BEIJING — Organizers take a victory lap for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics while controversy swirls over the choice of a Uyghur athlete to help light a cauldron that isn’t really a cauldron.
Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old cross-country skier, was one of the two final torchbearers lighting a flame inside a giant snowflake.
Her selection ignited cries of blatant political propaganda by the Chinese government, which is accused of human rights abuses against the Muslim minority, amid an Olympic Movement that strives to be free of politics. Others called it a symbol of inclusion. There were also mixed feelings: while Yilamujiang appeared to be a political pawn, more people are now talking about the plight of the Uyghur people.
Chang Yu, Director-General of the Department of Opening and Closing Ceremonies, said at the first daily briefing in the Main Press Center that the seven torchbearers within the Bird’s Nest Stadium represented each decade from the 1950s through the 2000s. Zhao Jiawen, a Nordic combined athlete, joined Yilamujiang for the final leg.
“We hope we can showcase the transmission of legacy from one generation to another generation,” he said, noting that it’s a big part of Chinese tradition and culture.
Critics argued that Eileen Gu, the 18-year-old Chinese American freestyle skier who is a two-time world champion as well as a fashion model, was more deserving than Yilamujiang, who has not had that level of success. However, organizers stressed they were not looking for professional actors and artists, nor celebrities in the ceremony.
While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) vets the final torchbearers and people chosen to carry in the Olympic flag, that is not a seal of approval. It is merely to weed out those who may have a doping violation or history of manipulation.
“We are involved to a certain extent,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. “This is an athlete who’s competing here — she’s competing today. As you’ll know from the Olympic Charter, we don’t discriminate against people wherever they’re from, whatever their background. She is absolutely perfectly entitled to be taking part in the torch relay and I think the concept of having all the generations there was a really excellent one.”
Zhang Yimou, the director of the Opening Ceremony who served the same role in 2008, defended the unorthodox cauldron, which usually looks like a giant pot or a a larger version of the torch. This looks more like a candle.
“The lighting of the cauldron surprised many people and for myself it was also innovation and change,” he said. “The Chinese aesthetic focuses a lot on a sense of the surreal — use one as 10 — always leave some room for imagination.”
The snowflake was made of 91 smaller snowflakes bearing the names of the participating countries.
“The only difference is we didn’t have a very big fire, a big flame,” Zhang said. “I think that is a very romantic way of presenting the cauldron and also a very surprising way. I was not sure when I was proposing that, but surprisingly they liked it very much and gave me full support to realize that.”
Zhang said his creation is low carbon and environmentally friendly and demonstrates that “we can light up the world with one small star. That is a Chinese concept. Fire is the origin of human life.”
He described people in caves sitting around a fire, trying to protect it so it can be passed down to the next generation. He said it also showcased the Olympic spirit and a sense of community.
“The world is faced with a difficult time,” he said, “and we hope with such performance we can present the world with a warm touch.”
Unlike the extravaganza in 2008, Zhang said the Opening Ceremony of 2022 is “warmer, more relaxed, more simplified, but it also tells more the concept of being together.”
Zhang said his perspective was not only on the 5,000-year history of China, but of the participation of the whole world, and the flame-lighting was part of that global view.
The ceremony combined 3,000 performers, mostly students, with innovative technology, including the 11,600- square meter floor LED display.
“No matter how good the performance was on-site, we need to count on broadcast teams to showcase everything to the world,” Zhang said.
That task fell to Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services. He said working with Zhang, “You just need to understand and follow the incredible vision he has.”
Both said the ceremony highlighted the athletes, with almost half of the time allotted to the Parade of Nations.
Exarchos also complimented the impressive fireworks display for telling a story, and said the perfect camera shot was arranged outside the “closed loop.”
However, Zhang’s favorite part of the show was a video lasting just over a minute showing children learning to ski and skate.
He said it personified the concept of engaging 300 million people in China in winter sports as well as the “progress of human beings.”
“We always fall down and we always get back on our feet again,” Zhang said, “and find happiness and then showcase the best side of us. Every time I watch it I am very much touched and it is very vivid.”