Olympic Torch Relay Begins Final Leg

The Olympic torch relay began its final leg from the landmark Forbidden City on Wednesday morning, through the host city which celebrated its arrival with flying flags and beaming smiles.

At the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City, the torch was handed over to the first bearer, Yang Liwei, the country's first astronaut, by Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the 29th Olympic Games (BOCOG).

The cheerful and eager crowd had gathered in Tian'anmen Square since the early morning, holding high their red Chinese national flags and the white flags of the Beijing Olympics.

"The flame came back to Beijing!" said Guo Jinlong, Beijing mayor, at the brief ceremony held at the small square in front of the 558-year-old gate, decorated by red carpets and flags. "We can expect a successful end of the Journey of Harmony."

The torch returned from a journey of 129 days and 137,000 km through six continents, the longest since the tradition started at the 1936 Berlin Games, under the theme "Journey of Harmony."

"Beijing is fully ready for the Olympic Games. The city is opening its arms to guests worldwide," Guo said. "We are eagerly waiting for the flame to be lit in the National Stadium."

It was not sunny, and it was cooler than previous days for bearers to run through the vast city of 17 million people. Every one of them smiled broadly and waved to the cheerful crowd chanting "Go Olympics, Go Beijing" along the streets, some even dancing during their run.

Along the relay route, many Beijingers had waited for them long before the beginning of the relay. Kids sat on the shoulders of their parents covering their foreheads with a red ribbon written "Go China". Young girls with small red and white flags pasted on their cheek waved bigger flags in their hand and tried to touch the torches when some bearers finished their tasks.

The 104-year-old Cao Zuozheng was among the cheering crowd sitting in her wheelchair. On Tuesday the elderly lady had asked her family to take her to the Meridian Gate and took a photo there to mark the torch relay.

The Olympic flame will travel through the Olympic host city for three days, carried by a total of 841 torch bearers.

On its first day, the torch relay will cover 16.4 km in just over four hours through seven districts, passing city landmarks, including the Tian'anmen Square, the egg-shaped National Center for the Performing Arts and Qianmen (the front gate). It will end at the Temple of Heaven.

Among the 433 bearers, 29 are foreigners, two from Hong Kong and one from Taiwan.

"The torch relay has displayed the spirit of Chinese," said Yang Liwei, who became a national hero overnight after succeeding in China's first manned space mission in October 2003. "I am very glad to be the first torch bearer in Beijing but the honor goes to our motherland. I feel proud of my own country."

There are big names and ordinary people among the bearers. Yao Ming, China's most popular basketball star, was the ninth bearer.

"When the flame was lit on my torch, my mind went blank. All I knew was to run. I can't keep being thrilled during the run," said Yao, admitting that he was too excited to speak in anything more than an incoherent manner, though the Houston Rockets center is normally quite a good talker in front of the media.

Zhang Yimou, the famed film director and chief director of the Games' opening and closing ceremonies, also carried the torch on Wednesday.

(Xinhua News Agency August 6, 2008)

Related Stories