The Olympic flame made one of its final relays today, on the eve of the Games’ opening ceremony, as torchbearers carried it along the ancient Great Wall of China.
After a short ceremony at the landmark Badaling section of the heritage site, hundreds of fans waving yellow and red pompoms cheered on the first torchbearer, Li Zhonghua.
“If you don’t go to the Great Wall, then you’re not a real man,” said Li, one of China’s most famous test pilots, who was quoting the late Chairman Mao.
The Great Wall, a world heritage site, was started in China’s first dynasty, the Qin Dynasty, in 220 BC, to protect the court from nomadic invaders to the north, although large parts were completed in the Ming Dynasty starting in the 14th century.
Badaling is the tourist leg of the Great Wall, and has been visited by countless foreign dignitaries, including US president Richard Nixon on his historic visit to China in 1972, which led the way to normalisation of relations between the two countries.
The 15-minute run along the ancient bricks brought the torch one step closer to ending its long and contentious global tour, which officially concludes Friday night with the lighting of the cauldron during the opening ceremonies of the 29th games.
Where the flame will rest when it arrives at Beijing National Stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest – remains a carefully guarded secret. The Chinese have speculated it will light the mouth of a statue of the phoenix, symbolising that the mythical Greek bird has returned to its nest.
Eighteen runners carried the torch along the Great Wall amid chants of “Beijing jia you, Aoyun jia you,” – “Go Beijing, go Olympics” – as 2,008 gray pigeons were released in the air.
“This is the first time China is holding the Olympics, so I personally wanted to come and see the torch,” said Su Jianping, who was waving a piece of red silk.
The spectacle marks one of the final steps in China’s seven years of preparations for the games – a journey that has cost billions of dollars and one that the communist government hopes will end with the country’s symbolic debut as a modern world power.