BEIJING, March 13 — Beijing’s Winter Paralympics closed today following a ban on Russian and Belarusian competitors as well as stellar performances from the host nation and athletes from war-torn Ukraine.
At the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in the capital, China handed the Paralympics flag to Italy’s Milano-Cortina which is gearing up to stage the Games in four years.
Beijing is the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics and Paralympics and there are hopes this year’s event will leave a legacy of better accessibility and rights for 85 million Chinese with disabilities.
In his closing ceremony speech, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Andrew Parsons hailed the athletes as “beacons of hope, and champions for peace”.
“In the Paralympic villages there were different nations, different views, different abilities. Differences here did not divide us. They united us,” he said.
“Through this unity we have hope. Hopes for inclusion, hopes for harmony, and importantly hopes for peace.”
On ice and snow athletes had “produced moments of magic” while organisers had achieved a “stunning, secure and spectacular” Games, Parsons said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was among dignitaries in attendance as the Paralympic flame was extinguished following nine days of sporting action in para-ice hockey, wheelchair curling, para-snowboarding, para-alpine skiing, para-biathlon and para-cross country skiing.
At the opening ceremony—watched by 190 million people in China—state broadcaster CCTV appeared to censor an anti-war speech by Parsons but has since not provided an explanation.
And in the closing ceremony, not all of his speech was translated into Chinese for the domestic audience, with phrases including “champions for peace” and “hopes for peace” omitted.
Beijing has been treading a cautious diplomatic line on the Ukraine invasion, refusing to condemn the actions of Moscow, with which it only last month touted a “no-limits” friendship.
Controversy concerning whether athletes from Russia and ally Belarus should be allowed to compete overshadowed the lead-up to the Games.
The International Olympic Committee had urged sporting federations across the world to exclude athletes from those nations.
The IPC initially said it would allow them to compete as neutrals, but after threats of boycotts from other competitors and tensions rising in the athletes’ village, organisers banned them.
After an arduous journey to the Chinese capital, Ukraine’s athletes came a remarkable second in the medals table after their best performance in a Winter Paralympics.
One athlete learned her soldier father had been taken prisoner by Russian troops during the Games while another won a gold medal after discovering her home in Kharkiv had been bombed.
The team, which dominated in biathlon and cross-country skiing, claimed 11 gold medals and 29 podium finishes—four more medals than the country’s previous best at Turin in 2006.
The squad took their final gold in the open cross-country relay on Sunday, ahead of France and Norway.
Team veteran Vitalii Lukianenko, 43 — who won double gold and a silver in the biathlon—carried the Ukrainian flag at the closing ceremony.
Parsons paid a glowing tribute to the Ukraine team yesterday.
“To compete here at such a high level knowing their family and nation is under attack is just incredible,” he said.
“It’s one of the most incredible displays of resilience I’ve ever seen in my life, in or outside of sport.”
China emerged as a force to be reckoned with—topping the medal count ahead of Ukraine, Canada, France and the United States—with 18 golds and 61 medals in all.
China made its debut at the Paralympics in 2002 but recorded its first medal only four years ago – a gold in wheelchair curling at Pyeongchang in South Korea.
“For certain, China is now a Paralympic winter sports powerhouse,” Parsons told the closing ceremony.
More than 560 athletes from 46 nations competed at the Games and there was a blitz of medals on the last day of competition.
The United States swept past Canada 5-0 to take the para-ice hockey gold.
The Americans also dominated in the mixed cross-country relay in Zhangjiakou, sharing the podium with China and Canada, while Italian, French and Norwegian male athletes snapped up the last golds in alpine skiing categories. — AFP