Norwegian cross-country skier Therese Johaug won the first gold medal of the Beijing Olympics on Saturday as sport moved centre stage after a troubled build-up dominated by coronavirus and rights concerns.
Johaug was a comfortable winner of the women’s 7.5-plus-7.5-kilometre skiathlon, taking what is likely to be the first of many cross-country skiing medals for Norway at these Games.
The 33-year-old was almost ruled out of the Olympics before she travelled to China when she was classified as a close Covid contact after two of her Norwegian teammates tested positive.
“At first I was really happy just to come here because we have the Covid in our team,” Johaug said after finally winning an individual Olympic title at her third Games.
“I’ve trained thousands of hours for this and been away from home a lot over the years so it’s beautiful to reach this goal.”
Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old Uyghur who was chosen by China as one of two athletes to light the cauldron in Friday’s opening ceremony, finished 43rd in the skiathlon race.
Yilamujiang’s inclusion in a ceremony watched by a worldwide television audience placed her at the centre of long-time controversy over rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.
Campaigners say China has incarcerated at least one million people from mostly Muslim minorities, notably Uyghurs, in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang.
The United States, Britain, Canada and Australia are among countries staging a diplomatic boycott of the Games over China’s rights record, and particularly the fate of the Uyghurs.
Asked whether the inclusion of a Uyghur competitor in a ceremony featuring several generations of Chinese athletes met the International Olympic Committee’s standard of political neutrality, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said she had “every right” to participate.
“As you’ll know from the Olympic Charter, we don’t discriminate against people on where they’re from, what their background is,” he said. (Guardian)