Curtain set to fall on Beijing Olympics after tears, doping and Gu
A Beijing Winter Olympics beset by concerns about rights and Covid in the build-up and tarnished by a Russian doping scandal once under way were set to close on Sunday.
The curtain will come down on a Games which will be remembered for sporting excellence and the doping controversy which engulfed 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva, but also because they took place inside a vast Covid-secure "bubble".
The impressive "Bird's Nest" stadium -- which also took centre stage when Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Games -- will be the scene for the closing ceremony, as it was for the opening on February 4.
In the more than two weeks since, a new global star was born in the form of 18-year-old freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who was born in California but switched to China in 2019 and became the unofficial face of the Games.
There was a new men's figure skating champion in 22-year-old Nathan Chen of the United States, who dethroned Japan's two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, in what could be his final appearance at a Games.
Another legendary figure of winter sports, the American snowboarder Shaun White, will definitely not be returning to competition of any sort after calling it quits.
The 35-year-old's last competition ended agonisingly out of the medals and he was in tears as he bid farewell to snowboarding -- "the love of my life".
There was bitter disappointment for his fellow American, the ski star Mikaela Shiffrin, one of the biggest names at the Games, who went home without a medal.
There were tears from the teenager Valieva after it emerged that she had failed a drugs test prior to the Games, catapulting her to the forefront of yet another Russian doping controversy to mar an Olympics.
In what will go down as a notorious episode in the history of the Winter Olympics, the pre-tournament favourite for women's singles gold fell several times on the ice in the finals, to audible gasps from the socially distanced crowd of hand-picked spectators.
Her doping case looks certain to drag on in the coming months, long after the Games have ended. She was allowed to skate but has not been cleared of doping.
In a Games first, the skating team medals were not awarded after Valieva played a starring role in propelling the Russians to gold, ahead of the United States and Japan.
The American skaters made an 11th-hour court bid on Saturday to get their hands on their medals before they went home, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected them.
- Shiffrin's 'favourite memory' -
China and its ruling Communist Party will look back on a job well done -- fears about a mass Covid outbreak in the "closed loop" bubble sealing the nearly 3,000 athletes and about 65,000 others never materialised.
Some athletes did though catch the illness and saw their Olympic hopes obliterated, among them American figure skater Vincent Zhou.
"I've already lost count of the number of times I've cried today," the 21-year-old said in an emotional video from isolation.
The United States led a diplomatic boycott of its closest allies over China's rights record, especially the fate of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. Their athletes did however compete.
China had warned in the fraught build-up that foreign athletes criticising the authorities could face consequences, but in the end, any protests against the hosts were extremely muted.
There were milestones -- among them American bobsleigher Elana Meyers Taylor becoming the most decorated Black athlete in the history of the Winter Olympics.
Snowboarder Zoi Sadowski Synnott made history for New Zealand, winning her country's first Winter Games gold; with Gu winning two golds, the hosts enjoyed a significant medal bump and finished third in the medals table with nine golds.
That was easily their best performance in the Winter Games, a place ahead of chief geopolitical rival the United States, on eight golds.
For the second Games in a row, Norway topped the medals table, with 16 golds. Germany were second on 12.
Earlier Sunday, on the last day of action, Shiffrin said her United States team-mates got her through the Games even as she went home without a medal around her neck.
The mixed team parallel was her last opportunity to salvage something from the wreckage of these Olympics, after she inexplicably misfired in the individual events, skiing out of three races and finishing out of the medals in two others.
Her US team were beaten to bronze by Norway, but Shiffrin said: "I am not disappointed.
"I have had a lot of disappointing moments at these Games, today is not one of them. Today is my favourite memory."
The closing ceremony starts at 8:00pm (1200 GMT) with Beijing handing over to 2026 hosts Milano Cortina.