The Olympic torch relay will be simplified, downscaled and open with a minute of silence Wednesday when a leg starts in the southeastern city of Ruijin, a symbolic gesture to thousands who died in a massive earthquake in central China.
The announcement Tuesday by Beijing Olympic organizers was a reversal of their earlier indication that there would be no changes to the relay. This came in the face of mounting pressure on Chinese-language Web sites and blogs, which overwhelmingly favored some kind of moratorium — either now or next month when the torch enters Sichuan province.
More than 12,000 people are reported dead in Sichuan province, at the epicenter of the quake. The torch is due to arrive June 13 in the sprawling city of Chongqing and enter neighboring Sichuan two days later.
“The torch relay will be based on the principle of security comes first,” organizing committee spokesman Sun Wiede said. “We will reduce the scope of the torch relay. We will simplify the procedures. We will focus on simplicity.”
Sun said ceremony would be reduced with fewer speeches and less pomp. He said the somber relay would probably last until the torch reached the earthquake ravished areas, with people along relay routes asked to make donations to help quake victims.
“For how long this goes on depends on the disaster relief work,” Sun said.
The IOC said Tuesday it was donating $1 million to help the earthquake victims.
After a chaos-filled month abroad, with pro-Tibet protests at half the stops and shortened routes at others, the Olympic torch returned May 4 to mainland China. It has been greeted by tight security and enthusiastic crowds, the public relations image organizers are seeking from the Olympics as China tries to show its overwhelming economic growth in the last three decades.
Earlier on Tuesday, officials suggested there would be no changes to the relay.
“Right now we will continue to monitor the disaster situation,” Li Zhanjun, director of the Beijing Olympic Media Center, said. “If there are no further developments in the disaster situation, then it will not affect the torch relay.”
Organizers say the Olympics will be safe for the more than 500,000 foreign visitors expected.
“What I want to say to foreign visitors is that the Olympic games are safe, Beijing is safe and China is safe,” said Zhang Jian, director of the organizing committee’s project management office.
On the streets in Beijing, opinion seemed mixed about changes to the relay.
“Compared with the whole country, which is so big, the disaster seems small,” said a taxi driver who identified himself as Mr. Su. “If we stop the relay, the Olympic games may be affected.”
Nearby, another man had a different idea.
“The torch relay should stop for two or three days,” said a man calling himself Mr. Zhang. “So many lives have gone, and many of them are young students. It’s so horrible.”
The 7.9-magnitude quake rocked skyscrapers in Beijing, 900 miles from the epicenter. However, the 31 Olympic venues in the city were undamaged. Organizers said six other venues outside Beijing were also unscathed.
The three torch relay sponsors — Samsung, Lenovo and Coca-Cola — were discreet in their endorsement activities during the international legs, but have splashed out their logos liberally during the China legs of the relay. The torch returns to Beijing on Aug. 6, two days before the opening ceremonies.
Any plan to alter the route would concern sponsors — they have each paid millions for the torch exposure — and the International Olympic Committee.
Lenovo spokesman Bob Page, Christina Lau of Coca-Cola and William Moss of Samsung said their companies would go along with any changes offered by the organizers.
“The route is not determined by Lenovo,” Page said. “We will support any decision on this made by the Beijing organizing committee.”
Page said his company was donating $1.4 million to earthquake relief. Lau said Coca-Cola was also donating money to the relief effort.
After arriving in Sichuan on June 15, the torch is scheduled to make seven stops there, including the town of Mianyang. About 1,000 students and teachers were buried and feared dead when a high school collapsed in neighboring Beichuan, located about 20 miles away.