Who Will Light the Olympic Flame?
As the most controversial torch relay in Olympic history comes to an end, folks here wonder: Who will light China's fire?
Guessing the person who will light the huge flame inside the National Stadium has become the first event of the Beijing Olympics. And everyone can play. Television networks, newspapers and Web sites have run poll after poll asking who should have the honor, drawing thousands of responses.
"In China, the Olympic fire is called sheng huo, which is given a sacred meaning," said Jin Yuanpu, president of the humanistic Olympic Games studies of Renmin University of China in Beijing. "Chinese people take this opportunity to express ourselves to the world."
Readers' picks have ranged from obvious choices such as basketball star Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang -- China's best hope for a track medal -- to sports veterans such as gymnast-turned-sportswear-magnate Li Ning, or diving queen Fu Mingxia, to even mythical figures such as dragons, phoenixes and the Monkey King, China's folkloric trickster figure.
Such tea-leaf reading is common when it comes to the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, which has frequently been used as a piece of political theater and a way for a government to signal what it has done, or can do, for its people, said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.
In the 1964 Tokyo Games, for example, the Japanese government chose 19-year-old Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, as the last torchbearer, signaling the nation's rebirth from devastation of World War II.
Feng Jianzhong, deputy chief of the state sports-affairs bureau, told the state Xinhua news agency that the last candidate "can represent the image of China, can communicate with the world and can show the Olympic spirit."
Authorities, who have declared details of the Olympics opening ceremony a state secret, are predictably keeping mum. While some details of the ceremony were leaked through a video from South Korean broadcaster SBS last week, there were no hints of who would light the cauldron.
The secrecy is similar to the tight security employed in the torch relay, Beijing-based scholar Russell Leigh Moses said, and "tells us about how the government operates." He said, "This has become such a big deal. The government has aspirations to make a big splash and has anxiety as to what people will think of it."
The global torch relay attracted an unprecedented level of protests against China's human-rights record in Tibet and caused the International Olympic Committee to rethink the wisdom of holding global relays.
Complicating the guessing game is the fact that many of the obvious choices such as Mr. Liu and diver Guo Jingjing have already run with the torch. So has Olympic bureaucrat He Zhenliang, the lobbyist who spent half a century helping China gain hosting rights, as well as astronaut Yang Liwei. Mr. Yao, who also carried the torch earlier in the relay, is unlikely to be the final torchbearer now that he has been picked to hold the Chinese flag during the opening ceremony, authorities said Thursday.
Chinese authorities say those who ran with the torch are unlikely to do so again, although there are no regulations that actually prohibit this, say experts. At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, 1936 track gold medalist Jesse Owens's granddaughter Gina Hemphill ran twice with the torch.
One athlete who hasn't yet run is former gymnast Mr. Li, who won three gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Games that symbolized the People's Republic of China's emergence from almost three decades of isolation from the global sporting community. Mr. Li went on to found a $6 billion sportswear company bearing his name. He also is a philanthropist who set up an educational program for athletes and is helping rebuild schools in quake-hit Sichuan. (Mr. Li's company has said it will name these schools after athletes it sponsors who strike gold at the Games.)
Should he be picked, the choice would arguably represent a happy compromise between the past and the future, the state and the private sector. But such a choice could pose a ticklish situation because Adidas AG and not Mr. Li's company is the official sportswear sponsor. Erica Kerner, Adidas's director of Olympics marketing, said, "All torch bearers have to wear Adidas."
There may be more than one final torchbearer. The Beijing Morning Daily suggested that the cauldron could be lit by the 2.3-meter Mr. Yao holding up a Sichuan orphan. Others suggested the six members of the women's volleyball team who struck gold in the 1984 Games, a first.
Another more fanciful suggestion, posted on cnwest.com, a Shaanxi based news site, would like to see thousands of investors on Chinese stock markets shouting "up" at the torch to light it.
There is precedent for multiple final torchbearers. At the 1976 Montreal Games teenagers Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson from the French and English speaking parts of Canada lit the cauldron together, symbolizing the unity of the country.
A pluralistic approach would be in keeping with Beijing Olympics traditions so far, which has inflated everything from the number of mascots (five) to sponsors (three beers, instead of the usual one), not to mention holding the longest -- and most controversial -- torch relay and the most expensive Games in history.
With Beijing authorities vowing to top previous Games efforts -- which have included show-stoppers such as a flaming arrow shot to light the cauldron in Barcelona, an athlete vaulting from ski-jump to cauldron in Lillehammer, Norway, or a Parkinson's-stricken Muhammad Ali, flame in hand in Atlanta -- the lighting Friday promises to be a dramatic spectacle.
It will "create a series of images put on [state broadcaster] CCTV that affirms that the rest of the world acknowledges the Chinese Communist Party as the leader of China," Mr. Wallechinsky said. "It will say [to the Chinese people] 'See what we have done for you. We did this for you.' "