BEIJING, Feb 5 (Reuters) – Norway won its first gold medal at the Winter Olympics on Saturday as the politics that dominated the Beijing Games began to make room for the world's best athletes to perform feats on snow.

Norwegian Therese Johaug won gold in the women's ski biathlon, well ahead of Russian Natalia Nepryaeva and Austria's Teresa Stadlober, who took bronze. Read more

In 43rd place was 20-year-old cross-country skier Dinigel Yilamjiang, who continues to make waves in his role as China's last torchbearer at the opening ceremony.

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Ilamujiang, from the western Chinese region of Altay in Xinjiang, was chosen as one of the final two torchbearers as many Western countries diplomatically boycotted the Olympics over China's treatment of Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities. China denies allegations of human rights abuses.

On Saturday, the International Olympic Committee insisted that Ilamujiang's race had nothing to do with her selection.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, "No matter where she comes from, no matter what her background is, she has the right to compete …… and participate in any ceremony." Read more

Chinese President Xi Jinping triumphantly kicked off the Olympics Friday night in a partially packed Bird's Nest stadium as he continued his diplomatic push during the Games. Read more

Pioneering Alliance

A day after forging a groundbreaking alliance against the West with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi met with the leaders of Serbia, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan ahead of a Lunar New Year-themed banquet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Xi expressed his "heartfelt thanks to the governments, people and international organizations that cared for and supported the Beijing Winter Olympics" as he toasted with the leaders. Read more

It was not immediately clear if Putin attended the luncheon or if he would watch any of the games before leaving Beijing. The women's field hockey players from the Russian Olympic Committee were scheduled to play the U.S. team later Saturday night. Read more

In a stunning collision of sports and politics not seen since the Cold War era, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin announced an unlimited partnership Friday on the sidelines of the Olympics, supporting each other on Ukraine and Taiwan and reaching new agreements on energy and trade. Read more

Taiwan denounced the timing of the partnership as "despicable," while the United States said Xi wasted an opportunity to take action against Ukraine. Read more

Beijing's slopes are not without their own controversy. Switzerland's Marco Odermatt lashed out at Olympic ski organizers after Saturday's downhill training was canceled and only three competitors finished the race. Read more

Cases of coronavirus disease

The number of COVID-19 cases in the Olympic bubble was the second highest since entry after 45 new cases were identified on Feb. 4. Organizers say the situation is under control and the cases are being restricted to a "closed loop". Read more

The 2022 Winter Olympics are being held in Beijing under special circumstances, with metal fences, robot bartenders, workers in protective suits and a strict mask policy designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

At least one athlete said he was determined to make the most of it.

American snowboarder Shaun White, who became the face of the sport, winning three gold medals, said Saturday that the Beijing Olympics will be his last snowboarding competition and that he will remove himself from all competitions.

White, 35, said he "enjoyed every moment" of his last Olympics in Beijing.

White said he recently decided to retire when he got lost and had to take a cable car alone over an empty mountain.

"I was watching the …… sun go down, and it just hit me," he said.

"It was a very sad and surreal moment, but also very happy," White said, adding that he "fell apart" before calling his friends and family to tell them of his decision. Read more

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By Philip O'Connor and Mari Saito in Zhangjiakou and Karolos Grohmann and David Stanway in Beijing; written by Leela de Kretser; edited by Ken Ferris

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