Torch begins COVID-shortened trek past Beijing landmarks
BEIJING – Beijing’s COVID-shortened Olympic torch relay began on Wednesday with basketball great Yao Ming and a Chinese soldier wounded in a bloody 2020 border clash with India among the first to carry the symbolic flame on a journey that will last just three days.
The route taking the flame to landmarks including the Great Wall and Summer Palace is far more modest than the globe-spanning tour ahead of Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games that was disrupted by protests along the way.
Because of COVID-19, only selected members of the public will witness this week’s relay, as will be the case during the sporting events at the Olympics, which are taking place inside a “closed loop” that seals off athletes and other Olympics personnel from the public.
“That is, of course, bad luck but what can you do?” Georgios Iliopoulos, Greece’s ambassador to China and a torch-bearer, said when asked if he was worried that the 2022 Games would be remembered as the “corona Olympics”.
“You cannot stop life and we do the best we can to continue with what we have to deal with. The main thing is we keep together at this and leave it behind us as soon as possible,” he told reporters.
The Olympics will run from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20.
The flame, which was flown from Greece in October, will travel to competition zones, including Zhangjiakou in neighboring Hebei province, before ending its journey with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron at Friday’s opening ceremony.
Wednesday’s event began under clear blue skies in Beijing when Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng lit a torch from a cauldron in the shape of traditional ritual vessel known as a zun, then handed it to 80-year-old Luo Zhihuan, who as a speed skater was China’s first winter sports world champion.
Among the torch-bearers was Qi Fabao, a regimental commander in the People’s Liberation Army who was seriously wounded during a 2020 border clash with Indian troops in the Galwan Valley that killed four Chinese soldiers. He took the torch from four-time short track speed skating gold medalist Wang Meng.
More than 1,000 torch-bearers will participate in the relay.
Asked during the sub-freezing morning how he felt as an Olympics torch-bearer, Yao responded: “Pretty cold, because the previous two times were for the Summer Olympics. But it’s warm to hold a flame in the winter.”
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