China made an Uyghur skier the face of its Winter Olympics. Next day, she vanished from the spotlight

Chinese athlete Dinigeer Yilamujiang sent shockwaves around the world when she lit the Olympic cauldron, but they may be the last after the cross-country skier finished 43rd in her Games debut.

She was the face of Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony: a young Uyghur athlete from Xinjiang, the centre of human-rights allegations dividing China and the West, carrying the Olympic flame for the host nation.

By Saturday, the 20-year-old cross-country skier, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, had given the slip to an eager global press, her lacklustre finish in her Olympic debut barely mentioned in the Chinese media.

The catapulting of Ms Yilamujiang into the global spotlight, followed by a low-key retreat, marked a remarkable 24-hour whirlwind for the hitherto-unknown athlete.

On Friday night, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin watched from the VIP booth at the Beijing National Stadium, Ms Yilamujiang was the surprising—and immediately contentious—choice for what acclaimed Chinese film director and opening ceremony maestro Zhang Yimou had promised would be “a bold and unprecedented way of lighting the Olympic flame.”

In the end, it was less about how Ms Yilamujiang carried the flame—hand-in-hand with Zhao Jiawen, a Chinese athlete in the Nordic combined—as it was about her identity.

Torch bearers Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Zhao Jiawen carried the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony. Picture: David Ramos/Getty Images
Torch bearers Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Zhao Jiawen carried the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony. Picture: David Ramos/Getty Images

Ms Yilamujiang is a Uyghur, a member of the Turkic minority group native to China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang that has become the main focus of allegations in the US and the West about Chinese human rights violations.

The decision to choose Ms Yilamujiang, rather than a more accomplished or widely known athlete, and to pair her with a member of China’s Han majority, was interpreted as Mr Xi’s act of defiance against the global pressure campaign and decried as “offensive” by overseas Uyghur human rights groups.

Ms Yilamujiang’s selection for such a prestigious task was notable for another reason: She was set to make her Olympic sporting debut 18 hours after her star turn.

It didn’t go particularly well. By the first checkpoint of Saturday’s race, Ms Yilamujiang had fallen behind more than half of the field of 65 competitors, eventually finishing 42 places behind the eventual gold medallist, Norway’s Therese Johaug.

Afterward, Ms Yilamujiang and the three other Chinese athletes competing in the event slipped away, leaving more than a dozen Chinese and foreign journalists waiting for more than an hour in frigid temperatures.

Dinigeer Yilamujiang competed in the cross-country skiathon, finishing 43rd. Picture: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Dinigeer Yilamujiang competed in the cross-country skiathon, finishing 43rd. Picture: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Ms Yilamujiang’s escape, if that’s what it was, appeared to be in contravention of International Olympic Committee rules that require all athletes to pass through a “mixed zone” where they can—but aren’t obliged to—answer journalists’ questions.

The IOC confirmed in an emailed response to questions that mixed-zone rules remain in place despite the pandemic, but it declined to comment on Ms Yilamujiang’s no-show. Ms Yilamujiang couldn’t be reached for comment through China’s National Olympic Committee, which didn’t reply to requests for comment.

The 20-year-old from Xinjiang’s northern Altay prefecture is one of six athletes from the Chinese region competing in the Winter Games, and the only one of Uyghur heritage.

With the opening ceremony, Ms Yilamujiang became an overnight celebrity in China, touted as a symbol of national unity.

“That moment will encourage me every day for the rest of my life,” Ms Yilamujiang told China’s official news agency Xinhua on Sunday, it reported. “I was so excited when I found out we were going to place the torch. It’s a huge honour for me!”

Xinhua said she and her partner represented Chinese athletes born in the 2000s and symbolised an inheritance of sporting traditions and the Olympic spirit across generations. It made no mention of her ethnicity.

State-run media had earlier published videos on social media of Ms Yilamujiang’s family back home in Xinjiang, beaming with pride.

Spectators have been divided and confused by the message sent by Dinigeer Yilamujiang’s inclusion in the ceremony, in a role usually reserved for decorated athletes. Picture: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Spectators have been divided and confused by the message sent by Dinigeer Yilamujiang’s inclusion in the ceremony, in a role usually reserved for decorated athletes. Picture: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

“China has done everything it can for me, and what is left for me to do now is to train hard and bring glory to the country,” Ms Yilamujiang was quoted as saying in an article published by the Communist Party-run Xinjiang Daily. The article also highlighted her personal story, as a teenage talent groomed by her father—himself a decorated skier and national cross-country ski coach.

In a separate video posted by the newspaper, Ms Yilamujiang’s mother praised Beijing: “Thanks to the country for giving my daughter such an important mission.”

To human rights activists overseas, the choice of Ms Yilamujiang for the opening ceremony was a pointed rebuttal by Mr Xi.

The Chinese government has targeted the Xinjiang regions' mostly Muslim ethnic minorities with mass-detention internment camps and omnipresent surveillance as part of a year-long campaign of forcible assimilation.

China has described its actions as necessary measures to fight terrorism and protect national security.

Concerns over China’s human rights record, and especially its ethnic-assimilation efforts in Xinjiang, have clouded the run-up to the Games, and overshadowed other aspects of the opening ceremony.

In a news briefing on Saturday, Beijing Olympic organisers declined questions about Ms Yilamujiang’s selection, preferring to discuss instead the opening ceremony’s snowflake motif.

Tibetan, Uyghur and human rights activists have staged protests over the Games across the world in the lead up to Beijing’s opening ceremony. Picture: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Tibetan, Uyghur and human rights activists have staged protests over the Games across the world in the lead up to Beijing’s opening ceremony. Picture: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

They told the Journal in separate emailed comments that there were stringent selection criteria for torchbearers, each of whom boasted outstanding achievements. The IOC declined to answer specific questions on her selection.

Though Ms Yilamujiang wasn’t available to answer journalists’ questions after Saturday’s race, China’s state-run broadcaster did have an exclusive interview, in which she expressed incredulity at having been entrusted with the role of torchbearer.

“Since the country gave me such an important mission, I had to fulfil it,” Ms Yilamujiang said in the interview, which was broadcast Sunday but which appeared to have been taped prior to her race.

Ms Yilamujiang’s silence on her ethnic identity was a contrast with fellow athlete Adake Ahenaer, a speed skater from Xinjiang who was also making her Olympic debut.

“As an ethnic minority fighting in our home court, to represent my country and represent my ethnic group, gave me honour,” Ms Adake told reporters after competing in the women’s 3,000-meter speed skating event on Saturday, where she came in 17th. “This honour is indescribable.”

The 22-year-old Ms Adake, a member of China’s Kazakh minority, another of the country’s 56 officially recognised indigenous groups, said she got emotional seeing her close friend Ms Yilamujiang appear on television as one of the surprise final torchbearers.

“She is representative of us young athletes in her spirit,” she said. Asked what she thought of Western media reports about Xinjiang, Ms Adake sighed audibly.

-The Wall Street Journal

—Laine Higgins contributed to this article.

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