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Olympics and Paralympics

An Opening Ceremony Lit by Stunning Technology and Marked by the Absence of Global Leaders

“You the Olympic athletes, you will show how the world would look like, if we all respect the same rules and each other.” ―IOC President Thomas Bach

Dancers perform during the Opening Ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics on February 4 in Beijing. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

By its very design, the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games is an inclusive global event. 

After all, its main function is the ever-colorful Parade of Nations, which leads to speeches, choreographed song and dance and the highly anticipated lighting of the Olympic cauldron, including on Friday night, February 4 at Beijing National Stadium, aka the Bird’s Nest.

But the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, led by the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada plus Australia and India, among others, created a different reality. Along with several others for their own reasons, Japan’s government also decided not to participate, with Japanese Olympic Committee officials, including its president, Yasuhiro Yamashita, serving in a quasi-official role instead.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, was on hand for the festivities, a symbolic show of support for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Other national leaders from Egypt, Serbia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and all five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, as well as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attended the Opening Ceremony.

The most anticipated moment of the evening, of course, was the spectacle of the Olympic cauldron being lit at 11:15 JST.

And instead of an aging icon like legendary boxer Muhammad Ali lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, Chinese Olympic officials opted to celebrate the nation’s youth during the grand finale of the ceremony ― two current Olympians. (It was reminiscent of Naomi Osaka’s iconic moment in the spotlight at the Tokyo Games last July.)

This time, Chinese female cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, 20,  and men’s Nordic combined skier Jiawen Zhao, 21, were chosen as the final holders of the Olympic flame. Dinigeer, previously little known as an athlete in international circles, is an ethnic Uyghur from the Xinjiang region, while Zhao is from the dominant Han Chinese ethnicity. They held the flame together and inserted the it into the cauldron, which was framed beautifully by a giant snowflake.

A children’s choir and fireworks capped a spirited ceremony.

Opposition to Beijing Games

The run-up to the Opening Ceremony filled media reports with seemingly equal doses of rhetoric and analysis of China’s human rights record and detailed preview information on Olympic athletes.

British MP Ian Duncan Smith, for example, said according to BBC: “The Chinese government commits industrial-scale human rights abuses in the Uyghur Region, Tibet and sends near-daily military incursions into Taiwan’s airspace. We cannot lend any legitimacy to China’s despotic regime.”

And so, Smith’s government and dozens of others opted to skip the Opening Ceremony at Beijing National Stadium, which also hosted the grand arrival of the world’s Olympians at the 2008 Summer Games.

Approximately 2,900 athletes from 91 nations are scheduled to compete at the Winter Games through February 20.

But dignitaries from just 25 of 91 countries at the Olympics planned to attend the Opening Ceremony, according to published reports.

By comparison, 105 heads of state (out of 204 participating nations) attended the 2008 Beijing Games’ Opening Ceremony.

After the Parade of Nations, IOC President Thomas Bach paid tribute to Chinese culture in his remarks, while also acknowledging the nation’s increased participation in winter sports in recent years.

“This Year of the Tiger is also an Olympic year. Both the Year of the Tiger and the Olympic year stands for ambition, courage and strength,” said Bach. “Today, thanks to this ambition, China is a winter sport country. 

“Well over 300 million people are engaged in winter sports in about 2,000 ski resorts and ice rinks. This extraordinary achievement opens a new era for global winter sport. It will raise the global participation to new levels, benefiting the Chinese people as well as winter sport enthusiasts around the world.”

Before fireworks lit up the Beijing sky, Bach’s speech also addressed the impact of COVID-19 throughout the world. He thanked the Beijing 2022 Organizing Committee for “making these Olympic Winter Games happen ― and making them happen in a safe way for everyone.”

“We all could only get there because of the countless medical workers, doctors, scientists, everybody in China and around the world who is going beyond the call of duty,” the IOC chief declared. “”Thank you for your outstanding efforts and solidarity.

“In the same spirit, our heart goes out to all the athletes who because of the pandemic cannot make their Olympic dream come true.”

Then Bach turned to the Olympic athletes. “You the Olympic athletes, you will show how the world would look like, if we all respect the same rules and each other,” he told them. 

Raising the spirit of John Lennon and in the presence of two national leaders associated with current high-tension regions, he then invoked the UN Olympic Truce resolution, reminding all parties: “In this Olympic spirit of peace, I appeal to all political authorities across the world: observe your commitment to this Olympic Truce. Give peace a chance.”

Finally, Bach shifted his message to a formal introduction of the host: “And now I have the honor of inviting the President of the People’s Republic of China, His Excellency Xi Jinping, to declare open the 24th Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.”

Chinese Leader Declares Start of Beijing Games

Xi promptly followed by saying, “I declare the 24th Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 open.”

As the second Olympics to be staged during the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes marched earlier in the evening through Beijing National Stadium wearing face masks.

Nordic combined skier Akito Watabe, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, and speed skater Arisa Go served as Team Japan’s flagbearers, walking together at the front of the national delegation, which has 124 athletes.

Following Japan in the procession, Taiwan, which was introduced as Chinese Taipei as it is called by the International Olympic Committee, Hong Kong, Denmark and Ukraine followed over the next several minutes of the ceremony.

Indeed, the geopolitical tensions between China and a host of nations have already become a part of the 2022 Games’ legacy. On the other hand, the shared joy in the eyes of the athletes ― from Greece, the nation that traditionally enters the stadium first in honor of its Olympic heritage, to China ― could still be seen as they waved and walked during their moment in the global spotlight.

After all 91 national delegations participated in the Parade of Nations, a visually stunning array of digital snowflakes descended one at a time, with each depicting one nation as the festivities shifted.

Saudi Arabia and Haiti are participating in the Winter Olympics for the first time, and both nations are represented by a single Alpine skier.


Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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