Olympic Flame Update: Google Exec One-Ups Microsoft (Again)

Last Friday we reported that three distinguished Microsoft employees, all formerly of the firm’s Beijing research lab (Microsoft Research Asia), were slated to run with the Olympic torch in the lead-up to the Summer Games. On Saturday, we learned that Microsoft search VP Harry Shum’s run in Lhasa, Tibet, went off without a hitch, and that the other two are upcoming. Now we’ve learned that Kai-Fu Lee, the founding director of Microsoft Research Asia—and currently the founding president of Google China—beat them all to it, by serving as a torchbearer in Shanghai the last week of May.

A bit of backstory: Lee was a Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) vice president in Redmond from 2000 to 2005 before defecting to Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), which spawned an infamous non-compete lawsuit that was settled out of court in December 2005. Before all that, Lee was a close friend and mentor to the Microsoft research guys; now he’s a competitor. It’s hard to say whether running with the torch earlier or later is the greater honor, though—either way it’s a big deal. (Ya-Qin Zhang, VP and chairman of Microsoft’s China R&D Group, is scheduled to run with the torch on the final leg of the relay, in Beijing.)

The torch business isn’t just in good fun—it’s also symbolic of the global competition between the tech giants. The game within the game. Whether it’s hiring talent, selling ads, or global branding, whether it’s Seattle or Shanghai, the Bay Area or Beijing, these guys will do almost anything to one-up one another. And we’ll be watching closely to see who brings home more of the real gold from China.

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