Moments before the XXIII Winter Games ended amid a furious barrage of K-pop and firecrackers, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, insisted: “We have seen here how sport can make the world a better place … these are the Games of new horizons.”

Watching athletes from North and South Korea strolling happily together, for once separated by centimetres rather than 73 years’ antipathy, it was entirely possible to be swept along by waves of sentiment and hope.

Yet another image of Bach, from earlier in the day, was also hard to shake: one of the IOC president despondently confirming that Russian athletes would not march under their own flag at Sunday’s closing ceremony, because of two doping violations at these Games.

Especially as, with his very next breath, he also promised that the Russian Olympic Committee’s suspension would be lifted very soon if there were no more positive tests. That suspension was imposed on 5 December and will have probably lasted less than 100 days when it is lifted.

As a response to the most audacious state-sponsored doping programme in history, it counts as barely a slap on the wrist – even when a $15m fine, being forced to call themselves “Olympic Athletes from Russia”, and a ban on the Russian flag and anthem in Pyeongchang is tacked on.

A closing ceremony that began with the crowd of 35,000 people counting down together to say “one” as the athletes entered the stadium ended with the Russians close to being officially readmitted to the Olympic fold.

“Was it really right to draw a line through what had happened?” Bach was asked. “I don’t think, quite frankly, that the Olympics have been tainted by the Russian affair because we had no Russian team here,” he replied, brushing the issue that has bookended these Games aside.

In the VIP seats for the closing ceremony were US president Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, the South Korean president Moon Jae-in, and the vice-chairman of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s party central committee, Kim Yong-chol.

Moon later told the cheering supporters: “The Games at Pyeongchang has come to an end, but the time of peace will continue … in Korea, we will continue our endeavour to broaden the horizon of peace that began in Pyeonchang.”

The ceremony also featured traditional and modern Korean dance, a giant turtle, and a guitar solo of part of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played by a 13-year-old.

Yet there was also sadness as the Olympic flame was finally snuffed out after 16 days of competition across 102 events. Because when the politics stopped, the sport was frequently spectacular.

The star of the Games was undoubtedly Ester Ledecka, the 22-year-old sporting polymath from the Czech Republic. It was audacious enough that she had entered ski and snowboard competitions. But then, incredibly, she won a shock gold in the Super-G ski before, six days later, storming home in the snowboard parallel giant slalom.

Ester Ledecka
Double gold medallist Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic: ‘the star of the Games’. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

It made Ledecka the first woman to win gold in different sports at a Winter Olympics in history – and a bona fide star.

There was also a neat touch in the fact that Norway was able to top the medal table with 39 medals – and 14 golds – thanks to Marit Bjørgen’s gold medal on the 30km cross-country skiing in the final event of these Games. It meant the 37-year-old clinched a record eighth gold medal, and Norway had pipped Germany, who also had 14 golds.

Britain finished 19th with one gold and four bronzes, which was broadly in line with expectations. The intriguing question is what happens next. After Sochi, UK Sport doubled its investment in winter sports to £28m and there was talk among some members of Team GB in Pyeongchang of wanting to be a top-five ski and snowboard country in the future – a move that would need more money.

Some will regard that as rightly ambitious. Others, as folly. But certainly there were performances that captivated the nation, from Lizzy Yarnold becoming the first Briton to retain a Winter Olympics title to Elise Christie ripping the ligaments in her ankle and her hopes of a medal in the short track speed skating.

Meanwhile seeing the likes of Billy Morgan, a 28-year-old former roofer who won a bronze medal in big air, and Molly Summerhayes, who works in McDonald’s in Sheffield and competed in the halfpipe, made it clear that winter sports are not just the preserve of the posh and the privileged.

It helped, too, that there were a raft of medals for South Korean home favourites, including a silver for the popular “Garlic Girls” curling team on Sunday, while the thousands of helpful volunteers who cheerfully braved sub-zero temperatures ensured that these Games were a success.

The North Korean cheerleading squad were another disarming highlight, although it was tempting to wonder what their lives are like now, away from gawping mouths and the lenses of the world’s media.

Then there was Russia. On the final day of competition, the Olympic Athletes from Russia won their second gold of the Games, in the men’s ice hockey. But it only inched them up to 13th in the medal table – a far cry from their first place in Sochi when their athletes were fuelled by a cocktail of steroids as well as patriotic fervour.

Their hockey players sung the national anthem in celebration – which broke the IOC’s set of “conduct guidelines” for the OAR team. Not that Bach or anyone else will care. And there is a pattern here. For according to the Washington Post, Russian spies were also guilty of a massive hack of computers at the opening ceremony, yet the IOC appear willing to give the country a pass over that too.

Yet these Games were a success, which is something you couldn’t have been sure about barely a fortnight ago. Back then, all sorts of worries swirled around Pyeongchang – including the uncertainty over how North and South Korea would act, the forecast -20C temperatures, the worsening norovirus and the prospect of winds decimating the Alpine schedule. But, quickly and emphatically, the sport took over.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

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