Beijing - Chinese basketball All-star Yao Ming may become the mainland's first torchbearer, Xinhua revealed on its website Thursday.
Chinese All-star center Yao Ming pumps his fist in celebration during a NBA basketball game in Houston in this December 15, 2007 file photo. Yao may become the mainland's first torchbearer, Xinhua revealed on its website Thursday. [Agencies]
The Olympic flame, which will be lit on March 24 in Olympia, Greece, is expected to arrive in Sanya, Southwest China's Hainan Province on May 3 after touring 21 countries and regions outside the mainland.
Yao is a shoe-in to be the first to run a 200m stretch with the torch. Fellow player Yi Jianlian will be Yao's backup torchbearer, Xinhuanet cited a Sanya local government official as saying.
"Yao, who represents China's sporting celebrities, has the honor of being the mainland's first relay runner," said official Liao Minsheng.
During the 2004 Olympic Torch Relay, Yao was the mainland's final torchbearer who ran in Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
The NBA center, who led the Chinese team to the quarter-finals of the Athens Olympics, had a successful operation earlier this month after he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot. He will recuperate for up to four months before making the decision to participate in the Games.
Liao also told Xinhuanet that the Sanya leg, which is the torch's first stop on its mainland tour, will be a highlight and some of the relay runners are celebrities. TV hostess Yang Lan, movie stars Zhang Ziyi, Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung will each carry the torch on Hainan Island.
"The detailed route for the Sanya stretch is already set," Liao added. "The relay, involving 208 torch runners, will start from Tianyahaijiao on May 4 and end at Fenghuang Island."
According to Liao, 10,000 people will perform a bamboo pole dance, a traditional dance by the Li ethnic group who live in Sanya, to welcome the Olympic torch.
Afterwards, the flame will continue its 97-day journey, covering the mainland's 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, including the world's highest peak Mt. Qomolangma, or Mt. Everest known in the West.
The torch will finally arrive back in Beijing on August 6 and will be carried into the National Stadium or Bird's Nest for the opening ceremonies two days later.