China stirs controversy by choosing Uyghur athlete as torch-bearer at Winter Olympics ceremony

China stirs controversy by choosing Uyghur athlete as torch-bearer at Winter Olympics ceremony
China has caused controversy by thrusting Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang in the Winter Olympics' torch-bearing segment, during the opening ceremony on Friday.
3 min read
05 February, 2022
Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, pictured with fellow athlete Jiawen Zhao, acted as torch-bearer in the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing [Getty]

China's move to thrust a young Uyghur athlete into the spotlight at the climax of the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony placed her at the centre of long-time controversy over rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old cross-country skier, trained for years to fulfil every child's dream to star at the Olympics.

But her prominent, smiling appearance as the final Olympic torch-bearer on Friday at the "Bird's Nest" national stadium in front of thousands of spectators and across global television screens had clear political overtones.

She is from the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority from the far-northwestern region of Xinjiang, where China's ruling Communist Party is accused of widespread human rights abuses.

Following Yilamujiang's appearance on national and international television, Chinese diplomats shared videos on Twitter of her family clapping as they watched the ceremony on screen, some dabbing tears from their eyes.

China has repeatedly exhorted its critics to stop "politicising" these Olympics, which have been overshadowed by issues including rights, Covid-19 and fears of what will happen to athletes if they speak out at the Games.

Asked by journalists if Yilamujiang's inclusion met the standard of political neutrality, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said she had "every right" to participate.

"As you'll know from the Olympic Charter, we don't discriminate against people on where they're from, what their background is," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.

"I think the concept of having all the generations there was a really excellent one."

The final stretch of the torch relay that took place inside the stadium involved Chinese winter sports athletes born in every decade starting from the 1950s and finishing in the 2000s.

Yilamujiang finished 43rd in the skiathlon race on Saturday.

The fate of China's Uyghurs has been at the centre of international alarm.

At least one million mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in "re-education camps" in Xinjiang, campaigners say, and Chinese authorities have been accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour in the area.

The United States has accused China of genocide, a charge denied by Beijing.

Although world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin were present at the ceremony Friday, the US, Australia, Britain and Canada were among countries who did not send diplomatic representatives because of rights fears, especially over the Uyghurs.


Breakthrough athlete

Yilamujiang started ski training aged 12, according to China Sports Daily, under the guidance of her father- also a cross-country skier, who competed nationally.

She joined China's cross-country skiing team in 2017 and was among a group of athletes who headed to Norway for three years to hone their craft, state media reported.

Altay, the part of Xinjiang she is from, has been touted by Chinese state media as the "birthplace of skiing" and a growing winter sports destination.

In 2019, she became the first Chinese cross-country skiing medallist in an international ski federation-level event, with media reports lauding her as having achieved a "breakthrough" for the country in the sport.

Her father, who became a cross-country skier in the 1980s and is now a skiing instructor, was a strong motivating force behind her during her overseas training.

Yilamujiang took part in last year's World Championships, ranking 13th in team sprint and 41st on the 10km competition.

"The only thing we can do now is train hard and win glory for the country," she said in a video on the Beijing 2022 YouTube channel.

The Games run until February 20 and are taking place inside a "closed loop" bubble due to the coronavirus pandemic.