But the past two weeks have also shown the world two very different Games: For China, Beijing 2022 was a resounding success that exceeded all expectations. To the rest of the world, it remained a deeply polarizing event, that projected not only China’s rising power but also its growing assertiveness, ready to defy and challenge its critics.
And for the ruling Communist Party and its supreme leader Xi Jinping, it is the domestic audience that matters the most. Xi personally backed Beijing’s bid to host these Games, and made a flurry of visits to the ice rinks and snow slopes to inspect preparation work. The success of the Games present Xi with a moment of national unity as he gears up for an unprecedented third term in power this fall.
Instead, Chinese state media avidly shared social media videos, posts and comments from athletes that portrayed their life inside the Olympic village in a positive light, praising the food, the Covid measures and the friendly volunteers.
And much to the relief of government officials in Beijing, not a single athlete or Olympic attendee attempted to use the event to publicly protest China’s human rights record — a hot-button issue in the lead-up to the Olympics (though some have expressed critical views).
In December, the United States and its allies declared a diplomatic boycott of Games over China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang — which Washington has labeled a genocide. But apart from the notable absence of Western leaders at the opening ceremony, the impact of the boycott was seldom felt on the ground.
“You can’t write stories about people who aren’t in Beijing — that’s the problem with the diplomatic boycott. There’s no story once the Games start,” said Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports and the Olympic Games at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“I’ve predicted at the beginning that the political issues would fade into the background and the sports would take the headlines, and that would be the memory that would be left, at least for the general audience. I think that has largely happened,” added Brownell.
Going on the offensive
But Beijing wasn’t just waiting for the political controversies to fade. It has gone on the offensive, using the Games to push its own political message and hit back at criticism — despite having repeatedly derided Western governments for “politicizing” the Olympics.
As the torch relay got underway right before the Games, state media reported a Chinese soldier who was involved in a deadly border clash with Indian troops was among the chosen few to carry the Olympic flame. The report sparked immediate outrage in India, prompting New Delhi to join the US-led diplomatic boycott.
Her flurry of activities made headlines around the world — and like her previous public appearances, they failed to quell broader concerns about her freedoms. Inside China, however, none of that was reported by state media or shared on social media, where Peng’s name remains censored.
And as the Olympics approached its end, the political messaging got more pugnacious.
At a press conference Thursday, Yan Jiarong, a spokesperson for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympics Games (BOCOG), was asked whether Taiwan’s delegation would appear at the closing ceremony Sunday.
Yan, a former Chinese representative to the United Nations, took the opportunity to assert China sovereignty claims over the self-ruling democracy. “What I want to say is that there is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an indivisible part of China,” she said.
She also jumped in on CNN’s question about whether the Olympics uniforms were made by forced labor in Xinjiang, calling accusations of forced labor “a lie made up by forces with ulterior motives.”
Yan’s comments — which appeared to be an outright violation of Olympic rules about political neutrality — prompted a rare rebuke from Bach, the IOC president.
“We were in touch with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) immediately after this press conference,” Bach said, “and both organizations, BOCOG and the IOC, have restated the unequivocal commitment to remain politically neutral as it is required by the Olympic charter.”
While the Chinese government may see these combative remarks as a propaganda victory, for many in the international audience, they only serve as a reminder of how politically fraught these Games are, despite the organizational success and sporting achievements.
“The Games as a standalone event have been run very well, and China did well. The organization has been phenomenal,” said Mark Dreyer, the founder of China Sports Insider in Beijing.
“But again, it depends on what perspective you’re looking at. Are you just looking through that narrow lens? Because if you’re looking at China as a whole, the narrative (from outside China) is much more about China using these Games for sportswashing…I don’t think it’s really going to change people’s perspective on China as a country.”