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The Margin: Winter Olympic Games opening ceremony: A Uyghur skier lit the cauldron — and Putin was accused of falling asleep

The 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony kicked off Friday night in Beijing — which meant that it was Friday morning in the U.S., and many Americans were probably asleep while these noteworthy events happened.

For those of you who regret not setting your alarm extra early or adjusting your morning schedule, NBC will reprise the ceremonial broadcast (which began at 6:30 a.m. ET) with a primetime showcase at 8 p.m. ET on Friday. And here’s a guide on how to watch or stream the 2022 Winter Olympics until the closing ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 20.

Or, you can check out some of the highlights of the parade of nations, the cauldron-lighting and more with this recap of the opening ceremony’s most memorable moments. And brush up on your Beijing Olympics trivia, while you’re at it, by checking out the 2022 Winter Olympics by the numbers

The technical effects were top-notch. 

Beijing is the first city to ever host both the Summer Games and the Winter Games, and so it’s reusing many of its 2008 venues for this year’s events. That includes the National Stadium, better known as the Bird’s Nest, with its iconic lattice shell of curving steel. The Bird’s Nest was the site of the opening ceremony on Friday, and its floor featured 125,000 square feet of high-definition LED screens made to look like a sheet of ice. These screens displayed many jaw-dropping projections throughout the ceremony. For instance, a computer-generated ice block “rose” from the floor at one point, projecting the names of all of the previous Winter Games hosts before lasers appeared to chip the “ice” into the Olympic rings. 

The Winter Games kicked off with a celebration of … spring.

Not only is this the 24th Olympic Winter Games, but Friday marks the first of the 24 solar terms of the Chinese lunar calendar known as Lichun, or the beginning of spring. So the ceremony marked the auspicious date with dancers waving tall, glowing green stalks resembling grass to illustrate the life and vitality of spring. And this part of the show wrapped with a pyrotechnic display that featured green and white fireworks spelling out the word “spring.” It was one of three major fireworks shows of the evening (Beijing time.) 

But “snowflakes” were the running theme. 

The “Story of the Snowflake” was a thread that ran through Friday’s opening ceremony. As all 91 delegations entered the stadium during the parade of athletes, they were led by someone carrying a shining placard shaped like a snowflake that featured the country, territory or Olympic committee’s name on it. At the end of the procession, all of the snowflakes were put together to create one giant snowflake, symbolizing how the individual nations are all stronger together. 

The shirtless Tongan flag-bearer has a successor.

Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua has gone viral during the past couple of Olympic opening ceremonies for bearing his country’s flag during the parade of athletes without a shirt on — and with his upper body oiled and glistening. The cross-country skier and taekwondo competitor is sitting out the Games this year, however, to help his Pacific island home recover from a volcanic explosion. American Samoa’s lone athlete in Beijing stepped in, however, and bore the U.S territory’s flag while topless and slathered in oil — despite below-freezing temperatures in the 20s (Fahrenheit). And he even earned a shoutout from Taufatofua on Twitter. “American Samoa holding the fort,” he tweeted.

Putin appeared to be sleeping before the Ukraine team walked in. 

While the Olympics are supposed to embody a spirit of international unity and cooperation alongside spirited competition, Beijing 2022 arrives amid a perfect geopolitical storm. That includes the COVID-19 pandemic, with many athletes having to back out or quarantine at the last minute after testing positive with the virus. The U.S. is also leading a diplomatic boycott of the Games to protest “egregious human rights abuses.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin met privately with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier on Friday — as a standoff continued to unfold at Russia’s border with Ukraine — and released a joint statement pushing back against the U.S. and its allies

Putin was one of the most high-profile diplomats attending the opening ceremony. So when the Ukraine team walked out during the parade of athletes, NBC panned the camera over to the Russian leader — who appeared to be asleep. His eyes were closed and his head was down for a few moments, before Putin lifted his head up as Ukraine’s name was announced. 

Putin stood up and waved when the Russian athletes walked out, however. His country’s athletes are competing under the name ROC, aka Russian Olympic Committee, as Russia itself was banned from competing in Tokyo 2020 and in Beijing 2022 as punishment for running a state-sponsored doping program. So clean athletes can compete under the ROC moniker. Their flag and national anthem are not supposed to be used during the Games for two years; that punishment will end at the end of this year. 

A Uyghur athlete helped light the Olympic cauldron.

In perhaps the biggest surprise of the ceremony, the final Olympic torchbearers tasked with lighting the Olympic cauldron included an athlete that China said was a member of the Uyghur Muslim minority. That was Dinigeer Yilamujiang, 20, a cross-country skier born in the western Xinjiang region, who joined Zhao Jiawen, 21, who competes in Nordic combined, to deliver the torch to the cauldron. This was notable because critics have accused the Beijing government of abusing and oppressing the Uyghurs on a massive scale that the U.S. government has called genocide — one of the reasons that American and some of its allies are participating in a diplomatic boycott of these Games. China has denied this.

But some critics, including Amnesty International, have warned against “sportswashing” at the Beijing Olympics; aka, letting sports distract the world from an oppressive government’s human-rights abuses.

And NBC’s Mike Tirico began his Thursday night broadcast by highlighting the tense geopolitical atmosphere surrounding the Games, including “sportswashing” and questions about China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population.

Fireworks in the shape of the Olympic rings go off over the National Stadium, aka as the Bird’s Nest, iduring the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
Li Xin/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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