One of China’s top diplomats on Saturday hailed the involvement of young Chinese athletes in the Beijing Winter Games, including Uyghur skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony to much controversy.
“China’s Gen-Z grew up witnessing #Beijing2008 and now this generation has taken on leading roles in the ongoing #Beijing2022,” assistant minister of foreign affairs Hua Chunying wrote on Twitter, along with photos of Yilamujiang and other young athletes.
But since her star turn in the Bird’s Nest, Yilamujiang has played anything but a leading role. The cross-country skier finished toward the back of the pack in her two distance races, and did not qualify for the sprint final. She was expected to take part in the relay on Saturday, but was absent from the team list when it was announced.
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Why Yilamujiang wasn’t chosen for the relay team is unclear. She has taken part in such races in the past, and finished ahead of teammate Bayani Jialin – who was picked to race – in the sprint, the most similar event. A representative for Team China did not respond to a request for comment.
There could be good reason why Yilamujiang was missing from the team – she may be injured, though no such announcement has been made – but her absence increased the sense of mystery that has surrounded the 20-year-old since she first appeared in the Bird’s Nest on Feb. 4.
Yilamujiang lit the cauldron along with 21-year-old ski jumper Zhao Jiawen, the pair finishing a torch relay that had involved stars such as former NBA great Yao Ming, and in the stadium itself, a series of former Winter Games medalists.
The relative obscurity of Yilamujiang – Zhao, while also not a household name, is the first Chinese athlete to compete in Nordic combined – immediately raised suspicion that she had been chosen for her ethnicity more than athletic prowess, a way for Beijing to thumb its nose at countries like Canada and the U.S. who diplomatically boycotted these Games over the treatment of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
“This is an effort by the Chinese to distract us from the real issue here at hand, that Uyghurs are being tortured, and Uyghurs are the victims of human-rights violations by the Chinese,” U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said after the opening ceremony.
Chinese officials have insisted that ethnicity did not play a factor in Yilamujiang’s selection, and strongly countered those who said it did.
“Dinigeer Yilamujiang has the right to participate in the Games and all ceremonies as an Olympian for Beijing 2022,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week. “There are clear criteria for selecting torchbearers for the Beijing Olympic Winter Games, which requires consideration of various factors including personal will, competition results, age, popularity and ethnicity, so as to fully reflect broad representation.”
In a report Saturday, state broadcaster CGTN said that Yilamujiang “certainly deserves the limelight – but for her achievements, not geopolitics.”
But even before she was apparently dropped from the relay team, she has not exactly been basking in press attention. At her previous events, she dodged foreign reporters, disappearing from venues without passing through a “mixed zone,” where athletes can be asked questions by reporters, despite this apparently breaching International Olympic Committee rules.
While other Chinese athletes have accepted questions from foreign media, the only outlets Yilamujiang has spoken to are all state-controlled.
“I will remember lighting the Olympic cauldron for the rest of my life,” she told China Daily this week, adding of her events that “to compete with the world’s top athletes is a great motivator for me.”