579 days to go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 January, 2007, 12:00am

Fans the world over know religion and politics don't mix with sports and should be kept at a safe distance. Indeed, the Olympic charter rules that the games be free of politics and religion during the two-week indulgence in patriotism and competitiveness.

However, it came to pass this week that the symbolic Olympic flame, carried between host nations by way of torch and jogger, is now being described by the atheist Chinese as the 'holy fire'.

'Beijing has promised in its bidding reports that the holy fire of the Olympics will reach the world's highest peak,' reported the state media machine when it confirmed the dummy run up Mount Everest with the burning Olympic standard.

With tens of millions queuing to kneel at the altar of money and materialism in China, perhaps it is no surprise religious overtones are creeping into the state media's coverage of the games' preparations.

The Olympics, if it hasn't already, is fast becoming a cult - a belief system from which to make some kind of meaning from the clattering chaos of China's unremitting modernity-making and exhausting commercialism.

As we round the bend with 18 months to go, we can view before us the home straight to 8-8-08.

And what nation other than China, with its grandiose designs on both the past and future - from the Yangtze River dam and the Great Wall to men in space and superpower status sometime very soon - would attempt to send a small, flaming hand-held torch to the summit of the world's highest peak - and beam the unprecedented feat to the world on live TV?

Modern mountaineering technology allows climbers to scale hostile environments without the divine shield of providence.

But a rather large prayer to the weather gods will be needed by the torch-bearing team if they are to light up Everest, according to one of the world's celebrated mountaineers.

'There's no doubt the Chinese can get the Olympic flame up there logistically,' said Sir Chris Bonington, the British climber credited with opening up China's many peaks to mountaineers in the early 1980s.

'The problem will be - as with most expeditions up that mountain - the weather,' he said from his home in England.

Bonington knows all about the weather on Mount Everest. In 1972, he led a British expedition up the mountain's so-called 'last great problem' - the southwest face - but the team were defeated by the savage winds and intense cold of that autumn and winter.

He finally realised his lifetime ambition in 1985 as a member of a Norwegian expedition.

Liu Jingmin, deputy mayor of Beijing and vice-president of games organisers Bocog, said the torch relay 'ahead of the 2008 Olympics will be performed during a safe period considering the weather conditions, and the proceedings will be televised live on TV to the entire world'.

'The torch will be designed specifically in order to burn at such a high altitude. And the design is in its final stage,' he said.

There are 'weather windows', said Bonington, but he doubts there is ever a 'safe period' - whether you're carrying a holy flame or otherwise.

The crispest blue skies can turn ugly in minutes in the Himalayas.

'The Chinese have the people to make the ascent - they were the first to conquer the West Face in 1960 - but like all climbers they'll need to pray for kind weather whatever the time of year,' said Bonington, who has scaled many of the world's most formidable peaks.

The Olympic torch will be carried to the summit along the easiest southern route. Expert Chinese climbers will be joined by Nepalese sherpas, a handful of handpicked students from some of China's top universities and a CCTV camera crew.

Liu said the mountaineers were in training, but gave no further details about preparation of the expensive and dangerous expedition to reach the 8,800-metre summit, which lies on the border between China and Nepal.

'I'm not surprised China wants to take the Olympic flame up there as the mountain is in their country,' added Bonington, who at 72 is planning to scale the impossibly steep side of a 5,000-metre, unnamed and unconquered mountain in northern India this year 'with a couple of mates'.

'Yes, I'll watch the Chinese attempt to take the torch up the mountain if I can, and I do think the Olympics are great fun - it would be more so if the sport of climbing was included,' he added.

Now there's something for the Chinese climbers to think about - and perhaps pray for - when clinging to a ledge with flame in hand.