The Uyghur athlete had been a relative unknown — a first-time Olympic Games competitor and a cross-country skier in a country not renowned for its skiing tradition. Then she was thrust into the limelight, beaming as she clutched the Olympic torch at the opening of The Games, becoming not just a symbol of China’s snow sports ambitions but also its strident defiance of Western criticism.
The lighting of the Olympic caldron is traditionally an honor given to people who symbolize the host nation, or its sporting history, or its vision of itself. China’s selection of the Uyghur athlete, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, 20, for that role, along with a teammate of the Han Chinese ethnic majority, was immediately divisive.

To many Chinese, it was a feel-good message of ethnic unity. But to human rights activists and Western critics, it looked like Beijing was using an athlete in a calculated, provocative fashion to whitewash its suppression of Uyghurs in the far western region of Xinjiang, where Yilamujiang is from.

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Chinese state media declared after the ceremony that Yilamujiang had “showed the world a beautiful and progressive Xinjiang” with her “smiling face and youthful figure.” The propaganda effort was offensive to many overseas Uyghurs, who have long sought to raise awareness about China’s mass detention and re-education campaign targeting Uyghur Muslims that the United States has declared as genocidal.

“When my country is completely turned into an open-air prison, they show this kind of happy Uyghur lighting the Olympic torch,” said Rahima Mahmut, the United Kingdom director for World Uyghur Congress and executive director of Stop Uyghur Genocide, a charity. “It is disgusting, absolutely disgusting.”

China, which denies accusations of repression in Xinjiang, has defended its choice of Yilamujiang, saying that she is “the pride and excellent representative of the Chinese people.” It has insisted that the Olympics are not political, and a spokesman for Beijing’s Olympics organizing committee explained that the idea behind the final torch relay was to have Chinese winter sports athletes born in each decade starting in the 1950s pass the flame on as a symbol of inheritance.

The Uyghur athlete, Dinigeer Yilamujang of China competes in the women's sprint free cross country skiing qualifications at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, on Saturday, Feb 5, 2022. Since her star turn in Friday's opening ceremony, she has kept a low profile. (Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times)
The Uyghur athlete, Dinigeer Yilamujang of China competes in the women’s sprint free cross country skiing qualifications at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, on Saturday, Feb 5, 2022. Since her star turn in Friday’s opening ceremony, she has kept a low profile. (Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times)

Mark Adams, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, said that as an Olympian competing in The Games, Yilamujiang was “perfectly entitled” to be a torchbearer. Human rights activists have criticized the committee for its refusal to engage with concerns about China’s rights abuses in Xinjiang.

What does the athlete herself make of the debate? So far, it has been impossible to know. Since her star turn in the Bird’s Nest stadium in Friday’s opening ceremony, Yilamujiang has kept a low profile. On a frigid and sunny Tuesday, she was in Zhangjiakou, a city northwest of Beijing where the cross-country ski events are being held, competing in her second event, the women’s individual sprint. She failed to advance out of the first round, finishing 56th in a field of 90.

Wearing a periwinkle neck gaiter with a flower print and the black-and-red Team China uniform, she doubled over to catch her breath after crossing the finish line. Her friend and teammate from Xinjiang, Jialin Bayani, rushed over to help her loosen her bindings. The two then linked arms and walked with their teammates out of the venue, clutching their skis.

Yilamujiang hurried through the press area after Tuesday’s event but did not stop to talk. At another competition on Saturday, she had failed to walk through a mixed zone with reporters after her race, in apparent contravention of IOC guidelines. She has appeared only in Chinese state media reports since The Games started, describing her joy about her role opening The Games.

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

Yilamujiang grew up in Altay, a mountainous region in northern Xinjiang that China has described as the birthplace of skiing. Chinese archaeologists have discovered cave paintings in Altay more than 10,000 years old that appear to depict hunters on skis. In recent years, the Chinese government has sought to promote the Altay area as an international ski destination.

Yilamujiang began skiing at age 12 with her father, Yilamujiang Mulaji, who came from a mining family and was himself a national cross-country ski champion. According to state media, in 2009, Mulaji was working as an official for the local sports bureau when the authorities began a campaign to revive the skiing tradition. Mulaji started coaching a team of teenagers, including his daughter, according to a report from Xinhua in 2020.

But even training was a challenge, as Xinjiang lacked the infrastructure needed to coach world-class cross-country skiers.

Just to create trails they could use for practice, Yilamujiang and her teammates would line up in their skis and move, step by step, along the powder snow, the report said. It sometimes took them as long as eight hours to create a practice trail that was 3 kilometers, or less than 2 miles, long.

In 2017, Yilamujiang was selected to join China’s national cross-country ski team, and in 2018, she moved to Norway for training. Since then, she has won a number of national competitions but has yet to excel competing against the world’s best skiers on the World Cup tour.

On her Instagram account, Yilamujiang has posted photos and videos from her training and competition in countries like Norway, Italy and New Zealand. In her emoji-laden posts, she is often smiling, making peace signs and striking playful poses with teammates. Last August, she posted a photo series from Italy featuring some of the country’s greatest culinary hits: spaghetti, pizza and gelato. In a photo taken in what appears to be Sognefjellshytta, in Norway, the highest mountain pass in Northern Europe, she is shown posing alongside other athletes.

“Great weather, great mood!” she wrote in Chinese in the caption.

Such a globe-trotting existence is hard to imagine for many Uyghurs, some of whom have been locked up in detention camps merely for obtaining a passport.

And despite what is arguably the most exhilarating moment of her career, she has posted no updates to her Instagram account, or her Chinese social media account, in recent days.

China’s state-backed sports system is known for being controlling of athletes and what they say. But ethnic minority athletes like Yilamujiang are most likely subject to an even higher degree of monitoring by the government, according to Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“They would have very little ability to contest how they are being used by the authorities,” Wang said. “Or they would have very likely been indoctrinated to consider themselves as being part of the official narrative of the great Chinese nation.”

In China’s narrative, ethnic minorities in Xinjiang live a “peaceful, harmonious and happy life.” The day after the opening ceremony, CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, released a video of Yilamujiang’s family gathered in a well-appointed living room adorned with framed medals and photos of the young skier, cheering her on as she lit the caldron. State media said that the footage had been filmed at Yilamujiang’s home in Altay.

“I was so excited, so proud, so overjoyed,” her mother, Ruxian Hatibaji, told state media reporters. “Thank you to the country for entrusting my daughter with such an important task.”

In another video released by state media after the ceremony, Yilamujiang recalled the rush of emotions when she left Xinjiang for The Games. She looked out of the window to see a group of herdsmen on horses galloping alongside to send her off. The red and-yellow Chinese flags they hoisted flapped in the air against the white snowy backdrop.

“The tears were welling up and I was extremely proud,” she recalled. “I couldn’t help thinking that my home country had such great expectations for us, and that I would do my best in the competition, to perform to the best of my ability, so that I can live up to the expectations of the country and the people.”

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