgiving time zone difference with Paris 2024 and Italy two years later, NBC decided to grind through this morning to make it to the finish line
Flexing its streaming muscle for the second Olympics in a year and pulling the IOC feed today, Peacock seemed to be aiming for a bronze medal at best with a service that was chopped up awkwardly with ads for Disney+ offerings, car commercials, and video montages that lacked context. Whoever made the call at the Pete Bevacqua-run NBC Sports to forgo having Gannon, Lipinski and Weir offer their quips and trivia commentary this pre-dawn morning needs to be hastily sent to the Comcast empire’s equivalent of Siberia.
What could have been a golden opportunity for NBC to attempt to undo missteps like the network’s February 8 badgering of clearly devastated Mikaela Shiffrin on the slopes, was instead treated as a non-event for insomniacs. With a decade left on NBC’s $7.75 billion broadcast deal, this morning’s unvarnished effort was also the programming equivalent of throwing money down the slopes.
Still, with the bar set lower than Team USA’s performance during the first days of the 2022 Games, today’s effort on Peacock was at least an improvement over the end of the delayed Tokyo Summer Games last year when the anticipated Closing Ceremony never even showed up on the streamer.
Hauling in 37 medals overall, Norway was the big winner in this year’s Winter Olympics. Yet, perhaps history will remember Ukraine as the real victor. Before the games formally began February 4, a Beijing-visiting Vladimir Putin supposedly promised his pal Xi that he wouldn’t overshadowed China’s big moment with a move into the Eastern European country. Having gain those 16 days, now the Olympic torch is extinguished, the Russian gloves may be coming off – and that will be much more significant than any hollow spectacle.
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