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Beijing announces 2008 Olympic torch relay will pass through Taiwan; Taipei officials object

BEIJING — Organizers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics announced Thursday what will be the longest torch relay in the history of the games, tracing a route that covers five continents and makes politically sensitive stops in Taiwan and Tibet.
    The head of Taiwan’s Olympic Committee, however, said it would not participate in the relay, because it ‘‘downgraded’’ the island’s sovereignty.
    At a Beijing ceremony attended by senior members of China’s ruling Communist Party and the International Olympic Committee, organizers said the route would cover 85,000 miles, last 130 days and reach Mount Everest.
    ‘‘It will be a relay that will cover the longest distance and be most inclusive and involve the most people in Olympic history,’’ said Liu Qi, the head of Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee.
    The relay is the latest grand plan associated with an Olympics that organizers and IOC officials have said should set a new standard for the games. But it also takes the games into politically tricky terrain.
    Stops in Taiwan and Tibet, where Mount Everest towers, have generated controversy ever since Beijing telegraphed its intentions to include them on the route years ago. Taiwan has resisted Beijing’s overtures — and sometimes threats — to unify after splitting amid civil war while China’s often harsh 57-year rule over Tibet has been widely criticized.
    Four American activists were detained by Chinese authorities Wednesday on Mount Everest after they unfurled a banner calling for Tibet’s independence.
    Beijing is hoping that the torch relay will bolster its claims over both territories.
    In a compromise, however, the torch will pass from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City to Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, and then to Chinese-controlled Hong Kong. The route allows Taiwan to say it is part of the international leg, while allowing China to blur the distinction between the domestic and international parts.
    But Tsai Chen-wei, chairman of Taiwan’s Olympic Committee, said less than two hours after the Beijing meeting that the island would not participate in the torch relay.
    ‘‘This route is a domestic route that constitutes an attempt to downgrade our sovereignty,’’ Tsai said. ‘‘It is something that the government and people cannot accept.’’
    Tsai’s comments contradicted an April 13 statement by another Taiwanese Olympic official, who said the island could accept a spot on the torch route that involved geographical contiguity with Hong Kong.
    Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party has long pushed for a torch route that would reflect Taiwan’s separateness from China, from which it split amid civil war in 1949.
    In recent days DPP officials said a route that linked Taiwan and Hong Kong would not be acceptable, because it would feed into China’s desire to make it appear that the self-governing island was part of the mainland.
    The disputes underscore the political agendas at work at many Olympics and, especially in Beijing, whose Communist government hopes to event will raise its stature at home and abroad.
    Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said politics should be kept out of the games, and that Beijing had the support of the country and of people around the world.
    ‘‘Most of China’s citizens are looking forward and making preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Most people in the world are looking forward to a successful Olympic Games that can promote the friendship of people around the world,’’ he told a news conference.
    The relay, which is supposed to embody the Olympic values of friendship through sports, is a popular public-relations tool and the only contact most people have with the Olympics.
    As with all Olympics, next year’s relay will begin in Greece and wind across the globe before it is used to ignite the cauldron at the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, 2008, in Beijing’s 91,000-seat Olympic Stadium.
    Other stops announced Thursday include Paris; San Francisco; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Pyongyang, the capital of politically isolated and belligerent North Korea.
    ‘‘The Beijing 2008 torch relay will, as its theme says, be a journey of harmony, bringing friendship and respect to people of different nationalities, races and creeds,’’ IOC President Jacques Rogge told the ceremony.
    The relay’s signature moment is expected to be its ascent to the summit of Mount Everest, which straddles Chinese-ruled Tibet and Nepal.
    The International Olympic Committee, which shies away from controversy, was drawn into torch-relay politics after the three Americans and a Tibetan-American were detained on Everest. They waved a banner reading: ‘‘One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008.’’ Another one in English and Chinese read: ‘‘Free Tibet.’’
    ‘‘We are certainly going to have more of this (protests),’’ Hein Verbruggen, head of the IOC body that coordinates with Beijing organizers, told reporters in Beijing. ‘‘We know that.’’
    ‘‘We don’t want to be, as the IOC, involved in any political issues.’’
    In the design of the torch, China looked to its ancient past and dynamic present, choosing a design that resembles a traditional Chinese scroll and was conceived by its leading computer maker.
    The 28-inch-tall red-and-silver tube-shaped torch was created by Lenovo Group Ltd. and picked by Beijing Olympic organizers from among more than 300 competing designs.
    Lenovo, an Olympics sponsor well-known in China but not elsewhere, said the torch project was begun independently by its designers, without prodding by company management. But being so closely linked to a key Olympic symbol could help Lenovo’s efforts to use the games to make itself a worldwide brand.
    Thirty-four Lenovo designers worked on the torch design for nearly a year, producing nearly 30 different concepts before picking the final design, said Yao Yingjia, executive director of Lenovo’s Innovation Design Center in Beijing.
    The rolled-up scroll shape represents China’s contribution to world culture through its invention of paper, said Yao, while the pattern of swirling clouds on the top third of the torch represents the interaction of people.
    ‘‘That looked like the Olympic spirit: People come together and share good experiences and look forward to the future,’’ Yao said in an interview ahead of the unveiling.

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