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Rediff.com  » Sports » Torch cheered through Tiananmen Square

Torch cheered through Tiananmen Square

Last updated on: August 06, 2008 10:52 IST

Yao MingEuphoric crowds chanting "Go Olympics, Go Beijing" cheered the Olympic flame through Tiananmen Square on Wednesday at the end of its troubled global relay.

- The Olympic torch: Peace and controversy

Two days before the Games start, one of China's best-known sportsmen, 7ft 6 in basketball player Yao Ming, held the flame above a sea of beaming faces in the Beijing landmark best-known to the world for the crushing of 1989 student protests.

Children wore "I Love China" T-shirts and workers waved flags and pom-poms, while drums and cymbals reverberated around the square under a portrait of late revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.

China hopes such images of the torch's final passage through Beijing will banish memories of pro-free Tibet protests dogging the flame's journey through Paris, London and elsewhere.

But the party mood was marred for the Communist government when, according to state media, four foreigners were arrested for unravelling a "Free Tibet" banner from electricity poles near an Olympic venue.

The Games -- which have given China an unprecedented chance to showcase its modern face but also galvanised critics of its human rights record -- start on Friday. China's half-century rule in the Himalayan region of Tibet is the most contentious issues.

Demonstrations around the torch's international legs offended many Chinese, who see the Games as a moment of national pride for a nation some view as the emerging 21st century superpower.

"It's not just about the sport, it's about the image of China," said Xi Li, 29, one of thousands of officially organised well-wishers watching the torch near the entrance of the Forbidden City on the edge of Tiananmen Square.

"Chairman Mao would have been happy if he were here today!"

Unfortunately for organisers, the start of the flame's passage through Beijing took place under smog-filled skies.

Some $18 billion of cleanup measures have reduced contamination to safe levels, according to Olympics chiefs, but not produced the sunshine and blue skies that China still hopes may grace the Aug. 8-24 Games.

RUSSIAN DOPING

Doping scandals dominated the start of the Athens Olympics four years ago, and organisers are promising around 5,000 tests this time to deter or catch would-be cheats.

National Olympics committees have been catching some cases in advance, with about 20 people kicked off teams in recent weeks.

In the latest case, Russia said on Tuesday that race walker Vladimir Kanaikin, one of the favourites for gold in the 20km in Beijing, was suspended after failing a dope test.

Eleven athletes from Russia, which with the United States has dominated medal tables over the decades, have now been suspended after doping suspicions. Seven were thrown off the Beijing team.

"It is frustrating to find that that kind of planned cheating is going on," said Arne Ljungqvist, the IOC's medical chief.

As well as the smog in Beijing, organisers had another weather worry on Wednesday as Hong Kong -- the venue for Olympics equestrian events -- raised a storm warning.

Tropical storm Kammuri was close to the city, the Hong Kong Observatory said, but should ease by the weekend.

Photograph: China's NBA star Yao Ming carries the Olympic torch underneath a giant portrait of the late chairman Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Square during the Olympic torch relay on August 6, 2008 in Beijing, China/Andrew Wong/Getty Images

Text: Reuters

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