Spectators cheer for Team China during a curling match the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

The Olympics was a success inside China. And that’s the audience Beijing cares about

Spectators cheer for Team China during a curling match the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
Beijing CNN  — 

Heading into the Winter Olympics, there was much talk of two host cities – one inside a tightly-sealed bubble where the Games would be held, and one outside, where daily life would go on as normal.

But the past two weeks have also shown the world two very different Games: For China, Beijing 2022 was a resounding success that exceeded all expectations. To the rest of the world, it remained a deeply polarizing event, that projected not only China’s rising power but also its growing assertiveness, ready to defy and challenge its critics.

In its meticulously managed “closed loop,” the ubiquitous face masks, endless spraying of disinfectant and rigorous daily testing have paid-off. Infections brought into the country were swiftly identified and contained, allowing the Games to run largely free of Covid even as the Omicron variant raged around the world.

In the medal tables, Team China claimed nine golds and a total of 15 medals, delivering its best ever result at a Winter Olympics – and ranking above the United States. The stellar performances of its new Olympic stars – from freeski sensation Eileen Gu to snowboard prodigy Su Yiming – captivated fans in the stands and across the country, drawing an outpouring of pride.

ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA - FEBRUARY 18: Gold medallist Ailing Eileen Gu of Team China poses with their medal during the Women's Freeski Halfpipe medal ceremony on Day 14 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Zhangjiakou Medal Plaza on February 18, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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By Wednesday, nearly 600 million people – or 40% of the Chinese population – had tuned in to watch the Games on television in China, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). And while US viewing figures have been markedly down compared to previous Olympics, the boost in Chinese audiences will likely make Beijing 2022 among the most watched Winter Games in history.

Even the official mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, a panda wearing an ice shell, turned out to be a domestic success. Having been mostly ignored for more than two years since it was first unveiled, the chubby bear soared in popularity during the Games, routinely trending on Chinese social media. At souvenir stores inside and outside the bubble, people queued for hours – sometimes in biting cold – to take home plush toy replicas.

Beijing 2022's official mascot Bing Dwen Dwen has become a breakout star at these Games.

And for the ruling Communist Party and its supreme leader Xi Jinping, it is the domestic audience that matters the most. Xi personally backed Beijing’s bid to host these Games, and made a flurry of visits to the ice rinks and snow slopes to inspect preparation work. The success of the Games present Xi with a moment of national unity as he gears up for an unprecedented third term in power this fall.

But for the Chinese government, part of the domestic success also comes from the avoidance of major political scandal or embarrassment. While the doping saga surrounding a teenage Russian figure skater has cast a shadow over the Olympics, it was downplayed inside China. The same was true of criticism of the Games in general, most of which was censored and blocked.

Kamila Valieva, of the Russian Olympic Committee, reacts after competing in the women's free skate program during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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Early in the Games, many athletes from Western countries were stunned by the stringent Covid restrictions they met upon arrival in Beijing. Some were placed in isolation for weeks after testing positive, while others complained about the bland food served in quarantine. But their criticism – including an emotional plea for help from a Belgian athlete – went wholly unreported inside China.

Instead, Chinese state media avidly shared social media videos, posts and comments from athletes that portrayed their life inside the Olympic village in a positive light, praising the food, the Covid measures and the friendly volunteers.

And much to the relief of government officials in Beijing, not a single athlete or Olympic attendee attempted to use the event to publicly protest China’s human rights record – a hot-button issue in the lead-up to the Olympics (though some have expressed critical views).

In December, the United States and its allies declared a diplomatic boycott of Games over China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang – which Washington has labeled a genocide. But apart from the notable absence of Western leaders at the opening ceremony, the impact of the boycott was seldom felt on the ground.

“You can’t write stories about people who aren’t in Beijing – that’s the problem with the diplomatic boycott. There’s no story once the Games start,” said Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports and the Olympic Games at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“I’ve predicted at the beginning that the political issues would fade into the background and the sports would take the headlines, and that would be the memory that would be left, at least for the general audience. I think that has largely happened,” added Brownell.