Chinese President Xi Jinping declares Beijing Winter Olympics open

The Olympic rings during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics at Beijing's National Stadium on Feb 4, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
The event featured 3,000 performers on a stage comprised of 11,600 sq m of high-definition LED screen resembling an ice surface. PHOTO: REUTERS
Performers during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. PHOTO: REUTERS
Fireworks explode over Beijing's National Stadium during the opening ceremony of Winter Olympics. PHOTO: AFP
China's delegation of athletes at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the opening of the Beijing Winter Games on Friday (Feb 4), triggering a burst of fireworks that marked the start of an Olympics whose preparations were beset by the Covid-19 pandemic and criticism over human rights in China.

Held on the first day of Spring by the Chinese calendar, the event began with a performance by dancers waving glowing green stalks meant to convey the vitality of the season, followed by an explosion of white and green fireworks that spelled the word "Spring".

After that, the Chinese flag was passed among 56 people representing China's different ethnic groups before the flag was raised and the national anthem performed.

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

That was followed by the traditional "parade of nations", with the announcement of "Hong Kong, China" generating applause in the stadium.

Friday's ceremony began shortly after President Xi Jinping and International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach entered the iconic Bird's Nest stadium, its rim bedecked by the flags of the 91 competing nations and regions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and IOC president Thomas Bach arrive for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. PHOTO: AFP

Directed by Zhang Yimou, reprising his role from Beijing's 2008 Summer Games triumph, the event was to feature 3,000 performers on a stage comprised of 11,600 square metres of high-definition LED screen resembling an ice surface.

All of the performers are ordinary people from Beijing and nearby Hebei province, with "the Story of a Snowflake" its central thread.

With temperatures of about -4 deg C at the start, the show was set to be about half as long as the four-hour marathon that opened the 2008 Games, also at the Bird's Nest.

The crowd itself was pared down, with organisers deciding last month not to sell tickets to Olympic events to curtail the spread of Covid-19. A "closed loop" separates competitors and other personnel from the Chinese public throughout the Olympics.

A "closed loop" separates competitors and other personnel from the Chinese public throughout the Olympics. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

More confident China

Though smaller in scale than the Summer Games, the Beijing Winter Olympics are being staged by a much more prosperous, powerful, confident and confrontational China under Xi.

China's hosting of the Winter Games has drawn criticism since the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing in 2015, and countries including the United States, Britain and Australia staged diplomatic boycotts, meaning they did not send government representatives to the Games.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the headlining foreign guest, arrived on Friday for a meeting with Xi ahead of the opening ceremony, bringing a deal to increase natural gas supply to China amid rising tensions with the West and winning a pledge from Xi to deepen mutual cooperation.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV noted that Putin, like China, expressed opposition to the "politicisation" of the Games.

Winter wonderland

Zhang, the director, said the ceremony takes into account the changed global backdrop, including the pandemic and what he said were hostile forces "suppressing and blackening" China.

"In this new and complex global situation, the Winter Olympics will show the confidence and pride of the Chinese people, the love of Chinese people, the affection of Chinese for the people of the world," he told state news agency Xinhua.

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The official start of the Games would come as a relief to organisers navigating the extreme complexity of staging them during a pandemic while adhering to China's zero-Covid policy.

Organisers also hope it quietens a steady drumbeat of criticism from activists and governments over China's human rights record in its far western Xinjiang region and elsewhere - criticism that China rejects.

"I believe that at the instant in which the Olympic flame is lit, all of this so-called boycott banter will be extinguished," Zhao Weidong, a spokesman for the Beijing Games, told Reuters.

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