Before he left town, Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris called the Beijing Games a version of “sports prison.”
He was joking – sort of – but he wasn’t far off.
The cordoned-off Olympic bubble that pops when the closing ceremony ends on Sunday has produced its usual collage of amazing athletes doing great things.
But the Games have been witnessed through a sealed-off looking glass – a lens warped and sterilised by Beijing’s organising committee with underwriting from the Chinese government.
The ultimate sponsor is the IOC, which has been under fire for producing Games that, to many, have felt soulless while also being tainted by scandal and political posturing.
“I think that sometimes it doesn’t seem like their heart is in the right place,” the outspoken freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy said.
“It feels like it’s a greed game. I mean, the Olympics are so incredible. But it’s a TV show.”
As the IOC pulls up stakes from Beijing, it has 29 months to hit the reset button and hope for a different, COVID-free and much better vibe when the Summer Games go to Paris.
The lingering question is whether, even in a more-welcoming, democratic locale, the Olympic overseers can repair their reputations to the point that people – most notably, the dwindling TV audience and the increasingly alienated throng of athletes – start to enjoy this enterprise again.
There are some images they’ll have to work to forget.
Tennis player Peng Shuai and IOC President Thomas Bach hung out together to watch freeskier Eileen Gu’s first gold medal.
Thousands of testers, cloaked head to toe in personal protective gear, shoved swabs down athletes’ throats day after day for their mandatory COVID-19 screenings.
And, of course, there was the Russian doping scandal, all personified by the image of 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva crying after her disastrous long program while her coach asked: “Why did you stop fighting?”
But how many fans were watching?
Through last Tuesday, the Nielsen Company said prime-time viewership on the USA’s NBC, which pays the lion’s share of the bills for these Games, and its streaming service Peacock was down 42 percent from a 2018 Games that didn’t do all that well, either.
The simplest explanation is to point toward the ever-increasing menu of viewing options and the time difference – this was the third straight Winter Games held in Asia.
That the IOC had to turn to authoritarian Russia, then China, for two of its last three Winter Olympics speaks to a larger problem that underscores how much less people care.
Cities willing to foot the bill for the Games, then share the heat with the IOC over a years-long buildup, are harder to find.
The IOC decision to hand over one of its crown jewels to China came with compromises.
Beijing’s organising committee and the Chinese government, took extreme measures to keep the COVID-19 virus, which originated inside its borders two years ago, from spreading.
It also made subtle but persistent suggestions that speaking out about any issue that makes for bad headlines in China – human rights, Uyghurs, Taiwan, Hong Kong, pollution – were not welcome.
Athletes were gently reminded that the IOC’s much-discussed and somewhat-liberalised Olympic demonstration rules were secondary to China’s own laws and customs, which do not encourage dissent.
The penalty for violating? Nobody was sure. But these Games brought with them the looming threat of a positive test, maybe from out of the blue, that could end an athlete’s chance for glory.
Many countries advised their athletes to leave their cell phones at home, afraid of government cyberhacks and information harvesting.
There were some beautiful moments, too, along with some others that brought out the raw emotion in a way that only the Olympics can.
Shaun White’s farewell to snowboarding after five Olympics touched hearts. Mikaela Shiffrin’s willingness to unflinchingly face her setbacks was a reminder that there’s more to be gained from the Games than trips to the medals podium.
China’s favorite story might have come from Gu. The 18-year-old freeskier made history by becoming the first winter action-sports athlete to win three medals in the same Olympics – two golds and a silver.
The fact that Gu is American and chose to compete for her mother’s homeland of China, also made it clear that, her good intentions aside, there is no taking politics out of these Games.
When Bach brought the Chinese tennis champion Peng, whose safety has been in question for months, to the venue for Gu’s first contest, cynics ripped into the IOC for using the teenager’s golden moment to help whitewash the perceived sins of its hosts.
At its core, the Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of sports where the world comes together for two weeks to forget its problems. They are not supposed to dabble in politics.
In many eyes, any remnants of that worldview disintegrated when Russian President Vladimir Putin, his country actively amassing troops along the Ukrainian border, joined Bach and China’s president, Xi Jinping, at the opening ceremony.
In the end, no athlete’s plight told the story of the Beijing Games more viscerally than that of Valieva.
When the litany of Russian doping scandals started unfurling, shortly after the end of the 2014 Sochi Games, the IOC had the advantage of the knowing that the controversy would largely take place outside of the Games themselves and out of the general public’s view.
The Valieva case can be fairly viewed as a byproduct of all the half-measures taken to sanction the Russians. But her drama played out while the party was in full swing.
It cast a dark cloud over a Games that already had issues.
*Eddie Pells for AAP