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COVID protocols limit the guest list for the opening of China's Winter Olympics

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Winter Olympics began today in Beijing. Almost 3,000 athletes compete in the days ahead - the skiing, the skating, the curling - but the location of these Games makes them about more than sports. Russian President Vladimir Putin was at the opening ceremonies following a meeting with China's president, Xi Jinping, the host of the Games. NPR's Brian Mann is covering the Olympics in Beijing. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What were the opening ceremonies like?

MANN: Well, you know, we saw athletes from a lot of these nations competing here file in from Eritrea and Iran to the United States, of course. The two flag bearers for the U.S. were John Shuster - he's a curler - that's the sport where they use brooms to guide those cool little stones over the ice. His team won a surprise gold medal four years ago. And the other flag bearer was a speed skater, Brittany Bowe, who subbed for veteran bobsled racer Elana Meyers Taylor. She was chosen to carry the flag but had to isolate after testing positive for COVID-19. So right out of the gate, we're sort of feeling the pandemic here. And then before and after the athletes had their moment, there was a pretty wonderful show, dancers at one point moving with long streamers of light. There were fireworks. But I will say, because of the pandemic, this was scaled back from the spectacle we've seen at past Olympics.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in hearing of that high-profile positive COVID test, given that the athletes and others are supposed to be in a kind of bubble insulated from COVID. Was there even much of an audience for the ceremony?

MANN: You know, Steve, the stadium seemed maybe half full. It did not feel empty, which was nice. And as you mentioned, one notable guest here was Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's held these high-profile meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week. They've been talking about economic cooperation and a big new energy pact. And Putin's presence - a big contrast to the official position of the U.S. government. The Biden administration decided in December to stage a diplomatic boycott of these Winter Games because of what the White House calls ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghur people here in China. So the pandemic, that's definitely shaping a lot of the Olympic experience, but politics and these questions about human rights are also right in the middle.

INSKEEP: Yeah, as I understand it, the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach had to take questions this week about the persecution of Uyghurs and also about why they decided to hold the Games in China at all. What did he say?

MANN: Well, he keeps trying to make the argument that sports and politics just shouldn't mix, that the Olympics should be kept apart from everything that's happening in the world and here in China. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS BACH: If we are taking a political standpoint, then we are putting the Games at risk.

MANN: But, of course, with Putin in the stands tonight and China's President Xi a central figure in all of this, the optics are unavoidable - you know, two authoritarian leaders highly visible as these Winter Games get started.

INSKEEP: What do you hear the athletes saying about all of this?

MANN: Well, you know, again and again, athletes from the U.S. say they're trying to pivot from this politics and from the pandemic to enjoy this moment. Here's Maggie Voisin, a freestyle skier from Whitefish, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAGGIE VOISIN: I'm really pleasantly surprised with just how much we've been able to do and how much we've been able to interact with other countries. It's really just been such a wonderful experience. And we're fired up to get this show going.

MANN: And it's important to remember, Steve, for a lot of these athletes the next couple of weeks, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is competition they've been training for, in many cases, their whole lives. These young people do want to have some fun and enjoy all this.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is at the Winter Games in Beijing. Brian, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And the Games were broadcast live in the U.S. on NBC this morning. A repeat broadcast comes up this evening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.