Beijing Winter Olympics officially declared open
Chinese President Xi Jinping has formally opened the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at a grandiose ceremony in Beijing attended by world leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The opening ceremony at Beijing’s National Stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest for its distinctive design – drew on themes of “peace” and “a brighter future” as President Xi officially opened the 24th edition of the Winter Games.
Beijing is the first city ever to host both the summer and winter versions of the Olympics, having held the former back in 2008.
On that occasion China dazzled the world with a spellbinding opening ceremony which showcased its increasing confidence and influence.
Friday’s show in Beijing was pared back due to the shadow of Covid and took place in frigid conditions, but was nonetheless impressive in its visual brilliance.
The ceremony centered on the Beijing Games’ slogan of “together for a shared future” and the International Olympic Committee’s updated motto of “faster, higher, stronger – together.”
Directed by the renowned Zhang Yimou, who was also at the helm for the 2008 opening and closing ceremonies, the spectacle featured around 3,000 performers, the vast majority of whom were teenagers.
After dignitaries including Chinese leader Xi and IOC president Thomas Bach had been welcomed to their seats, the start of the ceremony focused on giant digital displays spread across the floor in the center of the stadium in which participants waved giant LED sticks.
An early flurry of fireworks exploded into the Beijing night sky before the Chinese flag was brought into the arena and proudly being hoisted to the strains of the national anthem.
The glittering digital display continued as the ceremony paid tribute to past editions of the Winter Games – including the Russian version in Sochi in 2014 – before the Olympic rings emerged from a block of ice.
A giant, luminous version of Beijing mascot Bing Dwen Dwen also appeared among participants clad in colorful attire.
The athletes themselves soon began to emerge, traditionally led by Greece as the birthplace of the Olympics, and with the procession including the Russian team which is competing under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).
Once the athletes had filed into the stadium, the sparkling digital show resumed as a snowflake spread light and warmth across the earth.
President of the Beijing local organizing committee Cai Qi and IOC president Bach gave traditional speeches before Chinese leader Xi formally declared the Games open, sparking move pyrotechnics in the Beijing sky.
Ceremony director Zhang had declared beforehand that the Olympic flame would be displayed in “unprecedented” fashion.
In an anticipated moment of the ceremony, the Olympic flame was carried into the stadium by a series of Chinese sporting icons before the torch was placed in the center of a giant luminous snowflake bearing the names of Olympic nations on smaller snowflakes.
The creation was then raised high into the sky, with the flicker of the torch remaining rather than a traditionally larger cauldron.
The audience watching on featured a host of world leaders and other dignitaries, including Russian President Putin.
Notable absentees were officials from the US, UK, Canada, and others who are staging a diplomatic boycott of the Games in protest at China’s alleged human rights abuses – a move which has been criticized by the hosts as needlessly politicizing the event.
Some events such as the women’s ice hockey tournament got underway earlier this week, although the Games will now begin in earnest.
Almost 3,000 athletes from more than 90 nations will compete for medals across 109 disciplines in the coming days, until the closing ceremony on February 20.
Competitions are being hosted at three locations: Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou. Beijing will host the indoor ice competitions and some of the facilities from the 2008 Summer Games will again be used.
‘Closed loops’ and Covid-19
The vast expanse of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest was far more sparsely populated on Friday than the last time the iconic stadium held an Olympic opening ceremony back in 2008.
Just as at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, this edition of the Games will play out in the shadow of Covid.
Foreign fans have been banned from attending while tickets did not go on public sale in China, where any attendees have instead been selected by Beijing organizers.
The athletes, support staff and media visitors have all faced stringent Covid measures, being kept inside a ‘closed loop’ to prevent the risk of infection.
Much to the anger of China, Washington and several of its allies have chosen to stage a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games in protest at alleged human rights abuses, including towards China’s Uighur Muslim population.
Immediately after the opening ceremony, some in the Western media immediately erupted at the fact that one of those performing the symbolic act of lighting the Olympic flame was cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who is of Uighur heritage.
China and allies including Russia have decried the politicization of the Games, with respective presidents Xi and Putin meeting ahead of the opening ceremony in Beijing on Friday.
“Unfortunately, attempts by a number of countries to politicize sports issues for the sake of their ambitions have recently intensified,” Putin told Chinese news agency Xinhua on the eve of the Games.
“This is fundamentally wrong and contradicts the very spirit and principles of the Olympic Charter.”
India became the latest country to announce a boycott this week in protest at the Chinese choice of a former army commander as a torchbearer.
But among the heads of state and other dignitaries at Friday’s ceremony were Polish President Andrzej Duda, Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Other notable attendees included UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
No flag or anthem for Russia again
Just as they were in Tokyo last August, Russian athletes in Beijing are competing under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) rather than their nation’s flag.
The Russian anthem is also banned at medal ceremonies, replaced by Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.
The sanctions are part of a ban handed out by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to Russia in 2019 after allegations that data provided from a Moscow laboratory was manipulated.
The initial four-year ban was slashed in half by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland upon appeal, and figures in Russia have asserted many of the accusations against the country – such as claims of a state-sponsored doping campaign – are politically motivated.
The ban is due to expire in December, although Russian athletes in Beijing will bear the logo of the ROC, which features the white, blue and red of the Russian tricolor in the shape of a flame above the Olympic rings.
Despite the WADA ban extending to top-level officials, Russian President Putin is in Beijing at the personal invitation of Chinese counterpart Xi.
The ROC flag was proudly carried on Friday by women’s speed skater Olga Fatkulina and men’s ice hockey star Vadim Shipachyov.
Russia is hoping that the Beijing Games will be the last where it is forced to compete as the ROC, as it aims for full reinstatement by WADA when its suspension ends on December 16 this year.