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 distinctive 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.
Friday’s opening ceremony starts at 8:00pm (1200 GMT) and will be attended by President Xi Jinping, under whose rule China has become a much more belligerent proposition in global affairs compared to 14 years ago.
Xi, who will announce the Games are officially open, will be joined by leaders including his 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.
Their athletes will still compete at the Games, which run until February 20 and are taking place inside a vast “closed loop” designed to thwart the virus.
Some spectators will be present at 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.
World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will be among leaders of global institutions at the ceremony.
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.
– ‘Not well suited’ –
There are other concerns, including warnings from some Western nations about surveillance of their athletes and what will happen to them if they make anti-China comments or other displays of protest against local authorities.