By Francesco Liello
Jingzhou, Hubei Province — Never in history has the Olympic flame ignited stronger controversy -and all of it caused by events that had very little to do with sport.
First there was pro-Tibet activism, then the climbing of Everest and finally the earthquake. Several people thought it would make
sense to stop the torch relay to mourn the victims. For three days from May 19th, it did indeed halt, in remembrance of those who died in the disaster. This created a curious coincidence for me. I was the only Italian among 21,880 torchbearers to carry the flame, and because of the delay caused by the mourning, my turn came on June 2nd (instead of May 31st), which was Italy’s Republic Day.
Whatever the controversy, carrying the torch was a great and unforgettable moment. I have followed sport for many years, covered all forms of athletics and reported on three previous Games. The invitation by Bocog and Lenovo to carry the torch came because I am the first sports journalist ever accredited by the Chinese government. It was immensely satisfying.
But I could never have imagined that a 90-second run through a huge crowd would make me understand China and the Olympics more than three years of dealing with the organising committee and government officials. In many circumstances I did not appreciate or share their views and probably this will happen again. But I also did not know what the Olympics really meant for people, for “normal” people.
As soon as I arrived in the ancient city of Jingzhou, in Hubei Province, one of most historical places of China, I had a sense of great festivity and of being the centre of attention. I lived two days as a rock star. It started on Sunday morning, when I was assailed by a pack of journalists (14 interviews). I wore my FCCC tshirt to show I was on the journalists’ side but for the first time I was actually on the other side of the barricade.
I was nevertheless very surprised they knew so much about me and my newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport (Milan Tiyubao, as it’s called in Chinese). Their questions were just the same as the ones I had asked in the past to other protagonists of the Olympic Games. Then it was time for an autograph session. At the end, I finally understood why we were kept in the hotel for security reasons from Sunday lunch until the next morning when we got on the bus to get to our spot on the course.
At first I thought this was an excessive constraint. But I understood it when I saw the crowd of people standing in front
of the hotel entrance at 7am on Monday morning (the day of the torch relay). I – and the other torchbearers – were assaulted by a mass of youngsters who wanted to take pictures and seize the moment as if we were superstars. The same scene happened when the bus dropped me at my starting point (number 93) while waiting to receive the flame from a gracious woman soldier named Xing Fang. Whenever I turned towards any side of the street there was a delirious crowd who cheered me on and took pictures. Even before the torch arrived in the hands of the cute soldier, I could feel it coming thanks to the enthusiasm of the people and the shouts of “Zhongguo Jiayou” (Come on China!) that followed me, and almost made me forget where I was for the whole 90
seconds of my leg.
The roar and the crowd were probably unprecedented in the 72-year history of the Torch Relay. Even knowing that many things in China are orchestrated by top officials, that most of the kids were there because their school or University asked them to attend, I do not believe that such emotions can be compelled. Every time I waved I got another roar in response. This made me think about the Chinese reaction when people had earlier complained that their country did not deserve these Olympic Games. I am not judging if this is right or wrong but all I can say, after experiencing the joy of the people on the street, is that I realize how much people in China care about these Games. What they want more than anything is for this to be a big party for everybody.