China lit its Olympic flame in Beijing on Wednesday after the ceremonial torch arrived from Athens, ahead of the Chinese capital’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Games in February.

The Winter Games will be held from February 4 to February 20, when Beijing will become the first city to host both the summer and winter Olympics, amid a COVID-19 pandemic that means overseas spectators will be excluded.

At a welcome ceremony held near the National Stadium, shaped like a bird’s nest and built for the 2008 Summer Games, Beijing Communist Party chief Cai Qi lit a cauldron to symbolise the arrival of the Olympic flame in China.

The flame had left Athens on October 19 and travelled to Beijing in a red lantern designed in the likeness of a Han Dynasty tomb artifact, carried by torchbearers decked in white.

China will display the Olympic flame at Beijing’s Olympic Park from Wednesday. In early February next year, 1,200 torchbearers will carry the flame through the three cities of Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which are the competition venues.

The torch relay route has been “appropriately reduced” due to the need to guard against the spread of COVID-19, said Beijing Vice Mayor Zhang Jiandong at the ceremony.

The ceremony went off without a hitch on Wednesday in Beijing, where, like elsewhere in China, security is usually tight.

At a ceremony in Athens on October 18 to hand over the flame to China, three protesters unfurled a banner reading “No Genocide Games” and waved a Tibetan flag.

Rights groups have called for a boycott of the Beijing games to protest against what they termed as human rights atrocities in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. China has rejected those claims.

Greece’s Olympic Committee (HOC) said it was disappointed the Athens ceremony had been used for political purposes.