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At the Olympics, a subdued Opening Ceremony from a controversial host in a weary world

Fireworks in the shape of the Olympic rings go off over the Bird's Nest during Friday's Opening Ceremony in Beijing.LI XIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The last time the Olympics were held in Beijing, the Opening Ceremony was a coming-out party, an opportunity for the world’s most populous country to open its doors to the world.

Fourteen years later, the XXIVth Winter Games, which officially began Friday, are being held in a China that is more economically powerful, more technologically advanced, and decidedly more repressive. The rest of the world knows far more about the Middle Kingdom than it did in the summer of 2008, and much of it is far from flattering.

Beijing, the first city to stage both the Summer and Winter Olympics, was a controversial selection seven years ago when the International Olympic Committee chose it over Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, and is more contentious now that the country’s human rights record has worsened and the Games are being held amid a global pandemic that originated in China.


The government’s strict zero-COVID policy has banned foreign spectators and cocooned athletes in a tight “closed loop” that allows them no contact with the city or its residents. Even so, some Olympians have tested positive upon arrival or shortly after. Norwegian skiers, Russian figure skaters, Austrian jumpers, and Danish hockey players have been quarantined and may miss their events.

The most notable is American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, who is favored to win two gold medals and was scheduled to carry the Stars and Stripes into the Bird’s Nest stadium. Instead, after testing positive for the virus, Meyers Taylor has been placed in isolation while she awaits the two negative results that will allow her to compete.

The dominant emotion among the 2,877 athletes from 91 countries is fear that a positive test will rob them of their five-ringed dreams.

Olympus is not immune to the dangers and problems of the world. In his welcome speech, IOC president Thomas Bach acknowledged a “fragile world where division, conflict, and mistrust are on the rise.”


Those stresses were highlighted during the ceremony when the delegations from Taiwan (called Chinese Taipei on the IOC’s map) and Hong Kong, both of whom are resisting Chinese encroachment, marched past Chinese president Xi Jinping, and when Ukraine’s group paraded past Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose troops are poised to invade their homeland.

Volunteers waved Chinese national flags at the Opening Ceremony.AFP via Getty Images

Bach, who has said repeatedly that the Olympics must be above politics, noted in his address that the mission of the Games is “uniting humankind in all our diversity.” The Chinese organizers pointedly used members of the country’s 56 ethnic groups to pass the Chinese banner from hand to hand before raising it in the stadium “to express the people’s affection for and bond with the national flag.” Their number included representatives from minorities like the Uyghurs, whom the government has made a point of subjugating.

So there was significant irony that Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Uyghur cross-country skier, was one of the two athletes who ignited the flame inside a giant snowflake. It was the government’s brutal treatment of the Uyghurs, which the White House considers to be genocide, that prompted the US-led diplomatic boycott of the ceremonies.

The IOC has avoided any mention of China’s deplorable human rights violations, opting instead for what it calls “quiet diplomacy” with the country’s leaders. That’s not the first time that the Lords of the Rings have ignored the obvious rather than risk offending an Olympic host.


Dachau and other concentration camps already were operating in 1936 when the Summer Games were held in Berlin. In 1980, seven months after the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, the Olympics went on in Moscow as scheduled.

The 2022 Games were awarded to Beijing because the IOC had no better option. Kazakhstan, another autocratic state, was far less capable of hosting the complex and expensive undertaking that the Olympics have become.

Two torch bearers lit the Olympic flame in a cauldron shaped like a snowflake. CHANG W. LEE/NYT

So Beijing got the nod once again as the “safe” choice and built or repurposed spectacular venues that have set the standard for future hosts. But the circumstances this time are dramatically different than they were in 2008, and that was reflected in the Opening Ceremony.

Last time, they were extraordinarily elaborate and perfectly executed, a four-hour show featuring 14,000 performers, 2,008 drummers, and a gymnast on a trapeze lighting the cauldron. This time they were shorter, smaller, and subdued. The torch ceremony was so understated that it wasn’t immediately clear that the flame was burning.

This was a ceremony for a frightened and weary world that simply wants to get through 2022. For the anxious athletes, simply taking part — which IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin said was the most important thing about the Games — will be a triumph.