The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the Olympics were a dud

A woman takes a picture of the Olympic Green in Beijing on Feb. 1. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

The late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” He was talking about Las Vegas, but he could have been discussing the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

First, the Games took place in the planet’s most grotesquely surreal country, where mechanical perfection is served up on the souls of imprisoned dissidents in Tibet and Hong Kong and slaughtered ethnic Uyghurs in northwest China. To mitigate findings by the U.S. State Department that China has committed genocide against the Uyghurs, the Chinese added a Uyghur torch bearer to the Opening Ceremonies.

Those clever authoritarians.

Of course, it’s entirely possible the torch bearer was recently released from a reeducation camp where she disavowed her religious beliefs. Or maybe she was featured as reward for reporting her illegally pregnant mother, whose forbidden would-be offspring likely would be terminated by Chinese officials. Or maybe the torch bearer hoped to secure the return of younger siblings kidnapped by the government and sent to “boarding schools” to be reformed into proper communists.

These are the sorts of things Uyghurs have experienced as China has sought to eliminate their culture, language and religious beliefs.

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Second, the country where the coronavirus originated built a bubble around its “Birds Nest” stadium to keep the virus out, creating a visual metaphor for China’s opacity about the pandemic’s origins. By creating two separate cities — one inside the bubble, for Olympians, and one for the rest of Beijing — China could demonstrate the effectiveness of its zero-covid policy, while continuing to block any inquiries into how the country is faring over two years after the virus first appeared in Wuhan.

Third, several countries, including the United States, refused to send official delegations to the Games in protest of China’s human rights violations but allowed their athletes to compete. This act of charity was for the competitors, who understandably wouldn’t want to miss a possibly once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete against their global peers. But the dichotomy of official condemnation and athletic goodwill served only to highlight the evil of China’s authoritarian state.

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The overwhelming sense of wrongness may partly explain some reluctance to tune in to the feats and festivities. Social media was crowded with contempt for the Games, with posts by people who refused to watch because of China’s human rights record. Television ratings were way down, but who still watches these events on television? As Slate’s Michael Socolow reported, American figure skater Nathan Chen’s gold-medal performance attracted approximately 12 million viewers on NBC, while his Olympic videos on YouTube received more than 16 million hits.

I mostly watched the figure-skating events. Deep curtsy to Chen. But it was Kamila Valieva’s heartbreaking performance that will remain in my memory. Favored for the gold (after delivering the first quadruple jump by a woman in an Olympics), the 15-year-old Russian couldn’t seem to stay upright in the free skate, falling multiple times and generally performing without joy. She encapsulated both the best and worst of Olympic competition — the discipline it takes to reach her level at such a young age coupled with the relentless, microscopic scrutiny of her coaches.

Combined, the two likely broke her.

Her public torment began when a drug test revealed she had a banned drug in her system a few weeks before Beijing. The Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed her to compete, citing her protected status as a minor and a couple of other reasons. But the massive attention and scandal short-circuited her superpower.

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There’s a moment in any public performance — a tennis serve, a dance recital, a basketball free throw or a speech — when performers dive deep into a private zone. Tournament tough, it’s called in tennis. In that moment, you block out everything else — the thousands of gazes, the noise of hecklers, the peripheral chaos. You suffocate your internal doubters. You gut it out.

Then there are those times when you just lose it. Something breaks through. The pros reel themselves back in and soldier on to victory. The psyched-out Valieva couldn’t center herself.

Her collapse within herself and onto the ice seemed almost sacrificial, a reality correction to the entire world’s denial of the elephant in the room.

Valieva’s tragic performance provided an essential counterbalance to the manufactured joy of a cynical state. Her unraveling echoed China’s self-delusion that human life can be controlled, her cry of defeat a reflection of the suffering beyond Beijing’s bubble.

In the Closing Ceremonies, not even a constellation of snowflakes to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” could obscure the black hole of China’s heart.