BEIJING - The Olympic flame reached the top of the world Thursday.
Live television footage showed a Chinese mountaineering team holding up a specially designed torch along with Chinese and Olympic flags Thursday on the top of Mount Everest. "One World, One Dream," team captain Nyima Cering yelled as the torch was lit on the final icy incline leading to the peak, repeating the slogan for the Beijing Olympics. "We have lit the torch on top of the world," another climber said.
The 19-member team, dressed in red parkas emblazoned with Olympic logos, broke camp before dawn and reached the top of the 8,850-metre mountain a little more than six hours later.
Organizers hope the dramatic image of the torch atop Everest will counter some of the damaging publicity from protests during the international leg of the torch relay.
Criticized from the outset because of China's often harsh rule over Tibet - where Everest is located - the relay drew more intense scrutiny after Tibetans across western China erupted in anti-government protests in March.
The Everest torch is separate from the main torch but organizers say the flames are from the same source. Before the Olympic flame left on its world tour, it was split, with one flame going to light the torch carried up Everest. The main torch could not be used on the mountain because of concerns weather problems could disrupt its schedule.
The Everest flame had been carried in a special metal canister during the ascent. As the team neared the top, they used a wand to pass the flame from the canister to the torch, which had been designed to withstand the frigid, windy, oxygen-thin Himalayan air.
The climbers could be heard struggling for breath as five torchbearers each inched a few feet before passing on the flame to the next person. A colourful Tibetan prayer flag lined the path and fluttered in the wind.
The final torchbearer, a Tibetan woman named Cering Wangmo, stood silently on the peak with her torch while other team members unfurled flags Chinese and Olympic flags. They then clustered together, cheering "We made it," and "Beijing welcomes you."
One person was heard breathing heavily, murmuring "not enough oxygen."
The head of the Everest leg of the relay, Li Zhixin, was overcome with emotion as the flame reached the top. "It was so difficult," he said at the CCTV studio set up at base camp, choking on tears.
The Everest leg has largely unfolded amid secrecy, in part to deter protesters who have criticized the event as symbolizing China's domination over Tibet.
The 19-member final assault team was comprised of both ethnic Han Chinese and Tibetan members and also included university students. The team captain, Nyima Cering, is a Tibetan, while deputy Luo Shen is Han Chinese, CCTV and the Xinhua News Agency said.
The main Olympic torch is on the opposite side of China. The relay leg scheduled for Thursday, in the boomtown of Shenzhen, was postponed until the afternoon to allow for the Everest ascent. The main flame will cross every region and province of China, returning to Beijing on Aug. 6, two days ahead of the opening ceremony for the games.
The torch seems to be having a smooth relay through China. After the tour kickoff Sunday, the flame has been greeted by jubilant crowds in such places as the port city of Haikou and the southern city of Guangzhou, also known as Canton.
Relieved corporate sponsors like Samsung and Coca-Cola, whose logos were seldom seen along the torch relay outside China, now are splashing their names everywhere.
While most of the more than 100 stops across China should go smoothly, legs through Tibet and the largely Muslim province of Xinjiang - areas with recent protests against Chinese rule or policies - could test security and crowd control.
Crowds in Haikou were friendly to foreigners, showing little of the angry, anti-Western sentiments of recent weeks after protests in London, Paris and San Francisco that some Chinese saw as an attack against China and the Olympics.
"Welcome to China!" university students called out, some sporting face paint and tooting plastic horns as the convoy streamed by.