London police are still reeling after being taken unawares by the ferocity of the anti-Beijing protests during yesterday’s chaotic Olympic Torch Relay event. The flame survived a 50-km obstacle course of lurching demonstrators, people attempting to grab the torch, an unexpected protective trip on a double-decker bus and even a fire extinguisher all in wild unseasonal snowy weather. Police forced the flame carriers onto a double-decker bus in Fleet Street when about 100 protesters tried to seize it. They arrested 35 people, two of whom, Martin Wyness and Ashley Darby, tried to put out the flame with a fire extinguisher. "China has no right parading the Olympic torch through London,” said Wyness and Darby in a statement. “The relay... is nothing more than an elaborate propaganda tool to cover its appalling human rights record.”
The flame arrives in Paris today and police are gearing up for further protests. The flame will be protected by 3,000 officers variously kitted out in riot vehicles, on motorbikes, on skates and in jogging gear. Paris police aim to keep the torch in a safe “bubble” with French torchbearers encircled by several hundred officers. French torchbearers will be encircled by several hundred officers, some in riot police vehicles. Pro-Tibetan activists are refusing to reveal their plans to counteract the “bubble”. The head of Reporters Without Borders, Robert Menard promised protests would be "spectacular". Menard was arrested at the flame-lighting ceremony in Greece last month.
The official torch relay site quoted a Beijing Olympic official who strongly criticised the attempt by “pro-Tibet independence” activists to sabotage the torch relay event in London, as an obvious act of defying the Olympic spirit. The Pro-Tibetan activists were placed in quotes as if to say that Tibetan independence was not their real agenda. The unnamed official went on to say that “the act will surely arouse the resentment of the peace-loving people, and is bound to fail”.
But others are not so sure it will fail. The president of Norway’s Olympic committee and Confederation of Sports (NIF) has publicly called on the IOC to consider halting the Relay. NIF president Tove Paule says the torch relay is supposed to be a symbol for peace and joy, and finds it sad when this happens. She is in Beijing this week, attending the General Assembly of national Olympic committees, and says she saw how the Chinese TV transmissions from London were cut when the demonstrations began. She fears that demonstrations will continue as the torch relay progresses.
These fears are shared elsewhere. San Francisco is the only US leg of the relay. Last week the city passed a resolution critical of China's human rights record and encouraged city Mayor Gavin Newsom to accept the flame with "alarm and protest" when it arrives. Local Chinese community members say they are dismayed that what should be a celebration of the strong cultural, historic and economic ties between San Francisco and China will be disrupted by political demonstrations. It is really an insult to the people of China and Chinese Americans, said Ling Chi Wang, professor emeritus of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. “None of them even thought about consulting the Chinese community."
Today Kevin Rudd announced Australia's only leg of the Olympic Torch Relay in Canberra is to be shortened due to security concerns. The ACT Government has modified the route, following requests from Federal Police, the AOC and the Chinese Embassy for greater security. ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope says it would be regrettable if violence became the focus of the event. "It would be an enormous regret should it be over shadowed by demonstrations, by very overt and physical expressions of security police, riot squads, helicopters in the air,” he said. "It's not exactly what we had hoped for in relation to the torch relay."
It is ironic that the Olympic torch relay is treated with such reverence as it owes its existence less to ancient Greece and more to Nazi Germany. The torch relay is an example of what Eric Hobsbawm called an “invented tradition”. While different origins are claimed in various torch races held during the eighth and fourth centuries BC it was never part of the ancient Olympiad.
The modern tradition was invented by Dr Carl Diem, a German Olympic scholar who had a similar romantic worldview to modern Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Diem was the planner behind the proposed 1916 games in Berlin which were cancelled due to World War I. It was Diem’s idea to institute the torch relay for the 1936 Games in Berlin commencing with a flame lighting ceremony at Olympia in Greece to reflect the burgeoning glory of Hitler’s regime. While China says the Games should not be politicised, the fact is they have always been reflections of national prestige for the hosts. As the London and Paris protesters know only too well, the Olympic Games is pure politics.