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BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping opened a Beijing Winter Olympics on Friday that not only bear the mark of the global coronavirus pandemic but are also mixing sport and global politics as few others have since the era of the Cold War.

The scintillating opening ceremony ended with a member of China’s Uyghur minority – whose treatment is the focus of international human rights criticism – helping to light the Olympic cauldron, hours after Xi announced a new strategic alliance with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Three thousand performers took to a stage comprising 11,600 sq metres of high-definition LED screens in the famed Bird’s Nest stadium, before a crowd thinned out by COVID-19 restrictions.

Dancers poured in waving glowing green stalks to mark the first day of spring on the Chinese calendar, followed by an explosion of white and green fireworks that spelled the word “Spring”.

On a three-dimensional cube resembling a block of ice, lasers carved figures from each of the previous 23 Winter Games. The block was then “broken” by ice hockey players, enabling the Olympic rings to emerge, all in white.

The lighting of the stadium cauldron by the last athlete in the torch relay, their identity kept secret until the last moment, usually provides the climax at the end of the Olympic opening ceremony, and this one proved especially significant.

Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old cross-country skier born in Altay in the western Xinjiang region, lit the flame along with Nordic combined athlete Zhao Jiawen.

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China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang – which Washington deems genocide – was the trigger for a diplomatic boycott by several Western countries including the United States.

Ethnic Groups

China rejects allegations of human rights abuses and sought to convey a spirit of inclusion during the ceremony, in which the Chinese flag was passed among 56 people representing its ethnic groups before being raised for the national anthem.

The ceremony was staged by movie director Zhang Yimou, reprising his role from Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games triumph.

But as in Japan half a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic imposed severe constraints, not least by paring down the number of visitors able to see the spectacle in person.

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