Chinese President Xi Jinping officially declared the 2022 Winter Olympics open on Friday – to a huge burst of fireworks that shook the Bird’s Nest, the iconic Beijing stadium built for the 2008 Games.
The slogan of this year’s Games is “Together for a Shared Future,” a phrase that has only grown more darkly ironic as China first barred international spectators from the event because of COVID-19, and then a coterie of Western countries announced a diplomatic boycott over China’s human-rights record.
But neither the pandemic nor politics has managed to throw much of a wrench in Beijing 2022 organizers’ plans. Tens of thousands of people – ordinary spectators as well as dignitaries, athletes and the media – were able to watch the opening ceremony at the Bird’s Nest, a stark contrast to the mostly empty stands last year at the Tokyo Olympics.
A few world leaders may have been missing, but China’s allies, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, flew in to show support. Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi met Friday ahead of the ceremony, releasing a joint statement condemning NATO expansion and reiterating Chinese claims over Taiwan, a major show of unity between the two allies amid growing tensions with the West.
There was a triumphant and joyful tone to the ceremony itself, directed once again by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who kept things short and sweet. While the first sequence of the 2008 Summer Olympics opening in Beijing was more than an hour long, on Friday the athletes were already parading into the stadium at the 20-minute mark.
What was on display was spectacular, however, a masterful combination of elaborately choreographed performances, many by children, and LED and computer-generated displays.
The show began with a countdown themed to the lunar calendar, appropriate as China is currently celebrating the start of the Year of the Tiger, and performers holding large stalks of “grass,” symbolizing spring.
At the end of the first segment, the Olympic rings emerged from a projection of a block of ice as the Games’ mascot, panda astronaut Bing Dwen Dwen, waved to the crowd. While the ceremony avoided the mournful tone of Tokyo’s opener last year, there were nods to the pandemic, with the theme of picking oneself up and trying again running throughout.
In his address, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said that “in our fragile world, when division, conflict and mistrust are on the rise, we show the world, yes, it is possible to be fierce rivals while at the same time living peacefully and respectfully together.”
“This is the mission of the Olympic Games. Bringing us together in peaceful competition. Always building bridges, never erecting walls,” he said.
Mr. Bach has joined with Chinese officials in criticizing calls to boycott the Games – over Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, among other human-rights abuses – accusing those countries keeping their representatives home of “politicizing” the Olympics.
But China has not been shy about infusing the Games with politics when it wants to, and there were signs of that in Friday’s ceremony.
Beijing 2022 organizing committee president Cai Qi made a point to thank Mr. Xi for his “full support” of the Games, as well as the “strong leadership of the Chinese government.”
The choice of one of the two athletes who lit the Olympic cauldron also seemed pointed: teenage cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Uyghur from Xinjiang. Beijing has been accused of conducting widespread human-rights abuses against Uyghurs, interning hundreds of thousands in “vocational training” camps.
The torch relay already caused controversy before it even reached the stadium. On Friday, India pulled its diplomats from the ceremony, after a Chinese soldier who was involved in a deadly border clash with Indian troops last year was chosen to carry the torch through part of Beijing – and was widely lauded in state media.
“It is regrettable that the Chinese side has chosen to politicize an event like the Olympics,” Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said in announcing the last-minute boycott.
There also may have been politics at play in the march of the countries. Teams came in ordered by the number of strokes in the first character of their Chinese name. This meant the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which competes at the Olympics as Chinese Taipei (Zhonghua Taibei), came out one step ahead of Hong Kong, the Chinese territory (Zhongguo Xianggang).
On Chinese state TV, the island was introduced as Zhongguo Taibei, or Taipei, China, an even more pointed claim of ownership. Taiwanese officials had previously suggested their team would not take part in the march of countries, reportedly because of such naming concerns, but reversed course after the IOC intervened.
While the downbeat Tokyo opening ceremony may have lowered the bar for this year, many viewers were likely not thinking of last year but the 2008 opening ceremony, still one of the most memorable of recent Olympics.
Mr. Zhang, for his part, has been attempting to manage expectations for weeks, warning this show would not necessarily match up to 14 years ago.
His priority was to make it a “simple, safe and splendid Olympic event,” Mr. Zhang said, adding, “I genuinely hope the Beijing 2022 opening ceremony will leave everyone beautiful memories.
“I also hope some of the wonderful moments will become history,” he said. “Being in a winter environment, we will have to consider the weather and understand that the spectators should not stay too long outdoors in the potentially very cold weather, so the process is completely different.”
It was –4 C in Beijing on Friday night, and the open-top Bird’s Nest did little to alleviate this. Attendees were provided with blankets, hats and gloves at their seats, along with Chinese and Olympic flags to wave.
The crowd appeared to enjoy themselves despite the cold, cheering loudly when Mr. Xi entered the stadium, as well as for the Chinese team and several of the country’s closest allies – Russia and Pakistan, in particular – as they marched.
Canada fielded a 100-strong delegation led by women’s hockey captain Marie-Philip Poulin and short-track speed skater Charles Hamelin. The team’s all-red Lululemon uniforms attracted admirers on the Chinese internet, becoming a top trending topic on Weibo during the ceremony.
After the march of the countries and speeches by Mr. Cai and Mr. Bach, there was a touching video of children learning snowboarding, skiing and skating: China aimed to get 300 million people across the country involved in winter sports ahead of the Games.
Then came the cauldron lighting, the flame fixed in the heart of a giant snowflake rising in the centre of the stadium, and a burst of fireworks, once again lighting the sky over Beijing, the world’s first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
These Games have only just begun, and the spectre of COVID-19 and politics will continue to hang over them for the coming weeks. There could be an outbreak within the bubble, despite all the precautions, and some athletes may yet brave both the IOC and the Chinese authorities to stage a protest.
But if Friday night was the first major hurdle for the Beijing Olympics, the hosts appear to have cleared it in style.
The Beijing Olympics, in photos
The opening ceremony, in video
The Globe and Mail