IGNITING HARMONY: President Hu Jintao holds the torch, with which he lit a cauldron at a ceremony in Tiananmen Square to officially start the global Olympic torch relay on March 31
Two old nations, one shared dream. A symbolic integration of Eastern and Western civilizations was realized when a dramatically dressed Greek priestess kindled a specially designed torch for the Beijing Olympics at the ancient stadium in Olympia, Greece. In a flawless ceremony amid sunrays on March 24, High Priestess Maria Nafpliotou lit the Olympic flame with a concave mirror in front of the Hera Temple in Olympia. The flame was then held in a replica of an ancient urn to ignite the first torch for the upcoming Summer Games in Beijing. The torch, shaped like a traditional paper scroll and featuring the lucky image of clouds, is a perfect blend of time-honored Chinese wisdom and modern technology.
"Today will lead to the opening of the first ever Olympic Games in China, where one fifth of the world's population is longing for them," said Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, at the ceremony.
During the next four months, the flame will travel to 21 cities throughout the world and more than 100 cities on the Chinese mainland in a relay that "prepares the way to Beijing," Rogge said. "The messengers will be citizens, young or old, able or disabled, athletes and members of the Olympic Movement, who are all eager to promote what each one of us can contribute to a better world."
As the Olympic flame started its "journey of harmony" under the slogan of "light the passion, share the dream," former Olympians, politicians, scholars and laypeople alike expressed their best wishes for the relay and the hope that it would deliver the message of world peace throughout five continents.
"I feel it is a great honor to have the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization and the Greek civilization integrated in the Olympic flame," said Luo Xuejuan after finishing her part of the relay in Olympia. The 24-year-old former Olympian is the first Chinese to bear the Olympic torch.
DREAMS COME TRUE: Olympic champion Liu Xiang runs with the Olympic torch in Tiananmen Square on March 31
Four years ago, Luo won the only swimming title for China in Athens at the women's 100-meter breaststroke competition. Known as the "Queen in the Pool," she was crowned world champion of the women's 50-meter and 100-meter breaststrokes in both 2001 and 2003. She announced her retirement in early 2007 due to health problems. Now a student of international relations at Peking University, Luo said she hopes the torch relay will spread the message of "world peace."
The day the flame was lit in Olympia, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the 29th Olympiad launched a "best wishes for the torch relay" program on its official website. Within the first two days, Internet users from more than 20 countries and regions, including China, the United States, Britain, Greece, France and Australia, posted more than 5,000 messages on the website.
"We wish all the athletes the best of luck and we hope that the Olympic Games will be peaceful and harmonious," said a posting from Australia from Class 6N at Bankstown Public School in New South Wales.
A U.S. netizen who identified himself as Chris wrote: "I wish the Olympic flame a grand and safe journey around Greece, the world, and China. And I wish the Chinese to have the greatest Olympics ever. Good luck Beijing 2008!"
It will be a "great honor" as the Olympic flame travels to St. Petersburg, one of its five destinations on the European continent, on April 5, said Russian Olympic Committee spokesman Gennady Shvets. All the Olympic champions who reside in St. Petersburg, renowned athletes of the city and Olympic champions from other parts of Russia will take part in the four-hour torch relay there.
Days before the torch relay started, U.S. President George W. Bush reconfirmed that he would attend the Beijing Olympics. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush believes that the Olympics are a chance for athletes to compete at the top of their class.
Yang Dong, Deputy Director of the Olympic Cultural Research Center at Beijing Union University, said the torch-lighting ceremony was symbolic of a meeting of two ancient civilizations and highlighted Beijing's determination to make the Olympics a diversified, people-oriented, international cultural event.
Yang said 293 ancient Olympic Games were held from 776 B.C. to A.D. 393. The same period witnessed the emergence of Chinese culture in ancient China. Sports, therefore, developed "along parallel lines" in the two countries, he said. Given their huge cultural gap, the two ancient countries practiced sports in different manners, he said. For example, while the Greeks stressed body proportions, the Chinese placed more emphasis on health and longevity, he said.
Sun Baoli, professor at Beijing Sport University, said China and Greece enjoyed distinctive sporting traditions that embody their respective agricultural and maritime civilizations. The differences, however, provide an opportunity for them to come together, she said.
Sun said she hoped the torch relay would better inform other countries of the Chinese people's pursuit of world peace and commitment to building a harmonious world, while promoting Olympic values such as peace and friendship.
Torch Relay in Numbers
The Olympic flame will travel to 21 cities outside the Chinese mainland and be carried by more than 2,000 torchbearers. It will travel a distance of 97,000 km in 33 days from April 1 to May 3.
The 97-day torch relay on the Chinese mainland will take place in 113 cities and towns in the country's 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities from May 4 to August 8. More than 19,000 torchbearers, ranging from 14 to 93 years old, will run more than 40,000 km with the torch.
In May, the flame will be carried for the first time to the top of Mount Qomolangma (Mount Everest), the world's highest peak some 8,844 meters above sea level.