The Olympic flame arrived in China early Wednesday for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, state media reported, following a ceremony in Athens overshadowed by protests over China’s human rights record.
Beijing is set to become the first host of a Summer and Winter Games, but preparations have been marked by calls for a boycott over China’s rights record, especially the fate of its Uyghur minority.
Beijing is set to hold a welcome ceremony for the flame at 10am (0200 GMT) at the capital’s Olympic Tower, where it will go on display to the public before setting off on an exhibition tour.
Around 2,900 athletes, representing approximately 85 National Olympic Committees, will compete in the Winter Games between 4 and 20 February 2022.
The flame was lit in Athens on Monday and transferred the following day to the organisers of the Beijing Games.
The event was held in front of a limited audience because of the coronavirus, and in a break with tradition, there was no torch relay on Greek soil.
Activists grabbed the spotlight at the lighting ceremony on Monday, unfurling a Tibetan flag and a banner that read “no genocide” before Greek police intervened.
A similar protest was held at the Acropolis in Athens on Sunday.
When Beijing hosted the 2008 Games, the relay was repeatedly disrupted by protesters in Europe and North America.
Beijing 2022 organisers have released few details of what they plan, but the International Olympic Committee has said the flame will go on display to the public at the tower, “before setting off on a flame exhibition tour”.
“Closer to the Games, a traditional Olympic torch relay will be held,” the IOC said this week, with the Games just over 100 days away.
– Calls to postpone –
Protesters urged the IOC to postpone the Games, arguing that China was perpetrating “genocide” against Uyghurs and Tibetans.
Activists accuse the IOC of turning a blind eye to what they say is a litany of abuses in China, notably over Tibet, its treatment of Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang and its clampdown in Hong Kong.
Rights groups say more than one million Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang have been held in camps in recent years, their rights to worship and freedoms heavily curtailed by Chinese authorities.
Republicans in the United States have called for an outright boycott of the Games and Washington has described the treatment of China’s Uyghurs as “genocide”.
After initially denying the existence of the Xinjiang camps, China later defended them as vocational training centres aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamic extremism.
IOC chairman Thomas Bach has batted off talk of a potential boycott, claiming the International Olympic Committee’s political neutrality and saying it was up to governments to live up to their responsibilities.
A victim of the 1980 Moscow Games boycott, the former fencer has said such moves only punish athletes, and insists the IOC is addressing the rights issue “within our remit”.
“In these difficult times we are still living through, the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 will be an important moment to bring the world together in a spirit of peace, friendship and solidarity,” Bach said on Monday.