The 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing are officially underway after athletes marched through the Bird’s Nest stadium as part of the opening ceremony on Friday.
The shortened and scaled down event was promised to be a “spectacle” by organizers, despite fewer people in the stands and in the parade of nations thanks to both COVID-19 and a diplomatic boycott by several Western nations — including Canada.
In 2008, the last time China hosted the Olympics, the opening ceremony to the Summer Games lasted for more than four hours, with over 15,000 participants including a massive sea of drummers and capped with a majestic fireworks display.
This year’s ceremony was different. Participants were slashed to just 4,000 to limit the spread of COVID-19, and the show clocked in at about two hours due to the colder February weather.
Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and India, among other nations, joined a diplomatic boycott, meaning no delegation supported athletes from the stands.
The festivities took place at the Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest — which also hosted the opening and closing ceremonies in 2008 — and featured dancers, singers and a fireworks display like previous ceremonies.
Women’s hockey captain Marie-Philip Poulin and short-track speedskating star Charles Hamelin were Canada’s flag-bearers for the event.
A three-time medallist, Poulin scored the game-winning goals at both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. She helped Canada to silver at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The 37-year-old Hamelin, from Sainte-Julie Que., is a winner of five Olympic medals, including three gold, tying him for Canada’s most decorated male winter Olympian.
In the absence of many G7 superpowers, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the ceremony and visited with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The diplomatic boycott was sparked by various human rights controversies in China, most significantly the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and a crackdown on pro-democracy protests and political speech in Hong Kong.
Those and other issues have led to calls from activists for a broader boycott of the Games — even an outright cancellation. Yet China and the International Olympic Committee said the Games will go ahead, with Beijing dismissing criticisms of its human rights record.
“The so-called China human rights issue is a lie made up by people with ulterior motives,” Zhao Weidong, spokesperson for the Beijing Games, told Reuters in an interview on Thursday when asked if such criticism had undermined the Games.
“I want to emphasise that the Olympics is a great spectacle for athletes and sports fans across the world. From the current situation, many countries and athletes have expressed their support for the Beijing Winter Olympics,” he said.
“The opening ceremony is tomorrow. I believe that at the instance in which the Olympic flame is lit, all of this so-called boycott banter will be extinguished,” he added.
Global will have extensive coverage of the Games as they unfold over the next two weeks, both online and on its broadcast platforms.
— with files from Reuters