Winter Olympics: highs, lows, heroes and villains of Beijing 2022

Best moment

Sean Ingle The women’s figure skating free programme. An extraordinary evening of ice and fire, tears and peril. The heart felt for Kamila Valieva as the tears began to roll after the pressures of an extraordinary week caught up for her, but the eyes were also drawn to her teammate Alexandra Trusova and her extraordinary reaction after her five quads were rewarded with only a silver medal. “I will never go out on the ice again,” she said. ‘Never! I hate this sport! It’s impossible! You cannot do it this way! I’m not going to the awards! Everyone has a gold medal! Only I don’t! I hate it all!”

Bryan Armen Graham The American speed skater Erin Jackson, who thought her Beijing dream had ended after a fall at last month’s US trials appeared to cost her a place in the team, earned an Olympic gold (and a namecheck from Viola Davis) by winning the women’s 500m at the Ice Ribbon. In doing so, the converted inline skater became the first Black woman to win an individual gold in a Winter Olympics event.

Martin Belam I gasped out loud when Nils van der Poel broke the Olympic record in the last pairing of the 5,000m men’s speed skating and snatched the gold after his great rival Patrick Roest of the Netherlands had sat watching pair after pair of skaters fail to get near his new benchmark. Van der Poel later spoke out about how “irresponsible” the IOC were to give China hosting rights.

Star of the Games

SI The boring answer is Eileen Gu, who won two golds and a silver in the freeski. But Trusova gets silver. The American Lindsey Jacobellis takes bronze for her two snowboard cross titles and particularly her grab at the end of the mixed event, which banished the ghosts of 2006 for ever.

Lindsey Jacobellis (left) overtakes Italy’s Michela Moioli to win gold for the USA in the mixed team snowboard cross big final. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Images

BAG The correct if obvious answer is Eileen Gu. The 18-year-old San Francisco-born freeskier representing her mother’s home nation of China delivered under the immense pressure of being the face of these Beijing Games. She became the first action-sports athlete to win three medals at a single Olympics – missing out on triple gold by a fraction of a point in slopestyle – while annoying a growing number of Americans along the way. Hard to imagine her not being one of the world’s top-earning athletes over the next decade.

MB Quentin Fillon Maillet. Others won more golds in biathlon – Johannes Thingnes Bø I’m looking at you – but a heartbreaking fourth place in his final men’s 15km mass start event prevented the Frenchman making it an incredible six medals from six gruelling biathlon races in 14 days. He ended up with two golds and three silvers.

Biggest disappointment

SI The long, long, long trips to the mountains. And not being able to see Beijing at all because of the closed loop we all found ourselves in, unable to leave our guarded hotel except to go to a venue or media centre.

BAG It was difficult to imagine the reputation of an event known as the Genocide Games sinking any lower, but Kamila Valieva’s presence in the glamour event after a positive drugs test managed to pull it off. By the end, a worldwide audience of millions watched the favourite melt down spectacularly then get chewed out by her coach before she was even off the ice, the silver medallist uncontrollably sob rage-tears and appear to retire on the spot while the gold medallist sat by herself catatonic in the green room holding a teddy bear and ignored by everyone. All of this was green-lit in order to – checks notes – prevent irreparable harm. Might even unseat the Nancy-Tonya debacle for on-the-night messiness.

MB Men’s and women’s ice hockey organised to feature 38 pool matches resulted in the grand total of two women’s teams out of 22 nations not reaching the next stage. A lengthy pointless exercise, although at least Finland gave us a surprise victory in the men’s competition.

Funniest moment

SI Early in the Games two English journalists referred to Kamila Valieva as being regarded as ‘Miss Perfect’ in Russia – both mistakenly thinking they had read it somewhere. They were wrong, but it was too late. Days later the term was being used everywhere.

BAG Jamaica’s first alpine skier, Benjamin Alexander, looking directly into the camera after finishing his second run of the men’s giant slalom more than a minute behind the podium spots: “I’m exhausted. I need a massage and a beer.” Same, bro, same.

Jamaica’s Benjamin Alexander tells the world how it is after the giant slalom. Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

MB When a Games widely criticised for the environmental damage of relying on artificial snow had to cancel and reschedule events because it suddenly had too much of the real thing.

Under the radar

SI British skater Cornelius Kersten deserved more credit than he got for finishing ninth in the 1,000m. Also, the thousands of Chinese volunteers who were incredible, endlessly patient and will now have to undergo three weeks of quarantine before getting home. They all deserve medals.

BAG Biathlon does not always get the shine it deserves so let us now praise Norway’s Bø brothers. The combined haul of Johannes Thingnes (four gold, one bronze) and Tarjei (two gold, one silver, one bronze) would have landed them in the top 10 of the medal table if they were their own country.

Beijing 2022 heroes Johannes Thingnes Bø (centre), Tarjei Bø (right) and Quentin Fillon Maillet show off their medals after the biathlon sprint. Photograph: Michel Cottin/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

MB Elsa Desmond may have finished last in the women’s luge but she essentially set up the Irish Luge Federation herself to get to these Games and goes home from Beijing back to working in an NHS hospital as a GP in Essex.

Milano-Cortina 2026 will be …

SI … fun, although the gaps between venues mean a lot of travel.

BAG … the most sprawling Olympics ever featuring venues spread out over 22,000 sq km (about 10,000 sq miles) across northern Italy. The use of preexisting infrastructure is a plus for sustainability, but the alpine skier Federica Brignone was among a number of prominent Italian athletes who say it will diminish any sense of Olympic spirit. “Everyone will be in their own area,” the three-time Olympic medallist said. “From an ecological standpoint it will be much better. But in terms of Olympic atmosphere, I’m not sure how it will be but I don’t think it will be very nice.”

MB … hopefully a chance to enjoy a Winter Olympics free of geopolitical showboating and doping scandals, but I’m not going to hold my breath.