The country where the coronavirus outbreak emerged two years ago launched a locked-down Winter Olympics on Friday, proudly projecting its might on the most global of stages even as some Western governments mounted a diplomatic boycott over the way China treats millions of its own people.
The opening ceremony began just after the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach at the same lattice-encased National Stadium that hosted the inaugural event at the 2008 Olympics.
With the dimming of the lights and a countdown in fireworks, Beijing became the first city to host both winter and summer Games. And while some are staying away from the second pandemic Olympics in six months, many other world leaders attended the opening ceremony. Most notable: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met privately with Xi earlier in the day as a dangerous standoff unfolds at Russia’s border with Ukraine.
The Olympics — and the opening ceremony — are always an exercise in performance for the host nation, a chance to showcase its culture, define its place in the world, flaunt its best side. That’s something China in particular has been consumed with for decades. But at this year’s Beijing Games, the gulf between performance and reality will be particularly jarring.
Fourteen years ago, a Beijing opening ceremony that featured massive pyrotechnic displays and thousands of card-flipping performers set a new standard of extravagance to start an Olympics that no host since has matched. It was a fitting start to an event often billed as China’s “coming out.”
After the Chinese flag was raised, the Parade of Nations began, with delegations moving across a surface of high-resolution LED screens showing colorful graphics on an ice-like surface.
As per Olympic tradition Greece, home of the ancient Olympics, was the first delegation to enter, followed by teams in alphabetic order under their Chinese names.
Among the notable early delegations to appear were Taiwan — known officially as Chinese Taipei — which had said it was not going to participate in the Opening Ceremony, but reversed its decision last week, and Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous island that has seen Beijing heavily tighten control over the past two years.
Team USA was the 56th delegation to enter, wearing winter hats, red-white-and-blue outfits and ubiquitous pandemic-era masks and chanting “USA! USA!”
Curler John Shuster, who won a gold medal in 2018, and speed skater Brittany Bowe, a 2018 Olympic bronze medalist, were the flag bearers.