Winter Olympics underway in Beijing after dramatic opening ceremony

Team Ireland led by flag bearers Elsa Desmond and Brendan Newby

The Beijing Winter Games opened on Friday night in a snow and ice themed ceremony at the Bird's Nest stadium that concluded with the cauldron lit by two young Chinese Olympians, one of them a member of China's Uyghur minority.

During a performance that went longer than scheduled on a frigid night in the Chinese capital, President Xi Jinping declared the opening of an Olympics whose preparations were beset by the pandemic and criticism over human rights in China.

Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old cross-country skiier born in Altay in the western Xinjiang region, lit the cauldron along with Zhao Jiawen, 21, who competes in Nordic combined, finishing a torch relay whose final runners were Chinese Olympians from recent decades.

The identity of the final cauldron lighter is traditionally kept secret until the last moment, and Dinigeer's inclusion was noteworthy since China's treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority - which Washington deems genocide - was the trigger for a diplomatic boycott by several Western countries including the United States.

China rejects allegations of human rights abuses and sought to convey a spirit of inclusion during Friday night’s ceremony, in which the Chinese flag was passed among 56 people representing its different ethnic groups before it was raised for the national anthem.

Friday’s ceremony in a partially-filled Bird’s Nest stadium - the scene of Beijing’s triumphant 2008 Summer Games launch - was filled with imagery of ice and snow, with Xi’s declaration followed by red-suited “skaters” sliding across virtual ice.

They were accompanied by a version of the John Lennon song Imagine, which has become a fixture at Olympics ceremonies.

Held on the first day of Spring by the Chinese calendar, the ceremony began with a performance by dancers waving glowing green stalks to convey the vitality of the season, followed by an explosion of white and green fireworks that spelled the word “Spring”.

On a three-dimensional cube resembling a block of ice, lasers carved figures from each of the previous 23 Winter Games. The block was then “broken” by ice hockey players, enabling the Olympic rings to emerge, all in white.

That was followed by the traditional “parade of nations”, with each of the 91 delegations preceded by a women carrying a placard in the shape of a snowflake resembling a Chinese knot.

In keeping with Olympic tradition, the parade was led into the stadium by Greece with the rest ordered by stroke number in the first character of their Chinese name, which meant Turkey was second, followed by Malta, with host China going last and drawing roars from the stadium crowd.

Ireland's six-strong team were led into the arena out by flag bearers Elsa Desmond and Brendan Newby. Jack Gower (downhill skiing) and Thomas Westgard (cross country skiing) will be the first Irish athletes in action in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Directed by Zhang Yimou, reprising his role from Beijing's 2008 Summer Games triumph, the event featured 3,000 performers - most of them children and teenagers - on a stage comprised of 11,600 square metres of high-definition LED screen resembling an ice surface.

All of the performers were ordinary people from Beijing and nearby Hebei province, with "the Story of a Snowflake" its central thread.

The crowd itself was pared down, with organisers deciding last month not to sell tickets to Olympic events to curtail the spread of Covid-19. A “closed loop” separates competitors and other personnel from the Chinese public throughout the Olympics.

China's hosting of the Winter Games has drawn criticism, and countries including the United States, Britain and Australia staged diplomatic boycotts, meaning they did not send government representatives to the Games.

The official start of the Games will come as a relief to organisers navigating the extreme complexity of staging them during a pandemic while adhering to China’s zero-Covid policy.

Team Ireland’s Beijing Schedule

Sunday Feb 6th

03:00 Jack Gower -Alpine Skiing (Downhill)

07:45 Thomas Westgard - Cross country skiing (5km+15km Skiathlon)

Monday, Feb 7th

02:15 Tess Arbez - Alpine Skiing (Giant Slalom Run no. 1)

05:45 Tess Arbez - Alpine Skiing (Giant Slalom Run #2)

11:50 Elsa Desmond Luge (Run 1)

13:30 Elsa Desmond luge (Run 2)

Tuesday Feb 8th

03:00 Jack Gower- Alpine Skiing (Super G)

11:50 Elsa Desmond - Luge(Run 3)

13:35 Elsa Desmond - Luge (Run 4)

Wednesday Feb 9th

02:15 Tess Arbez - Alpine Skiing (Slalom Run no. 1)

04:30 Seamus O’Connor - Snowboard (Halfpipe Qualifying)

05:21 Seamus O’Connor - Snowboard (Halfpipe Qualifying)

05:45 Tess Arbez - Alpine Skiing (Slalom Run no. 2)

Thursday Feb 10th

02:30 Jack Gower - Alpine Skiing (Alpine Combined Downhill)

06:15 Jack Gower - Alpine Skiing (Alpine Combined Slalom)

Friday Feb 11th

01:30 Seamus O’Connor - Snowboard (Halfpipe Final (1,2, 3))

03:00 Tess Arbez - Alpine Skiing (Super G) 07:00 Thomas Westgard - Cross country skiing (15km Classic)

Sunday Feb 13th

02:15 Jack Gower - Alpine Skiing (Giant Slalom Run 1)

05:45 Jack Gower - Alpine Skiing (Giant Slalom Run2)

Thursday Feb 17th

04:30 Brendan Newby - Freestyle skiing (Halfpipe Qualifying 1)

05:21 Brendan Newby - Freestyle skiing (Halfpipe Qualifying 2)

Saturday Feb 19th

01:30 Brendan Newby - Freestyle skiing (Halfpipe Final (1, 2 & 3))

06:00 Thomas Westgard - Cross country skiing (50km).