The Olympic flame approached the final destination of its long and sometimes contentious global tour today, greeted by rapturous crowds in the Chinese capital two days before it officially launches the games.
The arrival of the torch marks one of the final steps in China’s seven years of preparations for the games – a journey that has cost billions and one which Beijing hopes will end with the country’s symbolic debut as a modern world power.
The torch will tour Beijing for three days before ending up at Friday’s opening ceremony for the games and will be carried by a diverse crowd, including China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei, movie director Zhang Yimou and basketball superstar Yao Ming.
“I’m very happy to be here,” said Yang, China’s first astronaut to fly into space, before the relay kicked off from the Forbidden City, home of China’s previous emperors since the 15th century in the Ming Dynasty.
“That the torch is finally in Beijing is a realisation of a dream we’ve had for a hundred years,” Yang said, minutes before he took up the flame as its first torchbearer.
Yao Ming subsequently carried the torch out of China’s symbolic Tiananmen Gate, below the portrait of Chairman Mao.
Overseas, the torch relay was disrupted by protests or conducted under extremely heavy security after it left Greece on March 24, turning an event that should have built up excitement for the games into something of a public relations disaster for the hosts.
The protests have mostly been in response to China’s crackdown in March on anti-government riots in Tibet and to more general concerns over human rights issues in China.
The torch arrived back in the capital yesterday, after an emotional run in Sichuan province, the site of China’s deadly May 12 earthquake, which killed almost 70,000 people and left some 5 million homeless.
A huge stage was set up at the Forbidden City’s Meridian Gate for lion dancers and other traditional dance performances. Despite the muggy heat, thousands of people lined Chang An Avenue, which runs through the heart of Beijing, to cheer on the torchbearers.
From the Forbidden City, the torch was to pass landmarks such as the futuristic egg-shaped National Centre for the Performing Arts and Tiananmen Square. The expansive square is iconic for its symbolism as the seat of the communist government, but also was the focus of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 that were violently crushed by security forces.
The crowd in Tiananmen Square was small and strictly controlled in ordered lines, as the torch wound its way around Mao’s mausoleum. The only people allowed in were media and organised groups of supporters, mostly from major Olympic sponsors Lenovo and Coca-Cola, who shouted “Go China! Go Olympics!” and waved corporate flags.
The torch will end the day’s relay at the Temple of Heaven in south Beijing, where the emperor went to perform sacrifices for a good harvest. The Beijing leg will involve 841 torchbearers over three days and will also visit the Great Wall at Badaling, a site where prehistoric fossils of Peking Man were discovered.
Organisers have been on heightened alert since an attack in the country’s restive Muslim region in the west killed 16 policemen on Monday.
Authorities also are keen to prevent similar attacks on the torch by anti-Chinese protesters who earlier this year disrupted its legs in London, Paris and San Francisco.
Yesterday, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said the committee was discussing whether to eliminate international relays.
He said the IOC would retain its tradition of lighting the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia and starting the torch relay in Greece, but may limit flame processions to domestic routes within Olympic host countries.
“We respect protests and freedom of expression, but violence is against the Olympic spirit,” Mr Rogge said. “We believe in the strong symbolism of the torch relay.”