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Beijing Winter Games flame lit in Greece amid protests

October 18, 2021

The ceremony to light the Olympic flame was disrupted as Tibetan and Hong Kong activists held banners protesting human rights abuses in China.

Greek actress Xanthi Georgiou, playing the role of the High Priestess, lights up the torch during the flame lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Ancient Olympia archeological site
A Greek actress played the role of high priestess in the lighting of the Olympic flameImage: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

The countdown to the Beijing 2022 Winter Games started on Monday, as the Olympic flame was lit in ancient Olympia in Greece amid human rights protests.

A few special guests witnessed the flame being ignited in a traditional ceremony, reduced in size by coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Human rights protesters made their reservations clear about the Winter Olympics being held in China despite the country's record in Tibet, Hong Kong and with the Uyghur minority.

How COVID dimmed the Olympic flame ceremony

Not only was the initial ceremony less well attended, but the customary run to its new resting place will no longer take place.

Three runners will instead carry the flame to ancient Athenian site of the Acropolis where it will burn overnight.

Chinese organizers will take part in an official handover of the Games at the Panathenaic Stadium on Tuesday, a venue which dates back to the second century and was used in the first ever Olympic Games in 1896.

Vincent De Haitre of Canada comptes during the Men's 1500m Speed Skating on day four of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Oval
The Winter Olympics was last held in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018Image: Getty Images

One of the torchbearers, Greek alpine ski racer Ioannis Antoniou, said it was "one of the greatest honors an athlete can have" to be chosen for the role.

The Beijing Winter Games take place from February 4 to 20 in the Chinese capital.

What happened in the protest?

Police detained four Tibetan activists, three women and a man, outside the arena in Olympia an hour before the flame lighting ceremony. They had held a banner that there should be "No genocide games," but were prevented from disrupting the ceremony.

An Olympia police spokesperson said the protesters had not been formally arrested and that they "do not know yet how it will develop."

On Sunday, two human rights activists were arrested after unfurling a Tibetan flag from the Acropolis and displaying a banner that read "Free Hong Kong — Revolution." They belong to the New York campaign, "No Beijing 2022" which is part of the Students for a Free Tibet pressure group.

Further protests are expected at the Tuesday event, as rights groups and US lawmakers call for the International Olympic Committee to change the location of the Winter Games over the ongoing genocide of the Uyghur minority in forced labor camps since 2016.

"Everybody has the right, is entitled to their ideas, their positions and their principles. We cannot comment on those protests. We are here in ancient Olympia for a very important thing, getting everybody together," said Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC's head of the coordination commission for the Beijing Olympics. Samaranch is the son of the former IOC president with the same name.

jc/rt (Reuters, dpa, AP, AFP)