In a fanfare-filled ceremony that included dancers and bursts of confetti, the Olympic torch was paraded around a stadium that only weeks ago was filled with earthquake survivors. The sweltering afternoon heat Monday did not faze some 3,000 hand-picked spectators whose singing and cheering filled this city's Jiuzhou Stadium, the third stop for the flame in Sichuan province, where a powerful magnitude-7.9 quake flattened towns in May. More than 69,000 people were killed and some 5 million were left homeless in the disaster.
Many said they hoped the torch's journey through the quake zone would give people courage.
"It's a way to encourage the victims to rebuild. The torch is a symbol of strength and will encourage them to carry on the tenacious struggle," said Hu Lu, 27, a businesswoman and one of the 88 torchbearers.
Deng Yu, part of a group in the stadium audience from Beichuan Middle School, where hundreds of students were buried when the building crumbled, said the torch "will bring us good luck." All around her, her classmates shouted "Go Sichuan! Go China! Go Olympics!"
In the days immediately after the quake, the stadium was packed with tens of thousands of residents who had fled their ravaged towns. They slept on thin mattresses, blankets and flattened cardboard boxes, huddling in the cold and sweating in the heat. Garbage was strewn everywhere and many lived mainly off instant noodles and water.
As weeks passed, makeshift schools and clinics were set up, volunteers doled out hot meals, and the area resembled a miniature town. Eventually, all were moved to temporary settlements built throughout the quake zone.
But on Monday, the stadium's corridors were empty and clean, and tents that had filled grassy areas were gone. Instead, hundreds of red and yellow potted flowers lined the stairs to the main entrance and Olympics-themed flags and banners fluttered high above. Dancers twirled fans and umbrellas in the parking lot to the beat of traditional drums.
Sichuan is the last stop for the Olympic flame before it heads to Beijing for Friday's opening ceremony of the games. The segment, which ends in the provincial capital of Chengdu on Tuesday, had originally been scheduled for mid-June but was postponed to support disaster-relief efforts.
The hourlong ceremony in the arena was highly charged. A minute's silence was observed to honor the dead and a montage of disaster scenes _ bloody victims being pulled from rubble, soldiers rushing down mountains, Chinese leaders comforting survivors _ were shown on two giant television screens.
Rousing orchestral music played as dozens of performers in army and nurse uniforms recreated an earthquake rescue, passing a woman playing an injured survivor over their heads in a human chain. The crowd roared, "No difficulty can beat the spirit of Chinese people."
Confetti was sprayed into the air as the torch relay began. Torchbearers high-fived one another as they passed the flame. Cheering and clapping reached fever pitch.
"I was shouting so hard," said Jiang Yu, an officer in the propaganda department of the Mianyang No 3 Hospital, which treated a flood of injured people. "I cried. There's no need to look back anymore. It's time to look forward."