winter olympics 2022

The Opening Ceremonies Glowed With a Political Charge

Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

The world is a mess. Let’s have an Olympics!

That isn’t quite the message sent by NBC’s commentators during this morning’s live broadcast of the 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony, which unfolded within the chilly bubble of Beijing’s National Stadium. But it isn’t far off, either.

Savannah Guthrie, broadcasting from studios in Connecticut, joined NBC’s Mike Tirico and a pair of experts on China, who were all on the ground in Beijing, in the traditional Olympic attempt to capture the globally unifying spirit of the event. But there was simply no way to ignore the divisive politics hovering over these games, and NBC, to its credit, made sure its live coverage did not. It would have been ridiculous to try with Russian president Vladimir Putin sitting right there in the audience, demonstrating his alliance with Chinese president Xi Jinping while the U.S. has publicly challenged Russia for its stance on Ukraine and pointedly sent no official delegation to the Olympics due to China’s human-rights violations against the Uyghur community in its Xinjiang region. NBC acknowledged the controversial leader’s presence and unintentionally provided a moment of comedy when, expecting a significant reaction shot as the Ukrainian delegation entered, the camera cut to an image of Putin. And there was the imposing dictator, his eyes closed as he seemingly napped for a couple of seconds. (Expect moments like this, along with portions of the Parade of Nations, to be edited out of tonight’s prime-time broadcast on NBC, which the network has said will have “a special focus on the athletes of Team USA.”)

Even one of the most notable moments in any Olympic kickoff, the lighting of the cauldron, was tinged with political tension thanks to the presence of Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a cross-country skier who is reportedly of Uyghur heritage and was one of two Chinese athletes selected to ignite the flame. Guthrie and her colleagues immediately characterized the choice as a rebuke of Biden and other western leaders who have called China’s “reeducation” of Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities the equivalent of genocide. They explained all this while NBC telecast images of the Olympic flame burning within the center of a large, illuminated snowflake composed of tinier flakes, each representing one of the 84 participating nations. It was a study in contrasts, or a song of ice and fire, or a hypocritical exercise in political projection during a brightly lit ceremony filled with literal projections of international unity. Whatever you want to call it, the moment captured the vastly different narratives that will continue to compete as athletes do the same over the next two weeks.

Hey, I haven’t even mentioned yet that all of this is happening against the backdrop of a pandemic that still hasn’t fully receded, have I? Isn’t that wild? Anyway: Who’s up for some luge?

There was no way for the NBC broadcast to ignore COVID either. That’s partly because of a segment in the ceremony that projected pandemic-inspired images onto the massive LED screen of a stage, but also because every delegation of athletes in the Parade of Nations was fully masked, as well as bundled up to their chins in an attempt to stay warm. Notably, American speed-skater Brittany Bowe had to fill in last minute as the U.S.’s second flag-bearer, alongside curler John Shuster, after bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor tested positive for COVID.

(Well, almost every athlete was puffer-jacketed up to their eyeballs. Nathan Crumpton, the flag-bearer for American Samoa, played the role often assumed by Tonga and marched out oiled up and shirtless, even though temperatures inside the Bird’s Nest were in the 20s.)

Many of the delegations that entered the stadium were dwarfed by the electronic light show digitally zipping around them on the 10,522-square-meter LED screen of a stage. No doubt in part because of COVID, ceremony director Zhang Yimou, who also tackled the job in 2008, when the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing, relied heavily on that LED canvas to provide the pomp and grandeur usually achieved by packing bodies onto the stage, as he famously did 14 years ago with all those synchronized drummers. By comparison, this opening ceremony felt a bit sterile, not helped by the fact that the stadium was only 40 percent full. Even in wide shots that focused on all the Lite Brite–ness and left the stands shrouded in darkness, you could sense the emptiness. It didn’t quite replicate the strange, isolated-void vibe of the 2021 Summer Olympics opener, but: close?

There were certainly human elements in the mix, most notably in the most striking portion of the ceremony, when numerous Chinese children sang the opening ceremony’s theme song, “Snowflake,” while holding luminous doves that came together to form a heart. That part was sweet and touching — as long as you were able to forget that, mere moments earlier, in his opening remarks, IOC president Thomas Bach asked “all political authorities across the world” to “observe your commitment to this Olympic truce” and “give peace a chance.” The comment, presumably, was directed at Putin, who could theoretically choose to invade Ukraine while the Games are still happening.

Bach emphasized in that same speech that this Olympics is “uniting humankind in all its diversity,” in keeping with a theme established earlier in the ceremony, when the Chinese flag was brought in and passed through the hands of individuals meant to represent all the ethnic groups who reside in China. As that was happening, one of NBC’s China experts, Andy Browne, former China editor of The Wall Street Journal, made sure to mention the Uyghurs again at that point. Seemingly every moment in this opening ceremony told more than one story, and often those stories were at odds with each other.

That schism makes it challenging to get fully emotionally invested in this introduction to the 2022 Olympics. Expecting the audience to absorb the politics and then compartmentalize it in order to focus on the inspiring journeys undertaken by these skaters, skiers, and snowboarders is a lot to ask, and exactly what this ceremony demanded. But one truth did manage to shine through the speeches and songs, the gleaming doves and all that digital light: Hypocrisy looks much prettier when it glows.

The Opening Ceremonies Glowed With a Political Charge