The Beijing Winter Olympics torch relay has kicked off as China’s capital gears up to host the global sporting event against a backdrop of diplomatic boycotts and the coronavirus pandemic.
Starting Wednesday, more than 1,000 torchbearers will carry the flame through competition areas in Beijing and the neighbouring city of Zhangjiakou – hosting events such as cross-country skiing and ski jumping – before the opening ceremony on Friday evening.
Audiences for the torch relay will be strictly limited, with China encouraging people to follow the event online rather than try to catch a glimpse of the procession in person.
The first three runners in the relay were Luo Zhihuan, an 80-year-old former speed skater who won China’s first winter sport world championship title in 1963, astronaut Jing Haipeng, as well as Chang’e 1 satellite designer Ye Peijian, according to Beijing Daily.
Former NBA star and Olympian Yao Ming also joined the relay, but not top tennis player Peng Shuai, whose whereabouts and safety remain a global concern after she made sexual assault allegations against a former vice premier.
The torch’s journey to Beijing began in October with activists unfurling banners accusing China of human rights abuses at the flame-lighting ceremony in the Olympic spiritual homeland of Greece.
Multiple countries, including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games over China’s human rights record including its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.
Beijing has condemned the boycott and is determined to pull off a Games that will burnish its international reputation. A number of
Despite the Western boycott, a number of world leaders – including Russian President Vladimir Putin – have said they will attend the Games.
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Pakistan’s Imran Khan and Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyhan of the United Arab Emirates, were among several Middle Eastern and Asian leaders expected to attend. From Europe, only Poland and Serbia have said they will send their heads of state.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will also attend the opening ceremony, telling reporters last month it was not a “political visit”.
“The Olympic ideal is something that we have to cherish, and that is the reason why I am going.”
As the only remaining major world economy to still be pursuing a zero-COVID strategy, China is taking no chances with the Olympics.
The Games, which open on February 4, are taking place inside a “closed-loop” bubble that seals off athletes and other Olympics personnel from the public, and only select groups of people will be allowed to attend events.
“That is, of course, bad luck but what can you do?” Georgios Iliopoulos, Greece’s ambassador to China and one of the torch-bearers, said when asked if he was worried that the 2022 Games would be remembered as the “Corona Olympics”.
“You cannot stop life and we do the best we can to continue with what we have to deal with. The main thing is we keep together at this and leave it behind us as soon as possible,” he told reporters.
The competition is expected to start later on Wednesday with curling teams from Sweden and the UK to take the stage just after 8pm local time (12:00 GMT).