By sportswriter He Leijing, BEIJING, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- The Olympic flame has been extinguished, bringing down the curtain on the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, but the passion still lingers from the sports gala that has enlivened and inspired the world amid the pandemic.
After all 109 medal events had been decided, the closing ceremony was held on Sunday at the National Stadium in Beijing, the first ever city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The Olympic baton now has been passed to the Italian cities Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo, which will host the 2026 Winter Games.
The 2022 Winter Olympics stands out as it both provided a stage for the world's top winter sports athletes and also highlighted China's efforts to host a safe and sustainable global-scale event.
Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), lauded the Beijing Winter Olympics as "truly exceptional" when addressing at the closing ceremony Sunday night.
"The Olympic spirit could only shine so brightly, because the Chinese people set the stage in such an excellent way - and in a safe way," said Bach.
"The Olympic Villages were outstanding. The venues - magnificent. The organization - extraordinary... This unforgettable experience was only possible because of our gracious hosts, the Chinese people," he added.
THE OLYMPIC SPIRIT SHINES
"Let the Olympic spirit of peace, mutual respect, and understanding shine throughout the Games and beyond," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a video message to the opening of the Games on February 4.
And the smooth running of the Olympics has met what the organizers promised - that is, to warm up the world through greatness in winter sports and offer up tear-jerking and heart-filled moments.
Ski prodigy Gu Ailing caused a huge sensation at the Olympics, as the 18-year-old became the first freestyle skier to win three medals in a single Games, inspiring millions of people of younger generations.
"It's really great to see and it's so inspiring. She makes me want to be a better skier myself. I think she's amazing for the sport," said British freestyler Zoe Atkin.
Inspiring stories of breakthroughs also came at the National Speed Skating Oval, where Sweden's Nils van der Poel lowered his own previous world record in 10,000m and home favorite Gao Tingyu became the first-ever Chinese male Olympic gold medalist in speed skating.
The host nation dispatched a 388-member contingent, including 177 athletes. With its largest-ever presence in the Winter Games, China recorded its best-ever Winter Olympic haul of 15 medals, while powerhouse Norway leads the medal count with 37 medals, 16 of which are gold.
But medals are not all that matters at the Olympic Games.
After losing to the United States, China's curling duo Fan Suyuan and Ling Zhi presented their American counterparts, Vicky Persinger and Chris Plys with a set of pin badges featuring Bing Dwen Dwen, the mascot for the Games that has gone viral.
China's four-time Olympian Xu Mengtao finally realized her dream of winning an Olympic gold in the women's aerials and she burst into tears before receiving a long hug from American freestyle skier Ashley Caldwell. "Taotao! Olympic champion!" Caldwell warmly said to Xu, referring to her nickname, adding, "I am so proud of you!"
Despite coming in last in the women's 3,000m, German speed skater Claudia Pechstein embraced the result as if she had won a gold. "It's my success!" remarked the 49-year-old who made history to become the oldest woman Winter Olympian, and the first-ever female to compete in eight Winter Olympics.
SAFE AND SPLENDID
With more than 10,000 athletes, journalists and officials from around the world having descended on Beijing, the organizers met the daunting challenge of holding a safe Games by employing a closed loop system that went into operation in late January.
Typified by daily nucleic acid testing and designated shuttle buses connecting different facilities, the closed loop saw COVID-19 cases decline from a peak of 26 cases on February 2 to zero on February 13 and only one new positive case was reported since February 16.
"The situation inside the closed loop is safe and there is no sign of virus transmission, which can be said to have met our expectations," said Brian McCloskey, chief of the Beijing 2022 Medical Expert Panel.
Christophe Dubi, the IOC's Olympic Games Executive Director, spoke highly of China's efforts to hold a virus-free Olympics. "Really no effort is spared, no stone unturned to keep everybody safe. The degree of sophistication of the operation is something unprecedented," he said.
"The COVID-19 countermeasures at the Village were at the highest level, and officials were diligent on social distancing and mask-wearing requirements. After each meal, tables and eating areas were disinfected," said Furkan Akar, a Turkish short-track speed skater.
China has lived up to its promise of delivering the world a "safe and splendid" Winter Olympics, as it also went to great lengths to showcase a future world which has robot chefs cooking meals, self-driving cars and smart navigation supported by augmented reality and artificial intelligence.
Off the competition venues, athletes have taken to social media to share stories about their life since arrival, and dishes that satiate their appetites are among the most popular hashtags.
"It is very obvious that the athletes are happy and are more than happy. They are extremely satisfied with the venues, with the Villages, with the services having been offered, and with the safety within the closed loop under these very difficult circumstances," said IOC chief Bach.
And the Games has attracted unparalleled viewership. According to Timo Lumme, managing director of television and marketing services for the IOC, about two billion people worldwide have been tuning in to watch the Olympics.
"The IOC-owned Olympic social media accounts have surpassed 2.7 billion engagements for Beijing 2022. There, I'm not speaking of the many other means and platforms," Bach said, noting the trend towards digital engagement with the Games is also record-breaking.
AN ENDURING OLYMPIC LEGACY
Beijing 2022 has been a journey about both physical and human infrastructure: encompassing green construction and reuse of venues, and massive investment to fuel domestic participation in winter sports.
Several technologies were applied for the first time to realize a carbon-neutral event. All competition venues were powered with renewable energy, marking a first in the Games history. As a gesture of the Games' sustainable intent, the National Speed Skating Oval in downtown Beijing - which measures 12,000 square meters - is the first Olympic venue in the world to use carbon dioxide for making ice.
The impressive Big Air Shougang has seen world's top snowboarders flying down ramps built on the side of former cooling towers, but the gigantic ski ramp rising from a disused steel mill was designed with a bigger agenda: boosting the winter sports industry and tourism.
"The design of new solutions for the venues will be a sign for everyone else that it is doable," said Dubi.
"Sports venues and infrastructure are certainly the tangible legacies of the Games, but the human capital is possibly an even more impactful aftermath. Engaging and educating children and youths about the Olympic Games and Olympic values goes beyond sport," he added.
The world can expect the passion generated for winter sports to loom larger and longer, as more Chinese people become true-hearted winter sports enthusiasts due to the Games.
As of last October, around 346 million people -- about a quarter of the country's population -- have participated in winter sports since China's successful bid to host the Winter Olympics, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. China's winter sports industry is projected to achieve one trillion RMB in value by 2025.
China's fulfillment of its pledge to engage 300 million people in winter sport was praised by Bach, who hailed it as an "unprecedented, great achievement" and an important legacy of Beijing 2022.
"With over 300 million people now engaged in winter sports, with the great success of the Chinese athletes, the positive legacy of these Olympic Winter Games is ensured," said Bach.
"With the truly exceptional Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 we welcome China as a winter sport country."
And the inspiration derived from the 2022 Olympics goes far beyond sport.
"What we could learn is that in the Olympic movement if we are united, we can be extremely resilient," said Bach, adding that this has been demonstrated by organizing Olympics under the pandemic.
The Games could also very much contribute to expanding the global knowledge and better understanding of China's philosophy and ideas, said Muhammad Asif Noor, secretary general of the Pakistan Shanghai Cooperation Organization Friendship Forum.
The Games' motto of "Together for a Shared Future" corresponds to China's aspiration of building a community with a shared future for mankind, he added.