At 85,000 miles, the longest Olympic torch relay ever was supposed to be a victory lap showcasing China's peaceful emergence on the world stage. Instead, it has become a public relations disaster, pitting protesters critical of Beijing's human rights record against China's loyal citizens. The journey of harmony has given way to what critics say is a flame of shame.
But in China, the relay's iconic image is of a wheelchair-bound Chinese fencer cradling the Olympic torch, her eyes shut. The photo, taken in Paris, shows the athlete shielding the torch from a pro-Tibet protester who tried to snatch it from her. That torchbearer, Jin Jing, has become a national heroine.
Hailed as a "smiling angel in a wheelchair" by the Xinhua news agency, Jin's every move is now front-page news. Her description of how her pride and joy at carrying the flame was snatched away is an analogy for the prevailing mood in China. But many are also defiant.
"Nothing can and nothing will damage the Beijing Olympic Games. It will be the best one," says sportswriter Yan Xiaoxian. The journalist from the Xinmin Evening News was among those chosen to carry the Olympic flame in Shanghai late next month. She has covered the past three Olympics and is unbothered by the controversy, saying Olympic protests are nothing new.
Yan says recent events only strengthen her enthusiasm for the games.
"This ... is really amazing for me," she says, "because it's in my motherland, in my home country, and especially because I [will] become a torchbearer." Yan says the Olympics serve as a rallying point for Chinese people. "The Olympic Games, all international sports games, will make people [feel] more love [for] their motherland."
Competing to Carry Torch
In China, anticipation about the torch relay has been building for months. One barometer of interest: China's best-loved comedian, Zhao Benshan, performed a skit portraying an elderly, unfit farmer competing to be a torchbearer. This aired on the most-watched program of the year, the Chinese New Year television gala.
Even non-Chinese living in China are vying for the honor of carrying the Olympic flame. Filipino sports fan Marco Torres won 13,000 votes in a competition held by China Daily and the relay's official sponsor, the Lenovo computer company, to become an expat torchbearer.
As Torres puts it, the dream he had never dared to dream came true. He says he is disappointed by the protests.
"I feel very, very sad about it — that people are mixing politics into the Olympic movement."
He'll carry the torch for a 600-foot stretch in Xinjiang, a restive northwestern province that has recently seen protests by ethnic Uighurs chafing at Beijing's rule.
"In fact, I had colleagues joking me, saying, 'Oh, you're going to Xinjiang — you better wear a protective armor or a bulletproof vest,' " Torres says. "I do hope that by the time I carry the torch, I won't only be surrounded by guards, by security personnel. I want people to be cheering me on and cheering the Olympic torch."
Fears of Misperceptions
With the news broadcasts of ever more protests, the Chinese public is becoming increasingly alienated and angry. This worries American ad man Tom Doctoroff, who was invited to take part in the torch relay by Lenovo.
Doctoroff says even though he doesn't support China's handling of the Tibetan unrest, he'll still run to try to build understanding between different cultures. But he fears that Chinese people increasingly see the protests as anti-Chinese rather than as demonstrations against Beijing's clampdown on Tibet. And he worries this perception could have long-term implications, leading to a more insecure, more defensive China.
"Many people view how the West is responding to the Tibetan issue as a proxy for how they, in their heart(s), feel about China's emergence as an economic force to be reckoned with," Doctoroff says. "My concern is if China views the West as against it — not supporting its responsible integration into 21st century world order — then they are not going to feel comfortable engaging with the West, and they are going to be protecting their interests in a very short term kind of way."
China's torchbearers may be hoping for the best. But the fault lines exposed by Beijing's pre-Olympic clampdown are becoming ever harder to bridge.