This year’s Winter Games has come to an emotional close in China’s Birds Nest Stadium with a message urging peace as the Olympic flag was passed to the next host of 2026.
Against a backdrop of international tensions, with the fear of war in Europe, some 3,000 athletes had set an example of “peace and solidarity”, declared IOC president Thomas Bach.
“This unifying power of the Olympic Games is stronger than the forces that want to divide us,” he said.
“Each and every one of you strived to achieve your personal best. We were deeply touched how you were wishing and cheering for your competitors to achieve their best as well.
“You not only respected each other: you embraced each other, even if your countries are divided by conflict.”
Beijing signed off in style, passing the baton to the two Italian cities of Milano and Cortina with a simple but elegant closing ceremony.
Australia secured its biggest return of a Winter Olympics with four medals while Norway was top the leader board with 37 medals, 16 of them gold.
Ski-cross veteran Sami Kennedy-Sim carried the Australian flag in a final lap of the stadium.
Australians taking home medals include Jakara Anthony, who won the first medal by a female moguls skier, and the country’s first sliding medal.
Jackie Narracott winning a shock silver in the skeleton.
Scotty James took silver in snowboard halfpipe and Tess Coady, at 21 Australia’s youngest female winter medallist, claimed bronze in slopestyle snowboard.
Coady, who was prevented from making her Olympic debut in 2018 when she did her ACL while training in PyeongChang, stunningly competed with a fractured ankle suffered while training in Beijing.
The team achieved a record nine top-six results, including 16-year-old snowboard sensation Valentino Guseli.
Among the personal-best performances were figure skater and opening ceremony flag-bearer Brendan Kerry, short-track speed skater Brendan Corey and 21-year-old mogul skier Cooper Woods.
“This team gave us more genuine medal prospects than any previous team and that’s why I rate this team as our best — and it was from a team of 43 athletes, compared with 51 in 2018, and 60 in 2014,” said Australia’s chef de mission Geoff Lipshut.
The COVID-19 bubble in Beijing was at times bizarre but also a blessing for the Australian Winter Olympic team.
Chinese Olympic staff dressed head to toe in hazmat suits including plastic gloves, shoes encased inside the ensemble, and masks in place behind plastic face shields became the norm.
There were daily PCR tests for athletes, officials and journalists and the smell of hand sanitiser and disinfectant in the air throughout the 17-day Games.
All parties were locked in a “closed loop” of competition venues, three villages, hotels and press centres, with the only sight of the real Beijing through an Olympic bus or train window.
Those who failed China’s zero tolerance approach to the pandemic – more than 500 including 183 athletes and team officials – endured a different view of the Games from an isolation hotel.
With some locked in for up to 14 days, their sour, stressful and frustrating experiences were among the lowlights of the Games.
Learning from experiences in Tokyo last year, the AOC provided athletes with their own chef, who cooked all meals so they could avoid the village mess hall, while a coffee barista was flown in from Brisbane.
A number of the team said they actually appreciated China’s stringent COVID conditions as it meant they could final relax, after months trying to dodge the virus while also attempting to qualify.
The sad absence of fans in the stands was noticeable, but again there was upside.
Young athletes including Anthony and bronze medal-winning snowboarder Tess Coady said that without family present, the Games had the normality of a World Cup event, which took off some of the intense Olympic pressure.
Despite pre-Games criticism about man-made snow, the competition venues were widely praised with many athletes vowing to return despite temperatures dropping as low as -27C.