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The Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games are officially underway

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

The Winter Olympics in Beijing are officially underway. The opening ceremony saw several thousand athletes marching into China's national stadium. Over the next two weeks, those athletes will perform amazing feats of skill and endurance. But these games are also raising questions about what it means to hold an Olympics in an authoritarian country like China.

NPR's Brian Mann was at the ceremony and joins us. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Tam.

KEITH: Paint the picture. What did the show look like?

MANN: Well, it was pretty wonderful at times. There were charming moments with little kids in bright costumes running around, but there was also obviously a message being sent. There were televised images of people all across China trying to project this idea of a nation that's strong and unified, but, of course, this is a moment when China is facing accusations of very serious human rights violations.

KEITH: Some people will remember the extremely lavish opening ceremony at the 2008 Summer Olympics in that same stadium there in Beijing. Was it the same sort of spectacle?

MANN: Now, this was pretty different, a lot more subdued. And in part, that's just because of the pandemic. That meant the stadium was only about half full.

But despite that, there were some beautifully choreographed moments - dancers with long, luminous wands and great waves of fireworks erupting over the stadium. And then, of course, as you mentioned, the athletes came marching in - young people from countries all over the world, and they just did look thrilled to be there. You know, some of these athletes were dancing. They were so excited.

And then sort of at the climax of the whole thing, they lit the Olympic cauldron at the center of a great floating snowflake that rose into the stadium. It was lovely.

KEITH: China's President Xi Jinping presided over the ceremony. Russian President Vladimir Putin was also there, but the U.S. didn't send a diplomatic delegation. How come?

MANN: Well, obviously, this part is less lovely. The Biden administration has accused the Chinese government of acts of genocide against the Uyghur minority here. They've staged a diplomatic boycott of these games, and most China experts agree that the country is increasingly authoritarian. Meanwhile, of course, Russia has more than 100,000 troops massed on the border with Ukraine, and the U.S. is warning this week that Putin's government may try to gin up an excuse to invade.

So the optics of having these two leaders so visible at this ceremony definitely adds to the sense that these Olympics are just different. And the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, was asked about this this week. And he argued that somehow, politics can be kept out of this sporting event, but politics were really front and center at this ceremony.

KEITH: And there's also the pandemic. The athletes marching in were all wearing masks. I assume you were also wearing a mask. How is COVID shaping these games?

MANN: Tam, it is a constant presence here. The athletes, we journalists, everyone, we're living inside this bubble. We're tested daily, completely quarantined from most of the Chinese people in Beijing. It's common to see more people in hazmat suits than people in sports uniforms.

KEITH: Wow.

MANN: But I will say, yeah, a lot of the athletes - this is interesting - have voiced gratitude about this, and they're also just thankful that these games were able to go on despite the pandemic.

KEITH: Well, let's talk about the sports that are coming. What can we look forward to?

MANN: Yeah. There's going to be some really fun superstar moments over the next couple of weeks. Mikaela Shiffrin is back. She's this incredibly fast downhill skier. She's won three Olympic medals. Nathan Chen, the figure skater, he's already been out on the ice here, looking very strong.

But one thing that's kind of cool is that this is a rare moment when people in the U.S. pay some attention to lesser-known winter sports, things like curling, which was a big hit four years ago. That's where the U.S. men won a surprise gold four years ago. We'll see sports like Nordic combined that mix ski jumping and cross-country skiing. And for a lot of these young athletes in these sports, they, too, will get to be stars, at least for a couple weeks.

KEITH: NPR's Brian Mann in Beijing. Thank you so much.

MANN: All right. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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