The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics wrapped up on Feb. 20. But unlike previous Games where it’s all about the pomp and circumstance, there was tension in the air throughout this year's event. See: The diplomatic boycott over China’s “genocide” of Uyghurs. (Not helping: Beijing's decision to have a Uyghur torchbearer.) And the accusations of censorship against China. (More on that below.) Plus, Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to show up to the opening ceremony...all while facing accusations that his country's planning to invade Ukraine.
At the same time (and on a brighter note), nearly 3,000 athletes from around the world competed for gold in Beijing (hi, Eileen Gu), breaking records left and right. Team USA walked away from the Games with a total of 25 medals. Including eight gold, 10 silver, and seven bronze. But these Games didn’t go without new controversy. Here are the biggest moments from the Games.
The Olympians Making Headlines
Meet the athletes who’ve really stunned the crowd, in ways that will make you say ‘aww’ and ‘huh?’
Kamila Valieva. The 15-year-old figure skater represented the Russian Olympic Committee. (Quick reminder: Russia’s banned from competing, but athletes from the country can participate under the committee.) On Feb. 7, Valieva made history as the first Olympian to ever land a quadruple jump. Her performance helped the ROC win gold for team figure skating.
But two days later, the IOC said “legal issues” delayed the medal ceremony for the team figure skating competition. Turns out, the teen tested positive for a banned substance (specifically, a heart medication that can boost endurance). Russian anti-doping officials provisionally suspended Valieva. But another sports court said ‘no need,’ arguing she’s a minor subject to different rules.
Meanwhile, if Valieva won another medal, the ceremony would be on hold until an investigation is complete. Valieva went on to compete in the women’s short program (where she placed first) and the free skate event (where she placed fourth). Her case has sparked international backlash, including from athletes like Adam Rippon and Sha’Carri Richardson.
Eileen Gu. The American-born freestyle skier repped China, where her mom is from. And has grown in popularity there since she decided to compete for the country. After she won gold in the women’s freeski big air competition on Feb. 8, she briefly crashed Weibo — a popular social media site in China — as fans flocked to celebrate her W. And on Feb 15, Gu won silver in the freeski slopestyle.
But, Americans have had mixed feelings about Gu’s team choice. She has said her decision was to get more girls to participate in the sport, reportedly posting on Weibo that she hopes to “enhance interaction, understanding and friendship between the Chinese and American people.” But some critics don’t think it’s that simple, especially amid China’s alleged human rights abuses.
Gu’s win has raised questions about her citizenship and how she’s allowed to compete for Beijing. Especially since China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. And Olympic rules say athletes must be a national of the country in which they compete or represent. But throughout the Games, Gu has deflected the question from multiple reporters.
Zhu Yi. The American-born figure skater gave up her American citizenship in order to compete for China. On Feb. 6, she didn’t land her jumps and crashed into a wall, prompting harsh criticism on Weibo. Zhu said she felt upset and embarrassed about her Olympic debut. But on Feb. 7, she faced even stronger criticism after an unsteady second showing. She left the ice in tears.
Weibo later took down over 300 posts and suspended dozens of accounts for the vicious attacks against the 19-year-old. Her appearance in the Olympics has shone a bright light on how polarizing Chinese fans can be. Especially against the outpouring of love for Gu, who has been dubbed China’s “Snow Princess.”
Ireen Wüst. On Feb. 7, the Dutch speedskater became the first athlete to win five individual gold medals at five different Olympics — the first in history. Wüst won her first gold in 2006 at the age of 19. Now at 35, she’s also the oldest speedskater to win gold. Wüst’s win in the 1,500-meter race was a nail-biter. But her time of 1:53.28 also set a new Olympic record.
Donovan Carrillo. On Feb. 8, the figure skater from Mexico made history when he advanced to the free skate portion of the competition — a first for the country. Carrillo’s already the first Mexican figure skater to compete in the Games in 30 years. And he called his qualification a “dream come true.”
Checking In on Team USA
More than 220 athletes competed on behalf of the U-S of A. Here are some who stood out:
End of an era. On Feb. 5, three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White announced he’s retiring from professional snowboarding after these Games. At age 35, he’s one of the oldest athletes competing in his sport. White said he’s had some knee and back problems that have caused him to scale back on competitions and training. But that he isn’t entirely leaving snowboarding, adding “there’s still a life to be had within the sport outside of competition.” On Feb. 10, White wrapped up his Olympic career when he finished fourth in the final halfpipe competition. Despite not winning a medal, he said he was “proud” of what he’s done in the sport.
A bumpy ride for Mikaela Shiffrin. Heading into this year's Olympics, Shiffrin was expected to snag some medals in a number of Alpine ski events. Unfortunately, she left Beijing without any individual medals. And she was disqualified from multiple slalom competitions. Despite setbacks, Shiffrin remained strong. And the whole experience has highlighted the importance of compassion for athletes — especially from the media.
Nathan Chen’s feeling golden. On Feb. 7, the world record-breaking figure skater helped Team USA win silver in the team event — marking the first time America has won silver in this competition in years. Three days later, he also won his first Olympic gold medal after his performance in the men’s skating competition. And became the first American to do so since 2010. The 22-year-old impressed the judges with a quad flip followed by a triple toe loop, and five quad jumps on the ice. All while jamming out to Elton John.
Lindsey Jacobellis is snow cool. On Feb. 9, the snowboarder won her first Olympic gold medal in the women's snowboard cross event. And earned Team USA’s first gold of the Games. At 36, she’s now the oldest snowboarder to medal at the Olympics and the oldest American woman to win gold at the Winter Games — in any sport. And on Feb. 12, she added another gold when she won the mixed team snowboard cross event (a brand new event at the Games) with teammate Nick Baumgartner (his first Olympic medal). They're the oldest medalists in Olympic snowboarding history.
Not (half)piping down for Chloe Kim. On Feb. 10, the 21-year-old defended her gold medal in the halfpipe competition. In 2018, Kim became the youngest woman to win gold in Olympic snowboarding. Now, she’s the first woman to win back-to-back gold in this event.
Erin Jackson makes history. On Feb. 13, she became the first Black woman to win a speedskating medal at the Winter Games. Oh, and it’s gold. Jackson claimed the top spot with a time of 37.04 seconds in the 500-meter race, giving the US speedskating program its first medal in the Beijing Games and first individual medal since 2010.
Ice, ice, hockey results. The US women's team went home with silver after losing 3-2 to Canada in the finals. It's a tough loss, considering the US won gold against our neighbor in 2018. Meanwhile, the men's team didn't do so (n)ice. They lost their chance at a medal after Slovakia beat them in a shootout during the quarterfinals.
The Head-Scratching Drama
As if geopolitical tensions aren’t enough: Certain decisions and actions have had people tilting their heads and saying ‘wtf.’ Let’s get into it:
Looming questions about tennis star Peng Shuai. On Feb. 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president followed through on a promise to meet with Peng Shuai in Beijing. Remember: In November, the Chinese tennis star sparked international concern (and boycott calls) after she accused a former Communist Party official of sexual assault on social media. And then disappeared for weeks. Peng later resurfaced and denied making any allegations. But that only raised concerns around the world that China was censoring her.
The day after the Games officially kicked off, Peng and IOC officials met for dinner. But in a statement after the meeting, the committee made no mention of Peng’s accusations. Or any concerns around censorship. Not exactly a surprise, since the IOC has a tight relationship with China.
Later, during a highly controlled separate interview with a French sports newspaper, Peng said she “never disappeared.” And that her post caused a “huge misunderstanding.” She also announced she’s retiring from tennis. Cue: more questions about China’s alleged actions. But Olympic officials say there can’t be an investigation into the allegations unless Peng asks for one herself.
Women are still judged for their uniforms. Even though it’s *checks calendar* 2022. On Feb. 7, five women were disqualified from the mixed team ski jump final after the judges reportedly said their jumpsuits weren’t tight enough. Which they said could potentially give them an unfair advantage in the air. But some of the athletes had worn the same exact uniform at an earlier competition. The decision meant that the jumpers from Japan, Austria, Germany, and Norway missed out on the chance to earn a medal at the event. And it’s sparking a conversation around sexism in sports — especially since this isn’t the first time it has happened.
Comments on commentary. Since the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016, former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Leslie Jones has become an unofficial commentator for the Games, posting her reactions on social media. But this year, Jones said that her videos were blocked and tagged NBC in one post. While NBC has been protective of its exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics, the network blamed the issue on a “third-party error.” And later said Jones is ‘free to give the people what they want’: gold-medal-worthy analysis.
Athletes worked tirelessly for years to make it to this year’s Games. But ongoing global tensions cast a dark shadow over the events. And the end of the Olympics on Feb. 20 won't be the end of the political drama.
Updated on Feb 22. to include the final medal count.
Updated on Feb. 17 to include the latest news with the Winter Games, including Kamila Valieva and the doping scandal.
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