China lit the torch of the 2022 Winter Olympics after the ceremonial torch arrived from Athens, as human rights activists called for a boycott of the tournament due to Beijing’s human rights record.
Cai Qi, the secretary of the Communist Party in Beijing, lit a cauldron at the Olympic tower in the capital on Wednesday to symbolize the arrival of the Olympic flame in China.
The flame had left Athens on Tuesday and traveled to Beijing in a red lantern designed in the image of a Han Dynasty tomb artifact, carried by torchbearers dressed in white.
It will now be on display at the Beijing Olympic Park.
In early February next year, 1,200 torchbearers will carry the torch through the three cities of Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou District, which are the competition venues.
Around 2,900 athletes, representing 85 National Olympic Committees, will participate in the Winter Games from February 4 to 20, 2022.
When the tournament kicks off, Beijing will become the first city to host both the summer and winter games.
Human rights groups have called for a boycott of the Beijing Games to protest what they called atrocities against human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. China rejects these claims and has repeatedly dismissed discussions of a boycott as “politicization of sport.”
At Monday’s flame-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, activists drew attention by unfurling a Tibetan flag and a banner that read “no genocide” before Greek police intervened.
A similar protest took place at the Acropolis in Athens on Sunday, where activists held up a “Free Hong Kong” sign. Two people were arrested.
At a press conference in the Greek capital on Tuesday, human rights activists urged governments and athletes around the world to boycott the Beijing Games, saying anything less would make the world complicit in tolerating what ‘they called the Beijing “genocide”.
“We are in Athens to tell the international community that the Olympics are handed over to a country actively committing genocide,” Uyghur-Canadian activist Zumretay Arkin told reporters.
Human rights groups claim more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang have been detained in camps in recent years, their rights of worship and freedoms severely restricted by authorities Chinese.
The United States has called the treatment of the Uyghurs “genocide”.
After initially denying the existence of the camps in Xinjiang, China then defended them as vocational training centers aimed at combating religious “extremism.”
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rejected discussions of a potential boycott, stressing the political neutrality of the world sports body and saying it was up to governments to shoulder their responsibilities.
A victim of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, the former fencer said such measures only punished athletes, and insisted that the IOC addresses the issue of rights “in our mandate”.
“In these difficult times that we still live in, the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games will be an important time to bring the world together in a spirit of peace, friendship and solidarity,” Bach said on Monday.
It will be the second Olympic Games to be held under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic after the Tokyo Games earlier this year.
Athletes competing in Beijing will face strict rules to contain the risk of COVID-19 cases.
Participants will remain in a “closed loop” bubble to thwart infections, with athletes to be fully vaccinated or face a 21-day quarantine.
Foreign spectators will be excluded from the Games, meaning tickets for the events will only be sold to people living in China.
China has largely sealed its borders since the virus emerged in its central city of Wuhan in late 2019, which has slowed the number of daily infections to a trickle.