BEIJING – The last time Zhang Yimou directed an opening ceremony, he had 15,000 performers and a $100 million budget at his disposal. That kind of excess didn’t seem right for an Olympics under the lingering shadow of COVID-19.
The famed filmmaker chose a more subdued approach Friday to lift the curtain on the Beijing Winter Games. Zhang still went heavy on the fireworks – it is Lunar New Year, after all – but scaled back the rest of the bombast. Restrained as it was, Zhang still managed a surprise ending at National Stadium.
The big reveal wasn’t the cauldron itself. It was one of the athletes who lit it: cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang. Olympic organizers said Yilamujiang is of Uyghur Muslim heritage, a move meant to address critics who believe China’s oppression of the Uyghurs should have disqualified it as an Olympic host.
Yilamujiang and Zhao Jiawen, a Nordic combined athlete, placed a slim torch inside a snowflake floating above the floor of the Bird’s Nest stadium to signal the start of the Winter Games. That theatrical gesture won’t satisfy those who wish the Games were elsewhere. But the impresarios behind these Olympics – the Chinese, and the International Olympic Committee – clearly want the spotlight to shift off them and onto the athletes over 17 days of competition.
“Your Olympic stage is set,” IOC President Thomas Bach told athletes in his opening speech. “Now your moment has come, the moment we have all been longing for.”
About 3,000 athletes from 91 national Olympic committees will compete in Beijing, with medals at stake in 109 events. The U.S. delegation of 224 athletes includes 30 with Minnesota ties.
In contrast to the temperature – a brisk 22 degrees, with a windchill of 12 degrees – the Bird’s Nest was lit in warm red, yellow and orange. Though COVID-19 has kept most Olympic activity confined to a tight bubble, some invited spectators were allowed inside the “closed loop” to view the opening ceremony. It appeared there were several thousand people in the stands, cheering in pandemic style: by waving flags and staying mum.
A few broke ranks here and there, such as the volunteers who belted out China’s national anthem after its flag was raised. All were bundled up, masked and properly distanced.
The VIP boxes were emptier than usual. China’s president, Xi Jinping, and Russian President Vladimir Putin were the most prominent politicians to attend. U.S. government officials were conspicuously absent.
The Americans were the first to declare a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, refusing to send any government representatives as a way to protest human rights abuses in China. A handful of other nations, including Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands, also kept diplomats home.
Hours before the ceremony, a rumor circulated that some athletes would stay away from the opening ceremony. Rick Adams, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, said 177 American athletes – 80% of the delegation – planned to walk into the stadium.
“That may even be a record,” Adams said. “The athletes are really excited. They can’t wait.”
Chisholm, Minnesota, native John Shuster led the Americans, dressed in Ralph Lauren winter gear, into the stadium. The 2018 gold medalist and five-time Olympian in men’s curling shared flag-bearing duties with speedskater Brittany Bowe. Shuster, elected by other U.S. athletes to carry the flag, called it one of the greatest honors of his sports career.
Some athletes had to make their own ceremony. Members of the U.S. biathlon team – which includes Minnesotans Leif Nordgren and Jake Brown, and Paul Schommer – were among those who did not make the trip from the mountains to the city, choosing to rest up for competition. Instead, they dressed up in their parade outfits and walked around the Olympic Village.
As always, the opening ceremony featured flowery speeches from organizers, heavy with themes of unity and peace. Cai Qi, president of the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, promised “a simple, safe and splendid Games.”
Zhang, the director, did his part. His lavish 2008 show ended with a literal high-wire act witnessed by 91,000 spectators. Former gymnast Li Ning, suspended by cables, ran through the air above the brand-new Bird’s Nest to light the cauldron in one of the most dazzling finales in an opening ceremony.
Friday’s encore didn’t have quite the same razzle-dazzle, but that wasn’t the point.
German speedskater Claudia Pechstein, one of thousands of athletes who trained through a pandemic to get to Beijing, had only two wishes as the Games officially started.
“To be negative for COVID,” she said, laughing. “And to celebrate my eighth Olympics.”