The Olympic flame burned over the Beijing Winter Games stadium to conclude the opening ceremony.

Entrances for
Entrances for "Hong Kong, China", as well as for Russia, generated applause. (Reuters)

Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared the opening of the Beijing Winter Games, triggering a burst of fireworks that marked the start of an Olympics whose preparations were beset by the Covid-19 pandemic and criticism over human rights in China.

Friday's ceremony in a partially filled Bird's Nest stadium was filled with imagery of ice and snow, with Xi's declaration followed by red-suited "skaters" sliding across virtual ice.

Held on the first day of spring by the Chinese calendar, it 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 woman 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 Turkiye was second, followed by Malta, with host China going last and drawing roars from the stadium crowd.

The entrances for "Hong Kong, China", as well as for Russia, also generated applause.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the highest profile foreign leader present for the Games, could be seen in the stadium without a mask. 

However, the athletes from his country were unable to carry its flag due to doping violations, marching instead under the standard of the Russian Olympic Committee.

READ MORE: Russia criticises doping sanctions ahead of Winter Olympics

Friday's ceremony began shortly after Xi and Bach entered the iconic Bird's Nest stadium.
Friday's ceremony began shortly after Xi and Bach entered the iconic Bird's Nest stadium. (Reuters)

'New era for global winter sport'

Friday's ceremony began shortly after Xi and Bach entered the iconic Bird's Nest stadium.

Bach hailed China's arrival as a "winter sport country" as a "new era for global winter sport".

Soon after the start, the Chinese flag was passed among 56 people representing China's different ethnic groups before it was raised and the national anthem performed.

Directed by Zhang Yimou, reprising his role from Beijing's 2008 Summer Games triumph, the event featured 3,000 performers 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.

With temperatures of about -4C at the start, the show was set to be about half as long as the four-hour marathon that opened the 2008 Games, also at the Bird's Nest.

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. 

READ MORE: Overseas fans barred from 2022 Winter Olympics in China 

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

More confident China

Though smaller in scale than the Summer Games - dubbed China's "coming out party" in 2008 - the Beijing Winter Olympics are being staged by a much more prosperous, powerful, confident and confrontational China under Xi.

China's hosting of the Winter Games has drawn criticism since the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing in 2015, and countries including the United States, Britain and Australia staged diplomatic boycotts, meaning they did not send government representatives to the Games.

READ MORE: US announces 'diplomatic boycott' of Beijing Olympics amid China warning

Putin arrived on Friday for a meeting with Xi ahead of the opening ceremony, bringing a deal to increase natural gas supply to China amid rising tensions with the West and winning a pledge from Xi to deepen mutual cooperation.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV noted that Putin, like China, expressed opposition to the "politicisation" of the Games.

Organisers also hope it dampens a steady drumbeat of criticism from activists and governments over China's human rights record in its far western Xinjiang region and elsewhere - criticism that China rejects.

"I believe that at the instant in which the Olympic flame is lit, all of this so-called boycott banter will be extinguished," Zhao Weidong, a spokesperson for the Beijing Games said.

READ MORE: China: US diplomatic boycott violates Olympic spirit

Source: Reuters