Beijing’s winter Paralympic Games has closed following a ban on Russian and Belarusian competitors – and after stellar performances from athletes from host nation China and from war-torn Ukraine.
At the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in the capital on Sunday, 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 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and there are hopes this year’s event will leave a legacy of better accessibility and rights for 85 million Chinese with disabilities.
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 (IPC) 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 to China 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 the eastern Ukrainian city of 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.
Ukrainian team veteran Vitalii Lukianenko, 43, who won double gold and a silver in the biathlon, carried the Ukrainian flag at the closing ceremony.
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.
More than 560 athletes from 46 nations competed at the games and there was a blitz of medals on the last day of competition.