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Olympic torch poised for Everest ascent

Odd combination of secrecy, fanfare surround event

Staff members laid a flag of the Olympic logo at the base camp of Mount Everest, in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region yesterday. Staff members laid a flag of the Olympic logo at the base camp of Mount Everest, in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region yesterday. (Soinam Norbu/Xinhua via associated press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Charles Hutzler
Associated Press / May 1, 2008

BEIJING - Chinese mountaineers made final preparations yesterday to take the Olympic flame up Mount Everest in a grand but contentious feat that is being accorded an unusual mixture of fanfare and secrecy.

As China marked 100 days before the start of the Olympics, state-run television began the first of what were billed as elaborate and technically difficult live broadcasts from Everest's base camp for the journey up the world's tallest peak.

Mountaineers were completing the setup of a staging point at 27,390 feet for the final assault on the 29,035-foot summit, Chinese Central Television reported.

There was no word on the flame's whereabouts or those of the 31-member team that would go to the summit. Nor was there any news on which members would ascend to the peak or when.

The website of Beijing Daily likened the lack of information to a "mysterious veil that has surrounded base camp."

Some media reports had speculated that the climb could come as early as yesterday - when the countdown clock in Beijing marked 100 days to the Aug. 8-24 games - or today - the May Day holiday.

A brewing storm made a climb in the next three days unlikely, the Xinhua News Agency reported late yesterday, citing Yang Xingguo, the expedition's weather expert at base camp.

To commemorate the 100-day mark, Beijing held a mini-marathon outside the nearly completed National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, and a song gala, where actor Jackie Chan joined other celebrities to sing "Beijing Welcomes You," which was written for the event.

Senior Communist Party leader Jia Qinglin urged all Chinese "to pool our patriotic passion to accumulate a mighty force that could overcome all difficulties in a bid to hold a successful Olympics."

Meanwhile, the Chinese and foreign reporters at Everest base camp wait.

Still billed as a spectacular event, the Everest climb is being given mixed treatment. With the torch relay dogged by protests and Beijing's oft-criticized rule in Tibet drawing heated scrutiny after demonstrations this spring, organizers have placed a premium on security.

The Everest flame was specially designed to burn in frigid, windy, oxygen-thin Himalayan air. It is a sister flame to the one that made its way around the world and reached Hong Kong yesterday, returning to Chinese territory after a contentious month abroad.

Free speech is protected in Hong Kong, the British colony that returned to China's rule 11 years ago, but Chinese leaders and Olympic organizers hope the worst is behind them.

While it may face some protests when it is run through Hong Kong and neighboring Macau tomorrow and Saturday, the torch then moves to less-contested territory for a three-month journey across China.

In a sign of the Hong Kong government's determination for a smooth relay, border control officials have turned away at least seven people, among them a Danish human rights activist and three Tibet independence supporters, apparently suspecting they were coming to Hong Kong to stage protests.

Mia Farrow was expected to arrive in Hong Kong today to raise awareness about fighting in Sudan's Darfur region. Some are wondering whether the government will try to bar the 63-year-old actress, who is headlining the call for China to press Sudan to let UN peacekeepers into ravaged African region.

Chinese officials did not publicize the flame's travel to the Everest base camp, apparently to avoid protests.

Beijing has also exercised its diplomatic clout, persuading Nepal to bar climbers from border-straddling Everest's southern face to keep potential protesters from reaching the peak and spoiling the torch's moment.

But the secrecy has also dented plans by organizers and CCTV, which spent heavily on special broadcast facilities, to promote a torch run that is physically challenging but that has been criticized by Tibetan activists as a symbol of Chinese domination of Tibet.

"It's a challenging mountain, not because of technical problems. It's easy technically. But because of the height, it's difficult and dangerous," said Pierre Maina, a Danish surgeon and mountaineer who is preparing to scale Everest from Tibet next year.

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