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Why the Olympics opening ceremony felt kinda weird

Beijing’s opening ceremony featured Vladimir Putin, thousands of Chinese teenagers, and a lot of loaded politics.

The Olympic rings rise over performers during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on February 4.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Beijing Winter Olympics kicked off to an expectedly weird start, thanks to the unprecedented challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. Directed by legendary Chinese film director Zhang Yimou (who also directed the 2008 Beijing opening ceremony), this year’s opening ceremony focused on visual spectacle, with giant LED screens covering the floor and lining the stage, and no celebrity entertainers.

Facing a diplomatic boycott from many countries over its human rights violations, including the US — meaning the United States sent no official government envoy to the Games but its athletes are competing as usual — China took a low-key approach to this year’s opening ceremony. But inevitably, the tense geopolitics surrounding the event snuck in.

The production, which dovetailed with the Chinese New Year spring festival, included about 3,000 performers, most of them teenagers, and emphasized peace, world unity, and the people around the world who have battled the pandemic. The unifying aesthetic was about as peaceful as you could get: snowflakes.

In the buildup to the ceremony, China had encouraged athletes to sign a “truce mural” with other nations. The government also rolled out a massive winter sports initiative prior to the Games, claiming it had successfully engaged more than 300 million Chinese citizens in winter sports participation, especially targeting kids and teens. The ceremony emphasized these citizens above all else, with no famous singers or actors performing — a first for any Olympics in recent memory.

This was due perhaps in part to the difficulty of coordinating live celebrity performances while Beijing is still under a period of intense lockdown due to the pandemic. It happens to be in accord with China’s year-long “QingLang” campaign to rein in the status of celebrities and their fans — a sweeping attempt to control both the undue influence of idols as well as their often out-of-control fandoms.

It’s in keeping with China’s messaging since the pandemic began: We’re all in this together, getting through this together, thanks to the tireless commitment of “ordinary heroes” like volunteers and essential workers — who had to execute China’s draconian (though highly successful) Covid policy. Since 2021 was the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, that narrative has also aligned with a heavy emphasis on the importance of youth to carry the nation (and Chinese communism) into the future.

That theme played heavily into the opening ceremonies, from the presence of seas of cute children smiling and singing onstage to a video featuring kids not much older than toddlers skiing and skating to the passing of the Olympic torch. For the cauldron lighting, Chinese athletes born in succeeding decades passed the torch along to one another, ending with two athletes born in the 2000s (one of whom embodied a message to the world, but more on that in a second).

Throughout the parade of nations, happy volunteers jumped, danced, and waved alongside the competing Olympic athletes alongside a backdrop of utterly inoffensive European classical music. A bucolic snowflake aesthetic dominated the presentation, apparently emphasizing not the uniqueness of every snowflake, but the calm uniformity of the collective snowfall awaiting spring. Easy to imagine it all as a metaphor for the commonality of the global Olympics audience as we all await an end to Covid surges. At one point, roller skaters made idyllic snowflake patterns to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Despite the banal quality of it all, the scene still held political tension. Viewers watching the NBC live feed of the ceremony got plenty of glimpses of Vladimir Putin, isolated in Russia’s box, attending the event despite being embroiled in a border standoff with Ukraine that threatens to overshadow the Games and their focus on global unity.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping looked on, in the final moments, the Olympic torch was passed to 21-year-old cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who is a member of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority. Human rights experts have accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of detaining millions of Uyghurs in forced human labor camps in Xinjiang; the US State Department has described the actions as genocide and alleged China is committing other crimes against humanity like rape, forced sterilization, and torture.

China has claimed, despite significant evidence to the contrary, that the camps don’t exist, that workers’ labor is voluntary, and that accusations to the contrary are “the lie of the century.” So the decision to prominently feature Yilamujiang to end the opening ceremony is a deeply political one — and one that will significantly complicate the message of unity conveyed in the Olympics’ opening ceremony. (Yilamujiang isn’t the first Uyghur athlete to carry the torch for China; Kamaltürk Yalqun, who carried the torch at age 17 in the 2008 Olympics, now lives in the US and has spent years protesting China’s persecution of the Uyghurs.)

China also welcomed separate delegations from Taiwan (competing as the “Chinese Taipei” team) and Hong Kong, despite its attempts to bring those regions more tightly into its orbit and its emphasis on a “One China” policy. As Yale professor Jing Tsu explained during NBC’s coverage, these contradictions are somewhat inherent to China’s political strategy: The country doesn’t necessarily expect to change minds, globally, with its message — but still, it is a clear one: unity, the future, and peace on earth. “We’ll see if there are any takers,” Tsu said.

Still, it’s always worth noting that China and its people are not a monolith, nor are they synonymous with the CCP and its human rights abuses — whatever the CCP might want you to think. While China’s Olympic delegation obviously got the biggest cheer of the night from the hometown crowd, the Beijing Olympics Committee stressed a warm welcome to all the participating nations, from the Mexican athletes wearing Day of the Dead jackets to the solo American Samoa delegate who arrived shirtless, fully Vaselined, and ready to play.

Perhaps the opening ceremony did remind us of one thing: No amount of strange precedence or geopolitical tensions can fully suppress the thrilling and unexpected pleasures of the Olympics, from the weird and wacky to the groundbreaking and heroic. Let the Games begin!