BEIJING - China kicked off the Winter Olympics officially on Friday night (Feb 4) with a ceremony that was a much more pared-down affair compared with the extravaganza for the Summer Games more than 13 years ago.
Held at the “Bird’s Nest” stadium that was originally built for the August 2008 Games in Beijing , the show was also directed by famed film-maker Zhang Yimou, who helmed the earlier showcase that was watched by billions around the world and hailed as one of the most iconic opening ceremonies in Olympic history.
The 2008 event, attended by more than 90,000 people and lasting four hours, was seen as China’s coming-out party, as the country was eager to project an image of power and international standing.
The Winter Olympics ceremony, by comparison, lasted two hours and 20 minutes because of the minus 6 deg C temperature and Covid-19 restrictions.
Last month, the authorities decided against ticket sales for the event, instead inviting selected spectators, including diplomats and foreign journalists, who have to follow strict protocols such as getting tested.
The spectator stands in the 80,000 national stadium were half filled, as audience members were required to sit one seat apart.
More than 100 heads of state, governments and international organisations attended the opening ceremony in 2008 in Beijing, including then US President George W. Bush. The US, along with Canada, Australia, Britain, Belgium and Denmark, have declared a diplomatic boycott of the current Games over what they say are China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.
India, too, decided not to send its top diplomat in Beijing to the ceremony, after a Chinese soldier who was involved in a deadly Himalayan border clash in 2020 was picked as a torchbearer for the Olympic torch relay.
Only about 30 dignitaries were at Friday night’s opening show, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has not met any foreign leader in person since the start of the pandemic in 2020, has already met his Russian counterpart and is due to meet Madam Halimah over the weekend.
Nearly 3,000 athletes from 91 countries and regions are competing in 109 events across 15 disciplines in seven sports in the Winter Games. But some are facing the prospect of their Olympic hopes dashed after testing positive for Covid-19 on arrival in China.
Organisers are discovering infections among Games participants every day, with 21 cases detected on the eve of the Games opening.
The number of cases among those participating have totalled 308 since Jan 23, and include athletes from the United States, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Japan.
In contrast, the Tokyo Games last year had just over 100 infections before the event kicked off.
In Beijing, participants are kept away from the public in a closed loop management system that involves daily Covid-19 tests and tightly controlled transfers to and from competition and training venues.
China has cancelled a large number of flights in recent months, with fears of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreading across the country and undoing its zero-Covid-19 policy. Officials and athletes have been arriving on chartered flights.
As of Thursday, there were 1,673 positive cases in China.
Beijing is the only city to have hosted both the summer and winter Olympics.
Friday night’s show had just 3,000 performers, while the one in 2008 had five times that number. Show producers also decided to dispense with big stars and well-known names.
The 2008 ceremony was memorable for the show-stopping cauldron-lighting act by Olympic gymnast Li Ning, who circled the top of the national stadium with the help of cables, torch in hand.
On Friday, seven past and present athletes completed a torch relay around the stadium, with 2022 Olympians Yilamujiang Dinigeer, a cross-country skier, and Zhao Jiawen, a Nordic Combined athlete, lighting the cauldron together.
As athletes poured into the stadium - entering in the order of the number of strokes of the first Chinese character of the name of the place they represent – China, Hong Kong and Taiwan received the loudest cheers from the crowd.
In a commentary published on Friday, state news agency Xinhua said there was never any doubt the Beijing Winter Games would go on, despite the pandemic and boycotts.
“Despite the hurdles, China has fully delivered its bid commitments and it is a measure of the country’s organisational capacity that these Games will begin on time and within budget,” it said.
“The gathering of athletes from so many countries and regions – and the presence of their political leaders – demonstrates the failure of attempts to politicise sport.”