A Winter Olympics overshadowed by rights concerns and taking place inside a strict Covid-secure bubble will officially begin in Beijing on Friday with an opening ceremony at the “Bird’s Nest” stadium.
The lattice-shaped arena took centre stage at the 2008 Games — seen as China’s coming-out party to the world — and will do so again as Beijing becomes the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Olympics.
The opening ceremony starts at 8pm (1200 GMT) and will be attended by President Xi Jinping, under whose rule China has become more emboldened compared to 14 years ago.
Xi, who will announce the Games are officially open, will be joined by leaders including Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin but the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia are among countries staging a diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights record, particularly the fate of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.
Other countries cited the coronavirus pandemic for not sending officials.
With Moscow’s relationship with the United States and Europe strained by its troop build-up on the Ukrainian border, Putin lavished praise on Russia’s links to China.
“They are of a truly unprecedented nature,” he said after talks with Xi ahead of the ceremony.
The nations whose leaders are staying away are still sending athletes to the Games, which are taking place inside a vast “closed loop” designed to thwart the virus.
Some spectators will attend the opening ceremony but it is unclear how many and, like sports events at the Games, tickets were not sold to the general public because of the pandemic.
The show is the mastermind of acclaimed Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who was behind the 2008 extravaganza.
Zhang has promised a “totally innovative” ceremony but conceded that the pandemic and freezing weather will limit its scale compared to the Summer Games, when 15,000 performers took part in a lavish gala featuring opera singers, acrobats and drummers.
This time there will be about 3,000 performers and themes will include “environmental protection and low carbon emission”, Zhang previously told state media.
But China’s assertion that these will be a “green Games” has been challenged by some experts because they are taking place in one of the driest places in the country and on almost entirely man-made snow.
– Watching from afar –
Concerns about Covid loom large at these Games. The nearly 3,000 athletes and tens of thousands of support staff, volunteers and media have been cut off from Beijing’s general population.
China, where the virus emerged in late 2019, has pursued a no-nonsense zero-Covid policy nationwide and has adopted the same approach to the Games, with everyone inside the bubble tested daily and required to wear a mask at all times.
There have been more than 300 Covid cases in the bubble, among them an unknown number of athletes.
Unlike the huge celebration that greeted the 2008 opening ceremony, locals this time will have to enjoy it on television.
Speaking on the streets of the capital, Yin Rui, 31, said she was eager to watch on television.
“Even if they are at home people will cheer for the Olympics,” she told AFP, adding that “enthusiasm in everyone’s hearts remain” for the Games.
Away from the ceremony, the figure skating began with strongly fancied American Nathan Chen firing a warning to Japanese reigning champion Yuzuru Hanyu by producing a personal best score in the men’s single short programme of the team competition.
The two will vie for gold in the eagerly awaited men’s single event beginning on Tuesday.