Pared back, ramped up: Beijing is ready to open the Winter Olympics

The 2022 Winter Olympics is set to kick off, with a comparatively pared-back opening getting underway at Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium early Friday.

China aims to impress billions around the world with these games, and perhaps momentarily transcend the politically charged atmosphere and strict Covid-19 restrictions that have characterized the runup to the competition.

“The world is turning its eyes to China, and China is ready,” President Xi Jinping said Thursday. “We will do our best to deliver to the world a streamlined, safe and splendid games.”

watch live: NBC coverage of the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony

Four-time Olympic bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor and five-time Olympic curler John Shuster were chosen to be the flag bearers for Team USA at the opening ceremony. However, three-time Olympic speed skater Brittany Bowe will walk on behalf of Meyers Taylor after she recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

Skating in the team event, the United States’ Nathan Chen recorded the second-highest short program score ever with 111.71 points on Friday.David J. Phillip / AP

In stark contrast to the epic 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, which ran for about four hours, this year’s pageantry has been simplified and shortened to less than 100 minutes because of the pandemic and the cold weather, according to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency. Only 3,000 performers, of which teenagers are expected to make up the vast majorityare due to take part, compared with 15,000 in 2008, Xinhua said.

The sea of ​​spectators in 2008 will also be missing after China barred international fans, and Olympic organizers said they would not be selling tickets to the general public in China. Instead, a “selected” group would receive tickets. Certain world leaders, including President Joe Biden and the leaders of Australia, Britain and Canada, will also not be in attendance, after announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Games on human rights grounds.

On Thursday, India said the top diplomat at its embassy in Beijing would not attend the opening or closing ceremonies after the torch relay featured a Chinese soldier who was injured in a deadly 2020 clash between troops on the Indian-Chinese border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing, however, in a show of unity with China amid Moscow’s standoff with the West over Ukraine. The Games come at a time when Russia and China have become increasingly confrontational toward the West, and all eyes will be on Russia to see if it chooses to take advantage of the start of the Olympics, and the world’s distraction, to invade Ukraine, as it did in 2008 when it invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has been tasked with making the ceremony a success despite the pandemic and below freezing temperatures, and has promised to distinguish it from the ceremonies he directed to open and close the Summer Olympics in 2008.

Zhang told Xinhua last month that the theme of the opening ceremony would reflect that times have changed.

“In 2008, the Olympics was a brilliant stage and chance for our country to show itself,” he told Xinhua. “It’s different now. China’s status in the world, the image of the Chinese, and the rise of our national status, everything is totally different.”

The world needs a new vision in the wake of the pandemic, one of people globally coming together to face difficulties and to look forward to a bright future, he said.

The Bird’s Nest, a saddle-shaped structure wrapped in steel latticework, was the centerpiece of the Olympic venues in 2008. The motto of the 2022 Games is “Together for a Shared Future.”

Zhang has promised a bold new method for lighting the Olympic cauldron that is in line with environmental concerns and low-carbon emissions. After being relayed by about 1,200 torchbearers, in a scaled-back event compared with 2008, the Olympic flame will light the main cauldron at the National Stadium, marking the beginning of the Games.

In 2008, the dazzling opening ceremony kicked off with 2,008 drummers pounding their instruments in heart-thumping unison. At the end, former gymnast Li Ning was hoisted by wires to the top of the stadium where he appeared to spacewalk along its wall to light the mammoth, scroll-shaped cauldron overlooking Beijing.

Associated Press other Reuters contributed.

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