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Uighur athlete lights cauldron to kick off controversial Beijing 2022 Winter Games

Performers create a display with LED lights at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in National Stadium at the Beijing Winter Olympics on February 4, 2022. Photo by Paul Hanna/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 4 (UPI) -- Beijing officially launched its 2022 Winter Games on Friday with a provocative message to human rights critics, as an athlete it says is of Uighur heritage helped light the Olympic cauldron.

Twenty-year-old cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who was born in Xinjiang Province, joined Nordic Combined athlete Zhao Jiawen to light the cauldron at the end of a subdued Opening Ceremony held in the shadow of COVID-19 restrictions and diplomatic boycotts.

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The United States and a handful of allies including Britain, Japan and Canada, declined to send official delegations to the Games over China's human rights abuses -- particularly its treatment of the predominantly Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang Province, where Washington has accused Beijing of perpetrating "genocide and crimes against humanity."

Beijing's choice of Yilamujiang seemed an unmistakable and defiant response to the criticism. It was the final note of a ceremony that otherwise foregrounded a message of unity under the theme of "One World, One Family."

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International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said that the Games would "show the world ... it is possible to be fierce rivals while at the same time living peacefully and respectfully together."

"Now your moment has come," Bach told the assembled athletes from 91 countries and territories. "The moment you have been longing for. The moment we have all been longing for."

The ceremony was held at Beijing National Stadium, the famous "Bird's Nest" that was introduced to the world at the 2008 Summer Games during a stunning four-hour opening spectacle that served to announce China's emergence as a global superpower.

It was a far more subdued affair this time around, clocking in around 100 minutes, due to cold temperatures and pandemic restrictions, and featuring 3,000 performers -- just a fifth of the cast of 15,000 in 2008.

Famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou was at the helm again but said he was not trying to reproduce his 2008 accomplishment, an unforgettable extravaganza that showcased thousands of years of China's history and highlighted inventions such as printing, gunpowder, ceramics and the compass.

"In 2008, the Olympics was a brilliant stage and chance for our country to show ourselves," Zhang told Chinese news agency Xinhua. "It's different now. China's status in the world, the image of the Chinese, and the rise of our national status, everything is totally different now."

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During the Parade of Nations, delegations crossed a colorful ice-like surface comprised of high-definition LED screens. As per tradition Greece, home of the ancient Olympics, was the first delegation to enter, followed by teams in alphabetical order under their Chinese names.

Among the notable early delegations to appear were Taiwan -- known officially as Chinese Taipei -- which had said it was not going to participate in the Opening Ceremony, but reversed its decision last week, and Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous island that has seen Beijing heavily tighten control over the past two years.

Team USA was the 56th delegation to enter, wearing winter hats, red-white-and-blue outfits and ubiquitous pandemic-era masks and chanting "USA! USA!"

Curler John Shuster, who won a gold medal in 2018, and speed skater Brittany Bowe, a 2018 Olympic bronze medalist, were the flag bearers. Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, a three-time Olympic medalist, was originally chosen by teammates as a flag bearer but was in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

Bowe told NBC announcers Mike Tirico and Savannah Guthrie that it was "an honor of a lifetime" to represent Team USA's 224 Olympians in the ceremony.

"I can't think of a more powerful and uniting moment as an athlete and an American," she said.

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Russian athletes, competing for the second consecutive Olympics under a neutral banner as the Russian Olympic Committee, were greeted with a wave by President Vladimir Putin, who held a summit with Xi Jinping earlier on Friday.

Russia remains banned from the Games due to a doping scandal, but athletes able to prove that they are "clean" are permitted to participate.

While shirtless Tongan sensation Pita Taufatofua was not at this year's Ceremony due to relief efforts back home following last month's tsunami. American Samoa flagbearer Nathan Crumpton showed some skin of his own.

As the host nation, China's delegation entered last, to the loudest cheers of the evening. Beijing is making history as the first city to hold both the Winter and Summer Olympics.

Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the 24th Winter Games officially open as fireworks flared over a stadium that was filled to about 40% of its 91,000 capacity.

In an abbreviated artistic segment, children in white winter garb performed a snowflake-themed song and dance, while video highlights showed off the growth of winter sports in China. Beijing has said it reached its stated goal of bringing 300 million new participants to snow and ice sports.

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In the final sequence of the ceremony, the torch relay was passed along six generations of Chinese athletes, culminating in Zhao and Yilamujiang, both born in the 2000s. They lit the Olympic cauldron in the middle of a giant snowflake, which was then raised high into the air.

The Beijing Winter Games will run until Feb. 20. China is enforcing a zero-COVID policy through the Olympics, with all athletes and participants subject to daily testing and kept in an entirely self-contained "closed loop" system for the duration of the Games.

NBC and its broadcast partners will air a record 2,800+ hours of 2022 Winter Games coverage. The Opening Ceremony will be replayed at 8 p.m Friday on NBC.

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