© Reuters. 2022 Beijing Olympics – Opening Ceremony – National Stadium, Beijing, China – February 4, 2022. The Olympic torch is lit during the opening ceremony. REUTERS / Phil Noble
By Karolos Grohmann
BEIJING (Reuters) -A cross country skier born in Xinjiang, who was one of the two final torchbearers at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony on Friday, was not picked because of where she comes from, the International Olympic Committee said on Saturday.
Dinigeer Yilamujiang, from Altay in China’s western Xinjiang region, placed the lit torch onto a giant snowflake along with Zhao Jiawen, a 21-year-old biathlete, before it was lifted high above the spectators at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium.
The selection of Yilamujiang as one of the final two torchbearers came as many western nations diplomatically boycotted the Winter Games over China’s treatment of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.
“Obviously the opening ceremony is something that the organizing committee put together and there’s creative input,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “We are involved to a certain extent.”
“This is an athlete who is competing here, she is competing this morning. She has every right, wherever she comes from, whatever her background, to compete … and to take part in any ceremony.”
Games organizers said the final handful of torchbearers who entered the stadium with the flame had been picked based on their birth dates with each having been born in a different decade, starting from the 1950s through to the 2000s.
Yilamujiang is the first Chinese cross-country skiing medalist at any international federation-level event and is a medal hopeful in a sport in which China has not traditionally excelled.
However, she finished tied for 43rd on Saturday in the skiathlon, placing third among the four Chinese skiers in the race.
Ma Haiyun, an expert on Xinjiang and an associate professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, said Yilamujiang’s selection was intended to send a message.
“By selecting a Uyghur athlete to light the torch, China is trying to address criticism by the West about the genocide or persecution of the Uyghurs, and about the sinicization of ethnic minorities,” he said.
“But I don’t think this can have much effect on the West, which tends to think most of what China puts up is a show anyway,” Ma added.
Rights groups and some western governments have called for China to end what the United States deems genocide against ethnic Uyghurs. United Nations researchers and rights assess more than one million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang.
China rejects accusations of abuse, describing the camps as vocational centers designed to combat extremism, and in late 2019 said all people in the camps had “graduated”.
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