The lighting of the Olympic Flame, for the first time, featured a snowflake. It also featured a blunt political message.
China promised an unconventional cauldron lighting to officially begin the 2022 Winter Olympics and delivered.
Lighting the flame were Chinese skiers Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Zhao Jiawen, who shared a torch to represent gender equality, and placed it into the center of a large snowflake suspended in air.
”TODAY” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie called China’s decision to choose Yilamujiang, an athlete identified by state media as a member of the Uyghur community, a “significant and provocative response” to Western nations, including the United States, who have called the Chinese treatment of that group “genocide.”
The U.S and some of its closest allies mounted a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games over China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang and other ethnic minorities.
"This was a reposte to President Joe Biden for skipping these Olympics, and a message to the west," said Andrew Browne, editorial director of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum and a member of the NBC broadcast team. "China won't be lectured to on human rights or on any other issue."
According to experts, authorities have locked up an estimated 1 million or more members of minority ethnic groups in mass internment camps over the past several years — most of them Uyghurs. Human rights groups have dubbed these the “Genocide Games.”
China denies any human rights abuses, calling them the “lie of the century.” It describes its policies in Xinjiang as a “training program” to combat terrorism.
"The message (of the cauldron lighting) is double-edged: There's one to the outside world, and one to the Chinese people," said Jing Tsu, a Yale professor and expert on Chinese culture, and member of the NBC broadcast team. "In this last message, the Chinese may have seen an affirmation of national unity. The message is out there. We'll see if there are any takers."
The final torch relay concluded with six Chinese Olympians, with representatives dating back to the 1950s, serving as torchbearers.
The torch was passed from Zhao Weichang (speed skater) to Li Yan (short track) to Yang Yang (short track) to Su Bingtian (track and field) to Zhou Yang (short track) and finally to Yilamujiang and Jiawen, both of whom were born in the 2000s.