Beijing kicked off its Winter Olympics torch relay early on Wednesday, with Chinese basketball great and Olympian Yao Ming among the first to carry the flame on a journey that will last just three days due to Covid-19 curbs.
The relay will carry the flame past landmarks including the Great Wall, and is far more modest than the globe-spanning event ahead of Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games that was disrupted by protests along the way.
Because of Covid-19, only selected members of the public will witness the torch relay.
The Feb. 4-20 Games are taking place inside a “closed loop” bubble that seals off athletes and other Olympics personnel from the public, and the events will only be attended by selected groups of people.
“That is, of course, bad luck but what can you do?,” Georgios Iliopoulos, Greece’s ambassador to China and one of the torch-bearers, said when asked if he was worried that the 2022 Games would be remembered as the “corona Olympics.”
“You cannot stop life and we do the best we can to continue with what we have to deal with. The main thing is we keep together at this and leave it behind us as soon as possible,” he told reporters.
The flame, which was flown from Greece in October, will travel to competition zones, including Zhangjiakou in neighboring Hebei province, before ending its journey with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron at Friday’s opening ceremony.
Wednesday’s event began under clear blue skies in Beijing when Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng lit a torch from a cauldron in the shape of traditional ritual vessel known as a zun, then handed it to 80-year-old Luo Zhihuan, who as a speed skater was China’s first winter sports world champion.
More than 1,000 torch-bearers will participate in the relay.
Asked during the sub-freezing morning how he felt as an Olympics torch-bearer, Yao responded: “Pretty cold, because the previous two times were for the Summer Olympics. But it’s warm to hold a flame in the winter.”
Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through 2032.