Beijing (AsiaNews) – At 6 pm local time, the 21st Winter Olympic Games will officially open today in Vancouver (Canada) until 28 February. For Canadians, who already hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, it will be an opportunity to outperform the United States and win the much-coveted gold medal in ice hockey. For many athletes from Asia, just being there is a success. Among Asian delegations, China is coming with its largest contingent ever, whilst South Korea (17 gold) and Japan (9 gold) will try to keep their edge in the medal count.
After facing a snow shortage and the economic crisis, these Games will see the participation of some 2,500 athletes from 82 nations, including 21 from Asia. China’s delegation will be 180-strong with 94 athletes who will compete in ten sporting events. So far, the mainland has won 33 medals (4 gold, 16 silver and 13 bronze). Many Chinese sports aficionados are hoping that the coincidence of dates with Chinese New Year (14 February) will bring luck (and medals) for the whole games.
Yesterday in Richmond, the Chinese Olympic Committee inaugurated China House, the first such structure ever built for the Winter Games, a place where athletes, coaches and officials can relax and unwind from all the pressure caused by the competitions.
However, China is still under the shadow cast by the abuses and human rights violations that occurred during the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
In the period leading up to and during the Games, activists, dissidents and independent reporters were arrested and sent to prison for demanding freedom of the press and respect for human rights.
This week Reporters without Borders sent a petition to Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), urging him to ask Chinese authorities to free the so-called “Olympic prisoners”.
In a curt response, the IOC said that it is not the authority to intercede. "We must leave these things to the relevant bodies such as the UN and its agencies,” the statement said.
Among the Asian athletes coming to Vancouver, two are from North Korea, one from Taiwan, two from Nepal, one from Pakistan and three from India.
The Indian delegation will honour a soldier who was killed in an avalanche the day after its arrival in Vancouver. “We found out by reading it on the Internet," said Shabir Wani, the Indian cross-country skiing coach.
Only about half of India's 1.1 billion citizens are even aware they have a team competing in the Winter Olympics. "If you say 'skiing,' about another 25 per cent of the people would assume you mean skating," chef de mission R.K. Gupta said.
India, which boasts 20 Olympic medals in summer sports, has not won a medal at the Winter Games since it began competing in them in 1964.