China welcomed the Olympic flame yesterday with a celebrity-packed start to the China leg of the torch relay, with officials hoping to extinguish memories of a global journey marred by protests over Tibet and other controversies.
Amid heavy security, speed skating Olympic champion Yang Yang (楊揚) was the first to carry the torch on Hainan, with basketball star Yi Jianlian (易建聯) and current Miss World, Zhang Zilin (張梓琳), also making appearances.
Ahead of the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing on Aug. 8, the torch will travel through more than 100 cities and scenic spots in China, including Tibet and Xinjiang where protests have erupted in recent weeks against Chinese rule.
Yesterday’s torch relay in Sanya, Hainan’s popular tourist enclave, had a protest-free run amid a highly visible security presence, as China ensured no repeat of the problems that plagued the flame elsewhere around the world.
China had hoped the global legs of the relay, which traversed five continents, would showcase the nation’s rise as a peaceful power.
But many groups used the relay to highlight a range of controversies swirling around China, including its rule of Tibet, alliance with the Sudanese government and human rights policies.
In what some may view as a bad omen for China’s relay, Yang’s run got off to a shaky start when the torch appeared to go out after just a few steps.
Yang was told to stop by security guards as the broadcast on national television cut away to images of the crowd.
Footage panned back to Yang as security guards relit the torch.
But Yang, who became China’s first winter Olympic gold medallist with two victories in the 2002 Games, appeared undeterred by the hiccup.
“I felt both excited and nervous to be the first torchbearer in the Chinese mainland,” a smiling Yang told reporters.
Yang passed the torch to Yi, who made his debut in the NBA this year with the Milwaukee Bucks and the relay kicked off in earnest with 208 people carrying the sacred flame through Sanya.
Zhang, who last year became the first Chinese to win the Miss World event, said she was honored to have carried the torch.
“I wish the distance could have been a bit longer, but I think that if in a lifetime you have the opportunity to have such a short experience, it’s enough,” she said.
Jackie Chan (成龍), the kung-fu superstar actor, was to be the last personality to carry the flame in Sanya. Actress Zhang Ziyi (章子怡) was also set to carry the flame along its final stages.