BEIJING: A shortened Winter Olympics torch relay kicked off in Beijing on Wednesday as China's capital gears up to host the Games against a backdrop of diplomatic boycotts and the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 1,000 torchbearers will carry the flame through competition areas in Beijing and the neighbouring city of Zhangjiakou -- hosting events such as cross-country skiing and ski jumping -- before the opening ceremony on Friday.
Audiences for the torch relay will be strictly limited with China encouraging people to follow the event online rather than try to catch a glimpse of the procession in person.
The first three runners in the relay were Luo Zhihuan, an 80-year-old former speed skater who won China's first winter sport world title in 1963, astronaut Jing Haipeng and Chang'e 1 satellite designer Ye Peijian, according to Beijing Daily.
The torch's journey to Beijing began in October with activists unfurling banners accusing China of human rights abuses at the flame-lighting ceremony in the Olympic spiritual homeland of Greece.
Multiple countries including the United States, Australia, Britain and Canada have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games over China's rights record including its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.
Beijing has condemned the boycott and is determined to pull off a Games that will burnish its international reputation.
As the only remaining major world economy to still be pursuing a zero-Covid strategy, China is taking no chances with the Olympics.
The event is being held within a strict sealed "bubble" with no contact between participants and the public to stop any infections leaking into the wider population.
Beijing 2022 official Cai Qi said at the start of the relay -- which will take place over just three days -- that he hoped the Games would help "dispel the gloom of the pandemic".
The flame arrived in Beijing in October after it skipped the traditional torch relay on Greek soil due to coronavirus concerns.
The relay will pass landmarks including the Summer Palace in Beijing and a section of the Great Wall, before the flame makes its way to the opening ceremony at the "Bird's Nest" stadium on Friday.