The question: Is there more than one Olympic torch?

No - and, in a way, yes. The confusion arises because the route the flame will take to the Beijing Olympics has just been published, and there are times when, in contravention of any sentimental ideas you might have about there being only one sacred flame, it will have to be in two places at once.

As is often the case, it all comes down to semantics. The torch, a narrow red and silver scrolled affair, was ignited last Monday at Olympia in Greece (by 11 actresses dressed as high priestesses, who used a parabolic mirror to focus the sun's rays). It will make an initial touchdown in Beijing today before setting off on a 33-day, 97,000km jaunt around the world, on a path that includes London this weekend. It returns to mainland China on May 4, at which point it will divide into two, one part taking a 97-day trip around the country (and Tibet); the other part going to Everest base camp, where it will await appropriate weather for ascending the peak. Conquering Everest has undeniable symbolic elan - which is why the Tibetans are so cross about it, the symbolism having, for them, a distinctly triumphalist flavour - but doesn't it also dilute an Olympic ideal?

Apparently not. It turns out that while there is only one torch, there must be at least one other lantern. Generally this is in case of accidents - so that if the torch gets blown out, as sometimes happens, it can be relit using the original or mother flame. (An official at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal was not thanked when, the main flame being extinguished by a rainstorm, he relit it with a cigarette lighter; organisers quickly put it out again and used the proper bit of fire.) Taking a lantern on such a long detour, as the Chinese propose to do, is stretching the point quite a bit.

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