BEIJING (REUTERS) - A cross country skier born in Xinjiang, who was one of the two final torchbearers at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony on Friday (Feb 4), was not picked because of where she comes from, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Saturday.
Dinigeer Yilamujiang, from Altay in China's western Xinjiang region, placed the lit torch onto a giant snowflake along with Zhao Jiawen, a 21-year-old biathlete, before it was lifted high above the spectators at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium.
The selection of Yilamujiang as one of the final two torchbearers came as many western nations staged a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games over China's treatment of Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.
"Obviously the opening ceremony is something that the organising committee put together and there's creative input," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "We are involved to a certain extent."
"This is an athlete who is competing here, she is competing this morning. She has every right, wherever she comes from, whatever her background, to compete... and to take part in any ceremony."
Games organisers said the final handful of torchbearers who entered the stadium with the flame had been picked based on their birth dates, with each having been born in a different decade, starting from the 1950s through to the 2000s.
Yilamujiang is the first Chinese cross-country skiing medallist at any international federation-level event and is a medal hopeful in a sport in which China has not traditionally excelled.
Frostburg State University in Maryland associate professor Ma Haiyun, an expert on Xinjiang, said the selection was intended to send a message.
"By selecting a Uighur athlete to light the torch, China is trying to address criticism by the West about genocide or persecution of the Uighurs, and about sinicisation of ethnic minorities," he said.
"But I don't think this can have much effect on the West, which tends to think most of what China puts up is a show anyway," Prof Ma added.
Rights groups and some western governments have called for China to end what the United States deems genocide against ethnic Uighurs.
United Nations researchers and rights activists estimate more than one million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang.
China rejects accusations of abuse, describing the camps as vocational centres designed to combat extremism, and in late 2019 said all people in the camps had "graduated".