BEIJING — Two hotel staffers, clad in white and blue hazmat suits, wanted to do something nice. It was Valentine’s Day, and so that afternoon they knocked on the door. Upon seeing them, I was startled. I thought they were coming for me because of a positive coronavirus test.
“Oh, Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too!” I said.
I felt like an apprehensive fool. And then I set an Olympic record for devouring chocolate.
That was the Beijing Olympics from inside this “closed loop” bubble: candy accepted with fear, kindness cutting through the tension.
The Games were here but not here, a three-week visit to a cardboard replica of China. The coronavirus dictated a level of inauthenticity that only the authoritarian Chinese government could consider favorable. You lived a distorted life, searching for realness.
It could not be discovered through sightseeing, which was limited to virtual tours and photo op cutouts of the Great Wall, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and Forbidden City. It could not be discovered through interactions on the street, unless you were really expressive about waving through a bus window at residents. Nevertheless, humanity kept bursting through, and while it’s not surprising that people can be good in bleak settings, it warrants recognition after all these February days spent underlining the numerous systemic local, geopolitical and sports-specific transgressions that made this event often seem like hell’s snow globe.
Bring thousands together for a shared struggle, and people will show more than the ability to endure. They will support each other. What was real? That spirit. That benevolence. It had to be genuine. There’s no faking kindness.
China tried to pretend. During the Opening Ceremonies, Beijing 2022 organizers featured Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang as a final torchbearer, spraying unity propaganda over accusations that the Chinese government has committed genocide against the Muslim ethnic population. It was both defiant and a commitment to deception that set a grim tone. But for those not prone to credulity, it reinforced skepticism.
In this environment, the Olympics should have been doomed. They weren’t. You had to look away several times, but amid all the filth and vexation and heartbreak, there was still a soul. The thing that makes the Olympics so durable and emotionally cleansing broke through the dismal loop.
You saw it in simple gestures, in Italy’s Sofia Goggia leaving an encouraging message on the skis she lent to a struggling Mikaela Shiffrin: “FLY MIKA, YOU CAN.” You felt the emotions of curler/nurse Nina Roth, even though she was wearing a mask, as she shared that staff and patients back at Select Specialty Hospital in Madison, Wis., were sending videos and photos of support during their breaks fighting the coronavirus. You heard speedskater Brittany Bowe celebrating as if she had won gold when Erin Jackson triumphed in the 500 meters.
Jackson, the top-ranked sprinter in the world, had stumbled and failed to qualify at the Olympic trials, but Bowe gave up her spot to guarantee Jackson made the U.S. team. Though Bowe later earned a quota spot to fill out the field, it was still an incredible sacrifice. By the end of the Games, Bowe, who is 33 and competing in her third Olympics, had earned bronze in the women’s 1,000 meters, the first individual Olympic medal of her career.
“I don’t think either of us knew the magnitude of those actions,” Bowe said. “The amount of support and love that we have received has been really humbling. In times of so much division, to see some positivity on the news and lifting one another up and supporting each other, that has been really uplifting the past month.”
The Olympics weren’t a spectacle this time. They were a bad concept for a reality television show, complete with fan-deprived venues that looked good only as an NBC soundstage. The experience took such a mental toll that snowboarder Jamie Anderson, a two-time slopestyle gold medalist, said, “Part of me just wants to quit.”
Anderson is usually as optimistic as it gets. She left Beijing with a ninth-place slopestyle finish, and she didn’t qualify for the final in big air after winning a silver medal in the event four years ago.
“Like, just barely hanging on by a freaking strand of hair,” were her parting words. “I’m tired of the food, homesick, tired of the pressure, a little bit tapped out. I’m excited to go home.”
The Olympics deflated the peppiest champion here. That’s how cold the vibe could be. So the moments of warmth were critical.
For all the intense competition for scarce prizes, there weren’t many foes. In the women’s 10-kilometer classical race, Finland cross-country skier Kerttu Niskanen crossed the finish line second and praised gold medalist Therese Johaug of Norway.
“Therese is the queen of cross-country,” Niskanen said. “And now I feel like I’m … little princess.”
Let’s remember the awful stuff, especially the atrocities that will continue unchecked. But let’s not forget the humanity.
What was real? These athletes were. These people were. The most restrictive sports bubble of the pandemic stole much of the joy, but you left feeling something worthwhile anyway.
For most of the Games, despite writing about medals every day, I didn’t see one around the neck of an Olympian. The protocol for the past few Olympics has been to hold victory ceremonies daily at a plaza instead of honoring the athlete on-site. There is a victory ceremony after the competition, but the winners have to wait for the real thing. As someone hopping from event to event, it’s disorienting to witness glory and not experience the most important thrill.
I attended one medal ceremony. It was for Jackson, the first Black woman to win an individual event at the Winter Olympics. And in a sense, it was for Bowe, who saw past her own self-interests in a way that few ever do.
On a cold Monday night, Jackson wore a blue coat and blue gloves as she took the podium, awaiting her gold. And she cried, this 29-year-old Black inline skater from Florida commanding attention at the Winter Olympics after taking up speedskating just five years ago.
It seemed too improbable. But before the emotional part, she had a mishap that made it even better. As a coronavirus precaution, Jackson was asked to place the medal around her own neck. She put it on backward.
She was nervous. She was real. It was lovely to see.
Jackson pulled on the ribbon and flipped it around so the gold would show. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” began, she cried harder, the truest of tears, an image of the Beijing Winter Olympics that didn’t need a fake background.