Mainland China leg of Olympic torch relay begins in Sanya

SANYA, China, May 4, 2008 (AFP) – The Olympic torch began the mainland China leg of its relay here Sunday in front of thousands of flag-waving supporters, after a global journey marred by protests over Tibet and other controversies. Amid heavy security, winter Olympic speed skating champion Yang Yang was the first to carry the torch, followed by NBA basketballer Yi Jianlian.

From Sanya, capital of the tropical southern island of Hainan, the torch will travel through more than 100 cities and scenic spots, including Tibet and Xinjiang where protests have erupted in recent weeks against Chinese rule.

Thousands of people gathered in Sanya to welcome the Olympic flame home, many of whom waved national flags and those carrying the logos of the main Olympics sponsors, with the event broadcast on national television.

The Sanya leg of the torch relay was expected to be trouble-free amid heavy security, as China attempted to prevent the kinds of protests that interrupted the flame’s journey in other cities around the world.

China had hoped the global leg of the relay, which traversed five continents, would offer the world an Olympic spirit of friendship and harmony, and showcase the nation’s rise as a peaceful power.