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Olympic torch finally heads for Beijing

August 05, 2008 13:03 IST

Olympic torch

The Olympic torch made its way to Beijing [Images] on Tuesday, allowing China to put the focus back on sport after one of its worst militant attacks days before the Games.

- The Olympic torch: Peace and controversy

Following its troubled international tour, which became a lightning rod for pro-Tibet protesters, the torch was due in the capital on Tuesday night from the quake-hit zone of Sichuan.

In a tradition introduced before the 1936 Berlin Olympics [Images], the flame is lit from the sun's rays in ancient Olympia, Greece, then carried across the globe by thousands of runners.

"This is the pride of the Chinese people," worker Xu Min said amid wildly cheering crowds watching the flame in Sichuan province's capital Chengdu before it left for Beijing.

The torch will travel past city landmarks before reaching the main Bird's Nest stadium for Friday's opening ceremony.

Music and singing floated into the air overnight from the gleaming, steel-latticed venue as thousands prepared for that extravaganza timed for eight o'clock on the eighth day of the eighth month: the number symbolises fortune in China.

With thousands of athletes now in China and limbering up for the Aug. 8-24 event, local and Olympic authorities hoped global attention would finally turn to sport after a buildup dominated by debate over Beijing's policies at home and abroad.

Desperate to show its modern face to the world but under pressure over human rights, the host nation was shaken on Monday when suspected Muslim separatists killed 16 police in the west.

State media said a taxi-driver and a vegetable-seller had been detained over the bomb attack in the far western region of Xinjiang.

The Communist government and Olympics chiefs shrugged off the attack and assured the 10,500 athletes from 205 countries that security was guaranteed and promising an inspiring Games.

People's Liberation Army troops, nevertheless, stepped up protection of Olympic facilities as a result of the bombing.


The Olympics will cost Beijing about $40 billion, by far the most expensive in history. Unlike past debt-ridden hosts such as Montreal in 1976 and Athens in 2005, that sum is small change for China's roaring economy.

"We are about to experience a magnificent Olympic Games," International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge said of a Games attracting as much global attention for its host nation as for its imminent sporting battles.

"The changes that are occurring in China are a microcosm of the changes in the rest of the world," he added.

In the most eagerly-awaited competition, the men's 100 metres for the title of Fastest Man on Earth, world champion Tyson Gay [Images] said he would be ready despite a hamstring muscle strain in July.

Authorities have spent a fortune -- around $18 billion -- on cleaning up Beijing. Drastic measures have included taking nearly 2 million cars off the street and shutting factories.

But a pollution-fuelled haze continued to clog the skies on Tuesday. That ruined views of a skyline boasting numerous futuristic new Olympic venues and gleaming towers giving testimony to China's new global economic clout.

Many athletes have delayed arrival to the last minute due to the bad air. Beijing's cloying summer heat also worries some.

On a happier note, Chinese hotels and restaurants were pulling out the stops to welcome visitors, even though visa problems and bad publicity have kept numbers lower than expected.

In Beijing's Quanjude restaurant, whose former customers include Fidel Castro and George Bush [Images] Sr., staff extolled the virtues of China's famed national dish, Peking Duck, in song.

"It connects to the world and makes friends globally," they sang of the duck, which obviously shares the Olympic ideals.

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