The 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies, in Beijing, were and remain the most widely watched event in the history of television. Zhang Yimou, the director of the ceremonies, marshalled thousands of performers for billions of viewers, beginning, famously, with 2,008 drummers who filled the stage with the light and sound of their mallets. Their ancient fou drums, equipped with electric lights, became the emblem of the spectacle: these drums, and these Olympics, made visible to the world China’s ancient culture, its technological aspirations, and to some watching from afar, its mobilization as a superpower.
Returning to Beijing to direct the 2022 Olympic opening ceremonies, Zhang scaled back, in deference to the party guidelines for the games: “small, safe, and splendid.” This year’s ceremonies began with a more concentrated troupe of just four hundred dancers, waving neon green stalks, representing dandelion shoots at the beginning of spring, who only managed to fill the stadium thanks to the animated graphics that radiated out around them on a gargantuan LED screen—the real centerpiece of the show, which turned the floor of the Bird’s Nest into a digital display more than 100,000 square feet in size. After Zhang had convincingly turned human actors into paintbrushes and blocks of type for his canvas in 2008, there was something decidedly underwhelming, in 2022, about a digital image of an ink drop turning into an animated waterfall, or twenty-four lasers artificially carving into an ice block.
There’s a good chance you haven’t seen what I’m describing. Like its predecessor in 2008, the 2022 ceremony set a viewership record—this time, by bringing in the smallest American audience NBC has ever had. The show will be remembered, above all, for its absent spectators, starting with the twelve delegations that refused to send dignitaries, a boycott in protest of the genocidal abuses against the Uyghur people of Xinjiang. Even those who did tune in may well have checked out early: the performance section was mostly relegated to the final moments of a two-hour slog, after a lengthy, unconvincing speech by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach extolling the values of the “Olympic truce” and telling the world to “give peace a chance.” One could be forgiven for not wanting to wait through yet another rendition (for the third straight Olympic ceremony!) of John Lennon’s “Imagine”—asking us once again to “Imagine there’s no countries” immediately after a literal parade of nations.
Invocations of an Olympic truce always ring hollow, but it was under more than the usual strain this year, given which heads of state remained in attendance and which acts of mass coordination were still being rehearsed. Arguably the most important scenes of the Olympic opener occurred in the preceding hours, in meetings between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, with hundreds of thousands of Russian troops hanging in the balance at Ukrainian borders. Having released a defiant joint statement on the day of the ceremonies, Putin and Xi very nearly stole the show, as commentators asked during the performance broadcast when exactly Putin might launch his invasion, and whether he’d risk disrupting Xi’s games. (It was two weeks later, the day after the Closing Ceremonies, that he made his first move, sending troops into Donetsk and Luhansk.)
But even those who skipped the ceremonies, or those distracted by the two despots in the stands, ended up seeing images of the on-field finale, the twist ending—much hinted at in his press appearances—of Zhang’s otherwise restrained display. The concluding act created a striking photograph for front pages everywhere: two young Chinese skiers planting the Olympic torch in the center of a digitally illuminated snowflake. According to Zhang, the focus was supposed to be on the flame itself, a final minimalist symbol for the evening. But the flame was never going to be the focus, and the gesture was anything but reserved. The real break from tradition was not the size of the fire, but the fact that it had two torchbearers: Zhao Jiawen, of Han descent, and Dinigeer Yilamujiang, of Uyghur descent.
On air, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie read the final bit of casting and choreography as the work of a second director: a “provocative . . . statement from Chinese president Xi Jinping,” an “in-your-face response” to international critics. As the snowflake and its flame took flight above the crowd, Mike Tirico remarked that its “grand style” was coupled with “unmistakable messaging.” In the dialogue that followed, Andy Brown argued that the act of defiance was “very much in line with recent Chinese behavior,” and in keeping with the general policy of Xi’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”: “faced with Western criticism and opprobrium, double down. Never let an insult go unanswered.”
The finale was one of several aspects of the ceremony, in fact, that had the character of an insult answered. For all of Zhang’s professions that the 2022 show was undertaken in a different spirit, there were a surprising number of call-backs to 2008. That year, two controversies had surrounded China’s child performers: first, that the fifty-six children carrying China’s flag, dressed up to represent the country’s fifty-six ethnic groups, were in fact mostly Han Chinese; and second, that 9-year-old Lin Miaoke had lip-synced the “Ode to the Motherland” over a recording of 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who was deemed not as photogenic. Rather than try to forget these scandals, the 2022 ceremonies magnified their memory, casting an even bigger group of regionally costumed flag-bearers (grown up, this time) and a giant choir of child singers—still visibly lip syncing over a recording. Also making a repeat appearance was the People’s Liberation Army Honor Guard, with the same goose-stepping routine that had unnerved reviewers and critics fourteen years before.
One of the most prominent critics that Zhang had to answer came from closer to home. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese conceptual artist, was initially one of Zhang’s 2008 collaborators, having conceived the general design for the Bird’s Nest stadium. By the time the 2008 ceremonies began, however, he had become one of the games’ most outspoken opponents, decrying the entire event as state propaganda. After the opening ceremonies for London 2012, observing the contrasts between Zhang’s serious spectacle for China and Danny Boyle’s more light-hearted welcome to England, Ai continued to criticize Beijing’s display as deeply insecure, even devoid of humanity. Last year, in his memoir 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, Ai published the notes he had taken while watching Zhang’s 2008 ceremony on television, pronouncing the Beijing Olympics to be “detached from history and ideas and values—detached from human nature, even.”
Reading Zhang’s comments to the press about Beijing 2022, it seems apparent that Ai’s comments got under his skin. Acknowledging that his goal, in 2008, had been to present five thousand years of Chinese history and civilization to the world—a demand for Beijing to be recognized as a peer to Athens and Olympia—Zhang recognized that “the rise of our national status” now made such gestures superfluous. The plan, this time, would be to represent “the Chinese people’s confidence,” rather than its need for validation. Zhang’s new objective, weighed against Ai’s repeated insinuations that his previous performers had been inhuman automatons with fake smiles, was to showcase “love and affection for the people of the world” alongside “the real inner thoughts of Chinese people.”
On its own terms, then, the torch-and-snowflake finale was a failure. Zhao and Yilamujiang, smiling and waving, revealed no more of their inner lives than when those smiles and waves had been specially rehearsed by 2,008 drummers. As the cultural historian Jing Tsu noted on air, when NBC returned to analyze the moment, “as with everything else tonight, there’s a double message.” What might have read to organizers, and to the local audience, as a sign of international and internal unity looked, to foreigners, like a confrontation.
Ordinarily, once the Opening Ceremonies end, the arena of combat shrinks. Commentators may continue to read political allegories and double messages into the gold-medal matches, but athletes, by and large, can ignore all that. For the duration of a downhill run or a skating routine, they are competing against the gate, the turn, the clock, or the leading technical score, not the grip of nationalism or geopolitics. Their opponents in the snow or on the ice understand their struggle and its subtleties better than any spectator ever could, which makes the other Olympians, rather than fellow citizens, their closest compatriots and keenest critics.
These Olympics were different. On the season’s biggest stages—the slalom, the halfpipe, the free skate—it frequently seemed as though athletes were competing against something unfamiliar and external, outside their control and outside the scope of their sports. Well before the start of the games, there were signs—the mysterious temporary disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, the withdrawal of NHL players from the hockey tournament over contrived Covid concerns, the confinement of infected athletes to shabby isolation facilities—that athletes, teams, and their umbrella organizations would have to scramble to respond to a series of uncomfortable surprises.
Toward the beginning of the games, NBC started to realize it had problems with its own script. The network’s carefully crafted redemption epic of the skier Mikaela Shiffrin was shifting genres into televised tragedy. Before Shiffrin competed in the giant slalom, NBC played intimate interviews of Shiffrin in her Colorado home, processing the grief of having lost her father two years ago and recalling a moment when she nearly gave up skiing. This has been a reliable formula for the network: give the home crowd the emotional backstory behind one of Team USA’s likeliest gold-medal stars, then wait for the athlete to write her own feel-good ending, turning adversity into triumph. But at the start of the giant slalom, Shiffrin skidded out at the fifth turn and missed a gate. Two days later, in the regular slalom, it happened again: having missed another early turn, Shiffrin turned uphill, took off her skis, and sat down on the snow by the edge of the course for twenty minutes with her head in her arms. Watching, one wanted desperately to look away, but the camera stayed fixed. An interviewer asked her, “What are you still processing?” Shiffrin replied, “Pretty much everything . . . makes me second-guess the last fifteen years.” The Colorado interview was supposed to mark the challenges Shiffrin had already overcome, but instead we were now watching her repeat that interview, live, with the same faltering voice and self-doubt. After a third crash in another event, Shiffrin’s despondency became our discomfort. On top of her own personal struggles, she was trying to live up to a story that NBC had built up around her. The weight of it was crushing.
These big expectations and big falls are part of any Olympics. This is particularly true for the winter games, when the crowd, in spite of itself, is always watching for the next terrible crash. What was striking about this particular saga was how much of it happened hors piste, beyond the bounds of the run—whether on Twitter, where Shiffrin responded directly to an avalanche of insults and attacks, or literally off to the side of the slope at the Yanqing skiing center, where the camera stayed locked on her silent emotional breakdown. This was a sign of things to come: as networks struggled to bring in television viewers to watch the events of the main stage, whether in the Bird’s Nest or on the athletic grounds, they started to fixate on the dramas playing out in the wings. In these maligned, unpopular Olympics, more and more athletes would be asked to take up fights outside athletic rivalries, against far-away critics and close-up shots.
These were the challenges for freestyle skier Eileen Gu and figure skater Zhu Yi, two teenagers born in California who each decided to compete for China. After Gu scored her first gold for her adopted country, spinning 1620 degrees in the women’s big air, so many local fans celebrated her victory on the social media site Weibo that the site temporarily crashed. The publicity was more mixed stateside: given that China does not allow dual citizenship, rumors swirled about the nature of Gu’s status as an American, with many Asian-Americans rallying behind her double identity while conservative commentators call her a “defector” or outright “traitor.” Meanwhile, around the same time that Gu was landing her gold-medal jump, Zhu Yi (previously Beverly Zhu) was crash-landing in a short program routine and costing China a bronze. As Zhu slid into the boards at the edge of the rink, China slid from third place to fifth in figure skating’s team event. Intensely aware that she needed to prove herself to the Chinese crowd—an audience skeptical of her language deficiencies, accusing her of stealing a spot from native Chinese skaters and speakers—Zhu had two more disastrous falls in her individual free skate and left the rink in tears. This time, Weibo was not subject to a crash but to censorship, as moderators tried to dam the flood of criticism that Chinese spectators immediately levied against the 19-year-old.
None of this compared, of course, to the scandal and scrutiny that exploded around Kamila Valieva and the Russian skating program. The shell corporation known as the “Russian Olympic Committee” (ROC)—stripped of Russia’s official flag and national title after the country engaged in a state-sponsored plot to dope athletes and evade drug tests in Sochi in 2014—already existed in a state of compromise, unofficially allowing its parent company, the Russian Federation, to continue its Winter Olympics dominance and rack up the second most medals in the games. This year, the ROC put the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the International Olympic Committee, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to the test again, and again found inexplicable loopholes. After it was revealed that Valieva, who had helped the ROC win a gold in the team event, had tested positive for the illegal metabolic modulator trimetazidine some two months before—but also that her case required further deliberation, since she is 15 years old and thus a “protected” minor—she was allowed to continue skating under a surprising new rule: if she succeeded in earning a medal, there would simply be no podium ceremony.
What followed was one of the most disillusioning finales in Olympic history. Taking the ice last in the free skate as the best skater from the short program, Valieva tried to take defiant strides to the snare drums of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, but landed awkwardly on her first jump. She touched her hand to the ice to catch herself on her second, then fell completely on her fourth. As the strings joined the melody, she tumbled again, seeming unsure of her footing from that point onward. At the end, after the recorded orchestra had come together with its final squawk of horns and cymbals, Valieva left the ice with a dispirited wave, throwing her hand in frustration. Having fallen twice in her routine, she would lose three steps in the rankings.
If the IOC, the ROC, and WADA had any momentary hope that this disastrous performance was some kind of providential gift that would foreclose further controversy—allowing the three remaining skaters atop the leaderboard to have their podium moment after all—they were quickly disabused. Audiences watched with deepening unease as the Russian coach, Eteri Tutberidze, greeted her 15-year-old skater with stern corrections, and as Valieva began to sob. Behind the kiss-and-cry booth, after the final standings were announced, fellow ROC skater Alexandra Trusova broke down too, refusing to accept that her five-quad performance had only won her a silver medal. “I hate this sport,” she said from behind her mask. “I will never go out on the ice again.” Left alone in the winner’s circle, the third of the Russians, Anna Scherbakova, looked completely dazed, saying nothing, holding a stuffed teddy bear foisted on her by Chinese organizers. It was startlingly clear, for a moment, that these performers were children.
Watching that scene, I remembered a bit of color commentary from a few days prior, when Valieva had completed her short program. Having mostly remained silent during the skate, NBC’s Lipinski and Johnny Weir wanted to underscore that what was happening was a violation of the usual rules. “You should not have seen this skate,” said Lipinski. Weir added, “We are sorry it is overshadowing your Olympics.” I could imagine hearing these words at the end of the free skate, too, watching one athlete after another break down from exhaustion with cameras pressed in their faces. This scene was, in Weir’s words, overshadowing our Olympics.
But of course these are our Olympics. That’s what the images of Mikaela Shiffrin, Eileen Gu, Zhu Yi, and Kamila Valieva scream at us. The Olympic spectacle in its most contemporary form is about taking individuals who, fundamentally, want to fly through the air, carve the side of a mountain, or coast across a frozen pond, and asking them, instead, to re-stage their moments of personal trauma, pass tests of political purity, give over bodily autonomy to their coaches, and, on top of all of that, justify billions of dollars in television contracts. At the intersection of political posturing verging toward outright brinkmanship, nationalist pageantry shading into outright propaganda, and camera coverage embracing outright invasion of privacy: that’s where we find Olympic athletes.
That brings us back to Dinigeer Yilamujiang, the 20-year-old cross-country skier from Xinjiang, who wanted to represent a sport native to her region and who was asked to conceal the ongoing crimes against its people. Unlike the other athletes who grabbed international headlines, we know very little about Yilamujiang’s Olympic story, but it is easy to surmise that hers mixes everything of theirs, combining the pressures of political intrigue, coercion by coaches, media packaging, and—almost inevitably, given the people who are her neighbors and relatives—personal trauma.
Just eighteen hours after taking center stage in the Opening Ceremonies, Yilamujiang competed in the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon in Taizicheng, more than a hundred miles northwest of Beijing. Expectations were high. In January, she had finished in the top four in three International Ski Federation events that took place near her home in Xinjiang, with a victory in the 5km. This was ostensibly one of the reasons she’d been among China’s torchbearers: she represented the youngest generation of the country’s most promising Olympic athletes. But athletes under this kind of pressure often skip the Opening Ceremonies when they have events the next day. For authorities to add a starring role in the Opening Ceremonies to Yilamujiang’s calendar, on top of the other stresses she faced, was courting disaster. In Taizicheng, conditions would be unforgiving: the race was taking place at high altitude, with single-digit temperatures and high winds. For a moment, amid the crowd of sixty-five skiers, NBC cameras picked out the young Chinese star, her face protected against the cold with strips of pink athletic tape, already huffing and puffing to keep her body warm. The first gold of the Olympic games was on the line.
Whether because the preceding twenty-four hours had worn her out, or because she simply wasn’t as competitive at the Olympic level as Chinese authorities had hoped, Yilamujiang fell behind early. There were glimpses of her in the back of the pack on the first lap of the classic section, but by the first checkpoint she was well out of contention and permanently off screen. NBC’s footage cut off before she reached the finish line, about six minutes after the leaders, in forty-third place. A dozen journalists waited at the official “mixed zone” to talk to her, but in defiance of IOC rules, Yilamujiang escaped around them. She faded further and further from view as the Olympics went on, both as a competitor and as the public face of the games. After failing to qualify for the quarterfinals of the free spring, she placed fifty-sixth in the 10km, skipped out of the 4x5km relay, and then, on the final day of Olympic competition, was the last to finish the 30km freestyle.
Having been one of the first stars of the games, Yilamujiang was the last woman standing at the bitter end. With five competitors dropping out across the grueling two-hour race, Yilamujiang came in at sixtieth place, three minutes after the last of her competitors had concluded. Graciously, Therese Johaug, the gold medalist from Norway, returned to the finish line to greet her. It was a final result that left a strikingly different image of Yilamujiang’s Olympics. Two weeks before, she’d held the torch with Zhao, in an apparent display of national unity and promise. Here on the other end, seven hours before the Closing Ceremonies, abandoned by all except a fellow skier from halfway around the world, she seemed very much alone.