Torch finally heads for Bejing

09:28, 06 August 2008
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Security`s extremely tight around the Olympics village

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

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, 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 symbolizes fortune in China.

With thousands of athletes now in China and limbering up for the August 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 wielding homemade explosives and knives killed 16 police in the west.

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

"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.

AUSTRALIA APPLAUDS SECURITY

Australia`s Olympic Committee gave a thumbs-up to China on Tuesday for its meticulous security preparations, including a 100,000-strong force on standby in Beijing.

"We`ve been advising the athletes ... that this incident took place 4,000 km (2,500 miles) away," its vice-president Peter Montgomery told reporters.

"Security`s extremely tight around the (Olympics) village and at all levels ... I`ve been to a quite a few Games and the only one I`ve been to that is comparable is Moscow."

In the most eagerly-awaited competition, the men`s 100 meters race that confers the title of Fastest Man on Earth, recovering world champion Tyson Gay said he would be ready in 10 days.

"When I step on the line in Beijing, don`t worry ... I`ll be ready to go," said Gay, who strained a hamstring muscle 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.

The pollution index for Tuesday was between 90 and 110 -- China views less than 100 as a "blue sky day."

Many athletes have delayed their arrival to the last minute due to health fears over the bad air.

Two-time Olympic discus champion Virgilijus Alekna had a different type of contamination on his mind though. At final training in Lithuania, he found his venue covered in dog poo.

"There were lots of dogs and they have left lots of things behind ... and nobody even tried to collect them," the professional bodyguard complained to a Lithuanian daily after a dog show spoiled the surface of the stadium he was using.

"I have no idea how I can train in such conditions ... who would clean the discus after every throw?"

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 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.

Reuters

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