Dinigeer Yilamujiang makes headlines as a symbol, not as a skier

The Uyghur athlete helped light the Olympic cauldron, a controversial choice by Olympic organizers.

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Dinigeer Yilamujiang (@dini0503)
Dinigeer Yilamujiang (@dini0503)

BEIJING — You have to wonder how much sleep Dinigeer Yilamujiang got on the eve of her first Olympic event.

The 20-year-old cross country skier was one of the two athletes lighting the Olympic cauldron — which was actually a giant snowflake — Friday night at the opening ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

She appeared in headlines around the world as a symbol of the Uyghur people, who accuse the Chinese government of human rights violations. Choosing Yilamujiang was seen as an overtly political move which brought even more attention to the Uyghurs in the wake of diplomatic boycotts by the United States and other nations.

By mid-afternoon Saturday, Yilamujiang was representing China at the starting line for the women’s 7.5 km+7.5 km skiathlon.

While Yilamujiang is arguably the most scrutinized cross country skier at the moment, she placed 43rd among 62 finishers as Therese Johaug of Norway won the first gold medal of these Olympics. Yilamujiang finished 5 minutes and 57 seconds behind Johaug.

“My goal is to win a medal at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics,” she told CGTN prior to the Games.

Yilamujiang could be selected for additional Olympic events. At the 2021 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, she was 41st in the 10-kilometer event and was part of the Chinese team that finished 13th in the team sprint event.

Although Yilamujiang is now one of the most well-known representatives of her country’s Muslim minority around the world, it seems that it’s cross country skiing that is in her blood.

Yiilamujiang’s father is a cross-country skiing instructor who won a bronze medal in a 1993 national competition in Changbaishan.

His daughter was skiing by age 5 as a way of getting around her snowy hometown in Altay prefecture in Xinjiang, according to China Daily.

Yilamujiang also trained for biathlon, which adds shooting to cross country skiing. In high school, she was a distance runner. Yilamujiang was among a dozen youngsters selected from 170 hopefuls in Xinjiang in 2017 as part of a cross-sports development program. Away from the snow, she has played violin from a young age.

Yilamujiang began specializing in cross-country skiing at age 15, and competed in her first FIS event in 2018. She placed 184th in the sprint in Beitostoelen, improving to 51st in Planica in 2019 at a World Cup. Yilamujiang was in the junior world championships three times from 2019-21, finishing in the Top 10 of the 5K twice.

The following year, she made the Chinese national team and became the first athlete from her country to medal in a FIS-level event. In March 2019, Yilamujiang was second in the opening women’s leg of a three-leg sprint series in Beijing. She told China Daily, “I am super excited to be able to finish my first international race with a result that I didn’t expect at all.”

Yilamujiang broke into the World Cup Top-20 individually when she finished 19th in the 10km free in 2020 in Davos.

On her Instagram account, which has 15 posts — the most recent on August 31 of last year — and 482 followers, Yilamujiang is a a buoyant young woman with no political positions. She chronicles her adventures around the world from Norway to New Zealand, with particular emphasis on the food in Italy. She is sponsored by an Austrian ski equipment company.

But now, whether Yilamujiang anticipated it or not, she is known more for what happened in the Bird’s Nest Stadium than at the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre.