A cardboard Great Wall and a McNuggets robot: Olympics Beijing wasn’t the real China

Friendly volunteers and fast athletes created the most authentic moments of an otherwise cold and surreal 2022 Winter Games.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Chen performs his routine in the figure skating men's free skate program at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in Beijing, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Beijing • Deep in the bowels of the Main Media Center, the convention center-turned-hub for the 9,000-plus journalists who descended upon the Beijing Olympics, sits a section of the Great Wall of China.

Or some reasonable facsimile.

The less-than life-size cardboard cutout of a length of the 30,000-mile iconic stone structure, which was built 1,500 years ago to keep out invaders, is one of four reliefs of China’s most famous landmarks that line the hallway to the dining hall, where robots make both Peking duck and chicken McNuggets. During a break from their toils, media types and volunteers alike can get their pictures taken while kneeling behind a golden calf near the Summer Palace, admiring the colorful tower of the Temple of Heaven and contemplating a snarling lion statue at the Forbidden City. For those needing help with their photo composition, nearby signs suggest a variety of poses.

The real Great Wall, meanwhile, remained just out of reach. It could be seen from a distance as a gold ribbon illuminated along the ridgeline behind the cross country and ski jumping venues. Or, apparently, glimpsed out of a grimy window during the 80-minute bus ride from Beijing to Yangqing, the site of sliding sports and Alpine skiing. Visiting it in person, however, was generally not permissible.

In many ways, that cardboard cutout of the Great Wall served as the perfect metaphor for these Olympics. Though the Winter Games were in China, they weren’t really in China. Though their slogan was “Better, Faster, Stronger, Together,” the participants and the people were never really together, at least if they obeyed the “no sitting” signs posted on every other chair. Though the action happened right before our eyes, it always felt — and often was — an arm’s length from reality.

“So you know how they go into Lord Farquaad’s kingdom and everything is perfect but it’s kind of a ghost town. I kind of envision it being like that. Or it could be totally epic and the Chinese are going to be totally awesome and loud and outgoing and cheering for everybody.”

— Nick Goepper, slopestyle skiing silver medalist from Park City, on his pre-Games prediction that the Olympic bubble in Beijing would resemble the town of Duloc from the movie “Shrek”

The distancing started as soon as the plane pulled in next to an otherwise vacant terminal of the Beijing Capital Airport. A group of workers in full hazmat suits greeted passengers and directed them to a waiting area. Guests then had to pass inspections of their health and of their luggage. This included a deep nasal swab and a baggage claim that resembled a swap meet, with suitcases and ski bags laid out in rows in a parking lot and no one willing to get close enough to help sort through it all.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Medical staff watch speedskating at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Entry to the hotel wasn’t much better. Guests were directed to go to their rooms and stay there until the results of their tests arrived. Almost every hotel employee except the front desk staff — from house cleaners to COVID testers to room service deliverers — was clad in head-to-toe PPE.

At the venues and inside the Olympic park, however, that wasn’t the case at all. There the foreigner-facing volunteers, always dressed in their light blue-and-white jackets and white KN-95 masks, sought out contact. They would wave and bounce and rush toward anyone who looked the slightest bit lost or confused with answers at the ready. Also always up for a selfie, they would provide the closest physical contact most of the journalists would have for weeks — aside from bumping elbows with each other in the interview areas and at the snack table.

“I remember going to the Beijing Zoo, so every time we drive (to Capital Indoor Stadium) from the Village, I see the zoo and (think), ‘Oh, I was here when I was 10.’”

— Nathan Chen, Salt Lake City figure skating gold medalist

China established an “Olympic bubble” ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to the general public and vice versa. No intermixing would be tolerated. Fences were erected around the perimeter of the MMC with security screenings and temperature checks at all entries. Dedicated trains, buses and taxis shuttled Olympic personnel between venues, even those just across the road. No trip took less than 15 minutes. Visiting either of the mountain sites, located from 50 to 112 miles from the city, required a minimum of three hours and four shuttles.

In some places, though, the barriers were almost imperceptible. That included the low fences encircling a pavilion just outside the media center, where journalists could watch Chinese citizens posing next to a larger-than-life likeness of panda mascot Bing Duen Duen and the citizens could watch the journalists in their natural habitat. So, while it was impossible to visit the Beijing Zoo, which sits along the bus route to the figure skating and short track speedskating venues, it was easy to imagine what it would be like inside — at least from the caged animals’ perspective.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A small group of fans watches freestyle skiing moguls qualifications at the Zhangjiakou Genting Snow Park during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

The spectators brought in groups for each event must have felt similarly on display. At some events, such as the bronze-medal curling match between the USA and Canada, a back-and-forth affair between two rivals, it was painfully apparent they weren’t fans of the sport. They sat stoically through the match, rarely uttering a sound. A few scrolled through their phones. One even settled in with a good book.

Other events generated more natural engagement, however. Yells were generally frowned upon as COVID spreaders, but occasionally outbursts erupted, especially in events that featured a Chinese medal contender. That went three-fold if her name was Tao-Tao or Eileen Gu.

“We have reviewed your request and cannot reinstate your Google Voice service. Your Google Voice service has been suspended for violations of our Google Voice Policies.”

— email from the Google Voice Team

In addition to the actual physical separation at these Olympics, a notable tech gap existed. Google and Apple pulled out of the country years ago and their phones and search engines didn’t play nicely with otherwise unsecured hotspots.

As promised, China allowed within the bubble a network without restrictions. But accessing that network proved hit and miss anywhere except on the field of play. And even when it was accessible, that didn’t keep those companies from raising their own internal red flags about someone using a Chinese IP address. From personal experience, Google Voice, Visa and the audio transcription service Trint all separately shut down access to my account because of hacking concerns.

“It’s definitely cold-cold.”

— Brad Wilson, moguls skier from Park City

Distant did not apply to one element of these Olympics: the cold. Temperatures dipped to 3 degrees Fahrenheit on some days, or -9 with the windchill. Photographers’ lenses cracked from the cold. Life was sucked from batteries. Water bottles and fingers froze in pockets. Toes numbed, as did other body parts. The chill seeped into the bones of athletes and those supporting them.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lindsey Jacobellis slides into the finish, winning the gold medal in mixed team snowboard cross at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.

In the women’s team sprint, Rosie Brennan of Park City and former Westminster College athlete Jessie Diggins took turns circling the cross country course in Zhangjiakou, where race time was moved up two hours to avoid the worst of the cold. Their suffering didn’t end with their leg of the race, though. Each then had to find a way to stay warm in single-degree temperatures while sweaty until it was again her turn to go out and ski.

“We have heated socks, windproof layers, I don’t know. Buffs, face tape,” Brennan said. “Running around with your parka on.”

To keep her trigger finger warm, Joanne Firesteel Reid taped hand warmers to the top and bottom of her wrists and pulled a kid-sized glove over them. As she said, “If it works, it works.”

“Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting?”

— Eteri Tutberidze, coach of 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva

Perhaps at no point did these Olympics feel more surreal than when 15-year-old Kamila Valieva was on the ice. Like the Great Wall, she struck awe into anyone who saw her, with her combination of grace and quad jumps. But like the photos with the Great Wall, it became difficult to decipher what was real and what wasn’t once she was found to be competing despite testing positive for a banned substance.

In the end, she, like sections of the Great Wall, crumbled. Her rocky free skate cost her the title and allowed the IOC to avoid a controversy over whether or not it should hold a medals ceremony in the event. Even more awe-inspiring, however, was the drama that followed. Her own coach appeared to admonish her for not withstanding the pressure, a reception IOC president Thomas Bach later called “chilling” while the silver-medalist threw a tantrum about not having a gold. The Kremlin, meanwhile, voiced approval of Tutberidze’s tactics for the medals she produced.

“The harshness of a coach in high-level sport,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “is key for their athletes to achieve victories.”

“I never really thought that I would be able to actually make it this far in my career. I’d always dreamed about making the Olympics, but, you know, that’s hard. I didn’t know if I could make that happen. So, yeah, I mean, I haven’t really had time to process it fully, but it’s amazing.”

— Nathan Chen of Salt Lake City, on winning the gold medal in men’s figure skating

Considering all the barriers, both physical and psychological, it’s a wonder any athletes or coaches or journalists made it to the Olympics at all. But they did make it, by the thousands. Of those, a few athletes broke through the haze and brought us moments where the Olympic spirit didn’t feel so far away.

One was Chen seizing his moment, gaining redemption over 2018 and winning the gold medal even though his mother and family from Beijing couldn’t be in the seats watching him.

Another was the palpable joy, relief and Valentine’s Day love that filled the air around Genting Snow Park when China’s Xu Mengtao nailed her back-full-full-full on Feb. 14. One of a record four women to attempt the triple flip, she cleanly landed it to set the table for China’s first gold medal in aerial skiing after five silvers. Though the win came at the expense of Salt Lake City’s Ashley Caldwell, who had recorded all of the day’s top scores until then, the sheer number of volunteers who found themselves huddled together there in the sub-zero temperatures to watch the finale and the number of tears they and “Tao-Tao” shed indicated what a proud moment it was for the Chinese people.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Jackson (USA) wins the gold medal in the speedskating women's 500m at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022.

There was Colby Stevenson winning silver in the inaugural Olympic big air ski competition — set against the post-apocalyptic backdrop of an abandoned steel mill — six years after a life-threatening car accident. A couple days later, two of his Park City buddies, Alex Hall and Nick Goepper, collected gold and silver in slopestyle.

Then, of course, there was the most touching moment of the Olympics: Erin Jackson’s speedskating gold. Jackson’s groundbreaking performance in the 500 meters, which made her the first Black woman to earn gold in an individual event at the Winter Games was made even richer by its backstory.

Jackson’s teammate Brittany Bowe, whom she had looked up to since both were inline skaters in Ocala, Florida, surrendered her own spot in the race following the trials to give Jackson a shot. That Jackson honored that gesture by winning the gold is the stuff Disney movies are made of.

“I don’t think either of us knew the magnitude of those actions,” said Bowe, who later collected bronze in the 1,000 for her first individual medal. “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.”

For a brief time, it was possible to forget the things keeping us apart and remember that kindness will bring us together and lift us up.

Maybe even higher than the Great Wall.