China’s deadly earthquake has overshadowed preparations for the Beijing Olympics, taking away attention — at least temporarily — from human rights concerns, pro-Tibet demonstrations and Beijing’s noxious air.
The Olympic torch relay began a three-day suspension yesterday, part of an official national mourning period announced on Sunday. And more changes seem certain for the highly anticipated Games.
Pomp and ceremony were removed from the relay when the earthquake struck a week ago, and some scaling back might also work into the Olympics itself, where Beijing has invested US$40 billion in gleaming infrastructure to show off three decades of soaring economic progress.
“For the Chinese people, the most important thing will no longer be how to protect the image of the Beijing Olympics,” said Ni Jianping (倪建平), vice president of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies. “Instead the priority will be how to help our fellow citizens to recover. If China does well on disaster relief, the image of China will also improve.”
It wasn’t clear whether the quake and a death toll expected to reach 50,000 would cause Beijing to alter the Games’ lavish opening ceremonies, being designed in secrecy by the country’s most famous film director, Zhang Yimou (張藝謀). A spokesman for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
But the torch relay has been a lightning rod in Beijing’s Olympic preparations.
Mostly a public-relations event in other Olympics, the torch has been taken around the world — where it ignited rowdy protests over Tibet and human rights — and up Mount Everest. It is in the midst of a rapturous, tightly controlled domestic tour with more than 100 stops on the way to the Aug. 8 start of the Games.
The three-day suspension affects legs in the eastern cities of Ningbo, Jiaxing and Shanghai, China’s business capital, and is the biggest alteration to the relay since the May 12 quake.
Beijing Olympic organizers initially resisted changing the relay, which corporate sponsors have paid millions of dollars to fund. But in response to a public outcry and sensing positive public relations, organizers toned down the ceremony and began last Wednesday’s leg in the southeastern city of Ruijin with a moment of silence.
Many of the legs since then have been shortened, with the focus turning away from ceremony and toward commemorations for the dead.
Donations have been collected along the run.
The relay is to resume on Thursday in Ningbo, but it was unclear how the route will be adjusted to make up for the three-day stoppage.