Waiting for the Beijing Winter Olympics - in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's schoolchildren greet the upcoming Winter Olympics with song in Mandarin

A worker sets up an installation featuring Bing Dwen Dwen, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Mascot and Shuey Rhon Rhon, the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympic Games Mascot, in Beijing, China on January 11, 2022. /Reuters/Tingshu Wang

A worker sets up an installation featuring Bing Dwen Dwen, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Mascot and Shuey Rhon Rhon, the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympic Games Mascot, in Beijing, China on January 11, 2022. /Reuters/Tingshu Wang

Despite the unexpected rise of the Omicron variant and concerns over its quick spread, the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics are finally coming.

From February 4 to February 20 and then March 4 to March 13, China will see the return of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to its capital city, after 14 years since the 2008 Summer Olympics were hosted in Beijing - the first time the country held the iconic competitions in history.

Beijing will also become the first city in the world to have hosted both Summer and Winter Olympics.

More than 3,000 athletes will have the chance to prove themselves on the slopes and the ice in China's capital, bringing the result of months of hard work and training in front of millions - who will likely be watching the Olympics on television rather than in person because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Winter sports stars have been waiting four years for this moment to come, and the hype is up for a stunning show of skilful performances and vertigo-inducing races.

At more than 8,000 kilometers from Beijing, the students at Millburn Primary School in Coleraine, a town northwest of Belfast, Northern Ireland, are impatiently waiting for the Winter Games to kick off.

Workers past by large boards depicting winter sports at the Beijing Medals Plaza of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Pupils at Millburn Primary School in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, sing "Meet me in Beijing".

Pupils at Millburn Primary School in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, sing "Meet me in Beijing".

The pupils of Millburn Primary School took two-and-a-half weeks to learn the original lyrics in Mandarin to Meet me in Beijing, one of the official songs of the Olympics.

"We worked very hard to ensure that we could do it justice," explained Sharon Lamont, Millburn Primary School's headteacher.

"It's a celebratory song and we like to celebrate things that are very important."

The teachers explained the background of the song and its meaning in English, and then worked with Chinese teachers on the pronunciation of the original lyrics in Mandarin.

"Our children are very excited about the Olympics," said Lamont.

"They're very aware of where they're taking place, the kind of activities. Obviously, Northern Ireland is not known for its winter sports, but they will be following it with great interest and I know for a fact that many of them aspire to be the best that they can be. And you don't get much better than being able to represent your country at the Olympics."

Some of the pupils painted some amazing posters inspired by the Winter Olympics. Listen to what inspired them.

A primary school in Northern Ireland sounds like an odd place to be hearing groups of children singing in Mandarin, but it's not the first time this has happened in the town of Coleraine.

Back in February 2020, when the pandemic ravaged China's Hubei province, the children of Coleraine's Millburn Primary School came together to sing Let the world be full of love in Mandarin in support of the millions of people of Wuhan under lockdown.

The performance came from the children's desire to do something for their Chinese teachers, many of whom have families in Wuhan.

"It was coming very much from a place where we wanted to reach out and say, Look, we can't do very much, but if this brings a smile to somebody or even just let somebody know that we're thinking about them, well, then that's enough for us," said Lamont.

A message of support

A message of support

Their heartfelt effort was so greatly appreciated in China that students from a school in the west of the country recorded a rendition of Danny Boy in English to show their gratitude and cement their friendship with the pupils in Northern Ireland.

"We were absolutely blown away and overwhelmed by the response that it had, and we weren't anticipating that at all - and it was lovely," said Lamont.

Millburn Primary School works in partnership with the Confucius Institute at Ulster University in Belfast, the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland.

Thanks to the institute's teachers, children start speaking Mandarin at the impressive age of four.

Professor Paul Seawright, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Ulster University, said he had been amazed by the interest in learning Mandarin in Northern Ireland's schools.

"There's a real appetite for young people to learn Mandarin," he said.

"They see what's going on in the world. You've got to remember that young people are seeing Chinese culture in a way that we didn't see ourselves, through games and social groups and so on, and they see that the language and culture is something that they need to connect them to."

Since the Confucius Institute was launched 10 years ago, it has taught a staggering total of 150,000 students.

"We have some fairly politicized issues here in Northern Ireland about the Irish language - should you teach Irish in schools, should you not?" said Seawright.

"So some schools will teach Irish, some schools will not teach Irish, but actually they all teach Mandarin. So it's kind of a nice cultural leveler on the language front."

The reason why Mandarin is so popular in Northern Ireland might be partly linked to its flourishing Chinese community.

"We've always had quite a strong Chinese community here in Northern Ireland. We're not a particularly culturally diverse part of the UK, but actually, the Chinese community has always been probably the biggest part of that," Seawright explained.

St Catherine's Primary School's pupils cheer for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing.

St Catherine's Primary School's pupils cheer for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing.

What you should know about Beijing 2022

Facts and figures of this year's Winter Olympics

In 2015, Beijing was chosen to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, beating Kazakhstan's Almaty to the honor.

The games getting underway in Beijing on February 4 will be the 24th Winter Olympics in history.

A total of 109 events will be held during the Games in 15 disciplines across seven sports: biathlon, bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating and skiing.

Since there wasn't enough snowfall in Beijing this year, the entire Games will be taking place on artificial snow.

The competitions will be held across 13 different venues between central Beijing, the capital's Yanqing district and Zhangjiakou in the Hebei province.

For the first time in the history of the Winter Olympics, the Beijing Games will include new mixed women's and men's team events in freestyle skiing, short-track speed skating, snowboarding and ski jumping.

In order to ensure safety against the spread of COVID-19, the Winter Olympics will be held in a bubble including all athletes, trainers and staff working at the competition venues, in catering and accommodation.

The only spectators allowed into the stadiums will be residents of the Chinese mainland.

Despite disruptions caused by COVID-19, dignitaries from some nations are expected to attend the Games.

However, Canada, the U.S., the UK and Australia are among a group of countries that said they will only be represented by their athletes in protest at alleged human rights abuses in China's Xinjiang region. Allegations China has strongly and consistently denied.

For the occasion, China is launching a new driverless bullet train, which can hit speeds of up to 350 km/h and which will connect the three areas where events will take place.

The next Winter Olympics will be held in Milan-Cortina, Italy, in 2026.

The students of St Mary's, St Patrick's, St Malachy's, St Therese of Lisieux and Enniskillen Royal Grammar School give their best wishes to organizers and athletes at the Winter Olympics.

The students of St Mary's, St Patrick's, St Malachy's, St Therese of Lisieux and Enniskillen Royal Grammar School give their best wishes to organizers and athletes at the Winter Olympics.

Under the sign of the Tiger

The Beijing Winter Olympics will mark the beginning of the Chinese New Year

A woman wearing a mask uses her phone near Chinese New Year decorations in Beijing. /AP Photo/Ng Han Guan/

A woman wearing a mask uses her phone near Chinese New Year decorations in Beijing. /AP Photo/Ng Han Guan/

The Beijing Winter Olympics will roar onto the scene almost at the same time as China will celebrate the beginning of a new year, the year of the Tiger, which will officially start on February 1.

The Tiger is one of the most beloved of the 12 Chinese Zodiac signs, a symbol of confidence, good fortune and courage.

Everyone born in the years 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010 and 2022 is born under the sign of the Tiger, and is considered to share an ambitious and competitive personality as well as a tendency to be generous and seek justice.

The Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival and Lunar New Year, is celebrated in China and Chinese communities around the world.

Every year, those celebrating exchange red envelopes filled with money, visit temple fairs, or new year markets, and relatives, put up decorations in their freshly cleaned homes, participate or admire traditional dragon dances and sit around the table with their families eating dumplings, sweet rice balls and nián gāo, a rice cake supposed to bring good luck.

Students at Bangor Academy and Sixth Form College have been discovering and embracing this traditions. See how they learned how to make Chinese dumplings.

And here's some of the drawings students from Millburn, St Catherine's and St Mary's Primary Schools have made to celebrate the upcoming Year of the Tiger - together with the more mature interpretation from older students at Lumen Christi College in Derry.

Nicola Glenn, 8, Millburn Primary School

Nicola Glenn, 8, Millburn Primary School

Mia McGarrigle, 10, St Catherine's Primary School

Mia McGarrigle, 10, St Catherine's Primary School

Rachel Logue, 9, St Mary's Primary School

Rachel Logue, 9, St Mary's Primary School

Emily Devenn, 8, Millburn Primary School

Emily Devenn, 8, Millburn Primary School

Darragh McCaul, 14, Lumen Christi College

Darragh McCaul, 14, Lumen Christi College

Mary Tess Harron, 14, Lumen Christi College

Mary Tess Harron, 14, Lumen Christi College

Jahnvi Sharma, 14, Lumen Christi College

Jahnvi Sharma, 14, Lumen Christi College

Item 1 of 7

Nicola Glenn, 8, Millburn Primary School

Nicola Glenn, 8, Millburn Primary School

Mia McGarrigle, 10, St Catherine's Primary School

Mia McGarrigle, 10, St Catherine's Primary School

Rachel Logue, 9, St Mary's Primary School

Rachel Logue, 9, St Mary's Primary School

Emily Devenn, 8, Millburn Primary School

Emily Devenn, 8, Millburn Primary School

Darragh McCaul, 14, Lumen Christi College

Darragh McCaul, 14, Lumen Christi College

Mary Tess Harron, 14, Lumen Christi College

Mary Tess Harron, 14, Lumen Christi College

Jahnvi Sharma, 14, Lumen Christi College

Jahnvi Sharma, 14, Lumen Christi College

Not everyone is born a Tiger - but the chance of being born as one - or even better, being born under the sign of the dragon - is what makes the students at Millburn Primary School think that the Chinese Zodiac is "more fun" than the Western one.

Listen to Madame Zhang Meifang, China's Consul General in Belfast, talk with students Tyler, Lily, Isla, Ariella and Eve about the Chinese zodiac signs and whether duck is on the menu at Chinese restaurants in Coleraine.

Madame Zhang Meifang, Consul General of the People's Republic of China in Belfast, talks with Tyler, Lily, Isla, Ariella and Eve of Millburn Primary School about their Chinese Zodiac signs, Chinese Spring Festival and Chinese food.

Madame Zhang Meifang, Consul General of the People's Republic of China in Belfast, talks with Tyler, Lily, Isla, Ariella and Eve of Millburn Primary School about their Chinese Zodiac signs, Chinese Spring Festival and Chinese food.

Later, CGTN spoke to Zhang about how people across Northern Ireland were looking forward to the Games. She hailed the achievements of athletes from the region including skiier Kelly Gallagher who claimed the UK's first gold at the winter paralympics.

The sport was a focus for positive collaboration she said, noting that the diplomatic boycotts of the Games went against their spirit.