China’s move to thrust a young Uyghur athlete into the spotlight at the climax of the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony placed her at the centre of long-time controversy over rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old cross-country skier, trained for years to fulfil every child’s dream to star at the Olympics.
She is from the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority from the region of Xinjiang, where China’s ruling Communist Party is accused of widespread human rights abuses.
China has repeatedly exhorted its critics to stop “politicising” these Olympics, which have been overshadowed by issues including rights, Covid and fears of what will happen to athletes if they speak out at the Games.
“As you’ll know from the Olympic Charter, we don’t discriminate against people on where they’re from, what their background is,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.
The final stretch of the torch relay that took place inside the stadium involved Chinese winter sports athletes born in every decade starting from the 1950s and finishing in the 2000s.
At least one million mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, campaigners say, and Chinese authorities have been accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour in the area.
Although world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin were present at the ceremony Friday, the US, Australia, Britain and Canada were among key countries who did not send diplomatic representatives because of rights fears, especially in relation to the Uyghurs.
Yilamujiang started ski training aged 12, according to China Sports Daily, under the guidance of her father — also a cross-country skier who competed nationally.
She was among a group of athletes who headed to Norway for three years to hone their craft, state media reported.
In 2019, she became the first Chinese cross-country skiing medallist in an international ski federation-level event, with media reports lauding her as having achieved a “breakthrough” for the country in the sport.
Yilamujiang took part in last year’s World Championships, ranking 13th in team sprint and 41st on the 10km competition.
Her first event at Beijing 2022 was a skiathlon on Saturday.