Torch ascends Great Wall, Bush rebukes China

Doves flew and confetti rained down as the Olympic torch was carried along the ancient Great Wall on a misty Thursday morning, the eve of Games that China hopes will demonstrate its modern-day strength.

Hours before flying to Beijing for Friday’s opening ceremony, United States President George Bush used some of his bluntest language yet in criticising China on human rights.

And more than 40 athletes competing in the Games crossed the divide from sports to politics, urging China to solve problems in Tibet peacefully and protect freedom of speech and religion.

In Beijing, excitement is building as the tortuous and troubled torch relay draws to a close and the country’s 1.3 billion people prepare for an opening ceremony likely to highlight China’s ancient history and modern face.

“There have been problems with the torch but now is the time for the party,” said Weng Chengyu, a 28-year-old student watching the torch parade on the Great Wall.

“You see all this?,” he said, gesturing at thousands of yellow-clad volunteers dancing and waving flags as far as the eye could see. “This shows how much the Chinese love the Olympics.”

Patriotic music blared out from loud speakers, echoing around the wall, and drums and cymbals thundered out a pounding beat.

The model of a giant dragon was crouched on one of the wall’s watchtowers and, with the mountains behind, it looked like the backdrop for an ancient Chinese painting.

“We have travelled to so many cities from Olympia to the Great Wall, we have cried so many times, it is very emotional especially when you see the reaction of the Chinese crowds,” said Xiaohong Lu, who accompanied the torch relay around the world.

Cheering crowds also celebrated on Wednesday night as China’s women’s soccer team won their opening match, beating Sweden 2-1 in Tianjin, a cloaking mist failing to dampen their enthusiasm.

Men’s soccer begins on Thursday, with Ronaldinho intent on helping Brazil win a first gold medal. They play Belgium in Shenyang, while Argentina play Côte d’Ivoire in Shanghai.

Hours before the game, though, it was still not clear if forward Lionel Messi would play for Argentina, after Barcelona won the right not to release him.
The club said it would make a decision after speaking to the player, who remains in Shanghai.

Tennis starts on Sunday, with many hoping for another classic encounter between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the men’s singles final.

Nadal said he had had little rest since his five-set victory at Wimbledon on July 6, but he still hoped to give his best and win a medal for Spain. “I’m very tired but I’m OK, all things considered,” he told reporters.

Eyes on the skies
Many eyes continue to turn to the skies, with smog and sweltering heat a concern for athletes. The haze lifted a little on Thursday, and authorities, who spent $18-billion trying to cut pollution, said air quality was fairly good.

August is thunderstorm season in Beijing, and organisers had talked of using experimental technology to “seed” rain clouds to ensure it stayed dry for Friday’s opening. In the event that may not be needed, even though some scattered rain is possible.

“During the opening ceremony it will mainly be cloudy ... and there will essentially be no impact upon it,” the China Meteorological Administration said.

The highlight of the opening ceremony is the lighting of the Olympic flame, the culmination of a 130-day relay which became the focus of demonstrations about Chinese rule in Tibet.

Small groups of foreign protesters have also popped up in Beijing this week in a bid to grab the spotlight.

Chinese plainclothes security officials dragged away three American Christian activists on Thursday after they attempted to protest for religious freedom near Tiananmen Square.

Bush, who says he is coming to Beijing for sports not politics, delivered a speech in Bangkok on Thursday expressing “deep concern” over human rights in China.

“America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said.

Bush’s comments may irritate the Chinese leadership but are intended to deflect criticism from rights groups and religious activists that he is attending the Games’ opening at all.

At that ceremony, beamed to an estimated one billion television viewers around the world, a Sudanese-born runner who fled government-sponsored militia will carry the US flag, in what could be seen as an embarrassment to Sudan and ally China.

Lopez Lomong, one of the so-called “Lost Boys”, fled on foot from marauding militia at the age of six in 1991, separated from his parents at the height of a civil war in southern Sudan.

After years in refugee camps, Lomong and thousands of similar children were resettled in the United States.

As athletes from 205 nations parade around the “Bird’s Nest” stadium on Friday, not every Beijinger will be cheering.

Forced evictions to make way for many of the venues and other modernising projects have made life miserable for some.

“I don’t feel much joy for the Olympic Games,” said one man, whose house was demolished in front of him late last year to make way for a car park just south of the main venue.

“Isn’t this supposed to be a ‘People’s Olympics’?” - Reuters

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