The Biggest Takeaways from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

Jessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IFebruary 20, 2022

The Biggest Takeaways from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

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    It seems that wherever the Olympics go, controversy follows.

    There were bright moments at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, for sure. Snowboarder Chloe Kim succeeded in defending her halfpipe gold medal in a thrilling performance. Figure skater Nathan Chen achieved redemption after faltering in 2018, winning gold in the men's singles competition. Pairs skater Timothy LeDuc made history when they became the first publicly out nonbinary Winter Olympian.

    And then, of course, there's Bing Dwen Dwen, the delightfully dopey Olympic mascot that lit up social media.

    But aside from what we saw from individual athletes, larger controversies broke as well, ones that will hopefully lead to much-needed changes in how the Olympics are run. 

    Here are four takeaways from the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

The System for Selecting Host Cities Isn't Working

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    The decision to host the Games in Beijing this year was controversial

    Allegations of human rights violations committed by the Chinese government, including genocide against the Uyghur people, led to public outcry in the leadup to the Games. Plus, like with every Games, these Olympics prompted questions around the effects the events have on host cities, particularly vulnerable communities that won't reap the rewards of hosting.   

    It was disappointing, if not surprising, that the IOC did nothing to address these controversies. On the contrary, its decision to return to Beijing after the 2008 Olympics despite alleged human rights violations was an implicit condonation of Chinese officials' actions. 

    The IOC's insistence on staying neutral isn't just out of a desire to stay out of politics, though—it also needs to appease the few remaining countries who are willing to host the increasingly costly Olympics. In doing so, it allows governments to use the Olympics as a PR boost. 

    Clearly, something needs to change to prevent this from happening again. As long as the IOC still names a new host for each Olympics, it's likely that communities will suffer and authoritarian governments will continue to receive support. It's long overdue, but the IOC needs to finally find a permanent home for the Olympics.

The World's Top Athletes Are Still Human

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    Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

    One of the best alpine skiers in the world, Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin was expected to dominate at these Olympics, where she was slated to compete in five individual events. 

    Instead, she fell—not once, not twice, but three times, shocking the sporting world and reigniting a conversation around mental health in athletes.   

    In what she called "an epic underperformance," Shiffrin fell on her side 11 seconds into the giant slalom event; two days later in the slalom event, she skidded off the course and then sat off to the side, devastated, for 25 minutes. Then, after finishing ninth in the Super-G and completing the downhill portion of the combined event, Shiffrin faltered again, in the slalom portion.

    Almost immediately, Shiffrin's performances prompted comparisons to what happened to gymnast Simone Biles at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Biles, largely expected to win at least four golds at those Games, instead came down with the "twisties" and withdrew from most of her events. 

    Biles voiced her support for Shiffrin after the skier posted on Instagram some of the negative responses she's gotten about her performance. "Just remember how AMAZING you are," Biles wrote. "We’re all cheering for you, proud of you, love & support you!"

    Like with Biles, Shiffrin's experience has shown us that even the toughest competitors, those with the highest expectations on them coming into the Olympics, have doubts and fears and bad days. 

    Regardless of her performance, though, her message of "Get up because you can" is just as inspiring as any gold medal-winning race.

Russia Shouldn't Be Allowed to Compete at the Olympics

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    The Russian Olympic Committee faced consequences after it was revealed that it had engaged in widespread, systemic doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games—Russian athletes aren't allowed to compete under the Russian flag at the Olympics, and when they win gold, the national anthem isn't played.   

    But after yet another doping controversy dominated the news cycle during these Olympics, it's clear that those consequences were far from enough, and Russian athletes shouldn't be allowed to attend at all. 

    When it became known that Kamila Valieva—the 15-year-old Russian figure skating phenom who was widely expected to take gold at the Olympics—had tested positive for a banned substance from a sample taken in December, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency provisionally suspended her. Then, for unclear reasons, the suspension was lifted upon appeal. It's also unclear why the positive test was delayed for so long. 

    Whether this was due to institutional incompetence or something more sinister, the effects of RUSADA's actions were far-reaching. The scandal left a 15-year-old athlete embroiled in controversy. The rest of the women's singles figure skaters, meanwhile, had to compete in a tainted competition, knowing that if Valieva medaled, there would be no ceremony in case an investigation would result in her medals being stripped.

    The situation also leaves four figure skating teams in limbo with regards to their Olympic medals. On Friday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the U.S. athletes who won silver in the figure skating team competition will not receive their medals at the Games. That means they—along with Valieva's teammates, who won gold; Japan, who came in third; and Canada, who came in fourth—will have to wait until an investigation into Valieva is complete before finding out what color their medals will be, and to finally hold them. 

    None of this would have happened if the ROC had faced actual consequences the first time around. Now, it's time to finally ban Russia from competing in the Olympics.

It's Time to Revisit Age Minimums

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    The Beijing doping scandal illuminates another glaring problem with figure skating: young athletes' vulnerability to exploitation by the very adults who are supposed to protect them.   

    When the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva could compete in the Olympics despite testing positive for a banned substance two months prior, they said in a statement that keeping her out of the competition would cause her "irreparable harm."

    It was clear from Valieva's free skate, though, that their ruling caused her the harm they were intending to avoid. No doubt reeling from days of media scrutiny, Valieva, known for her steady, error-free performances, fell twice and made several other large errors in her long program. She left the ice in tears and sobbed as her scores came in. 

    Valieva's coach Eteri Tutberidze's response to her performance made the situation all the more heartbreaking. When Valieva left the ice, Tutberidze, who has been accused of abusive coaching practices, was not supportive. Instead, she said: "Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me. Why?" The horrifying lack of empathy prompted IOC president Thomas Bach to respond, saying he was "very disturbed" by Tutberidze's "tremendous coldness."

    Valieva's young age makes one question whether she has the capacity to consent to taking a performance-enhancing drug. It also makes her more vulnerable to mistreatment, by the adults in her care and by the public at large. Raising the age minimum in figure skating won't bring an end to doping or abuse, but it would make it so that another athlete her age would never find herself in this situation again.