NEWS

Lighting of Olympic Flame is marred by pro-Tibet protests

ANCIENT OLYMPIA – The head of Beijing’s Olympic committee had just started his speech. The high priestesses in flowing robes were waiting to start the ancient ceremony to kindle the Olympic Flame. Suddenly, a protester evaded tight security, ran behind Beijing Olympic chief Liu Qi, and held up a black banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs. Liu stopped briefly, then continued, while uniformed Greek police dragged the protester away. What was supposed to have marked the symbolic, joyous countdown to the Beijing Games began Monday with a statement against China’s human rights policies and crackdown in Tibet – foreshadowing the prospect of other protests and disruptions right up until the August 8 start of the Olympics. Forecasts of clouds and rain had been considered the main threat to the pomp-filled torch-lighting. But in the end, while the sun sparked the flame to life, it was the protesters who turned the joyful bow to the Olympics’ roots into a political embarrassment for China over its crackdown in Tibet and other rights issues. Three men advocating press freedom evaded massive security and ran onto the field at the ceremony in Ancient Olympia before they were seized by police. Minutes later, a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood briefly blocked the path of the torch relay. The incidents came after International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press in an interview that he was engaged in «silent diplomacy» with the Chinese but wouldn’t intervene in politics to try to change their policies. «We are discussing on a daily basis with Chinese authorities, including discussing these issues, while strictly respecting the sovereignty of China in its affairs,» Rogge said. Protests are bound to follow the torch throughout its 137,000-kilometer, 136-day route across five continents and 20 countries. China pledged strict security measures to ensure its segment of the relay won’t be marred by protests. Tibetan activists have already said they plan to demonstrate elsewhere on the route. «Later we will do protests in London and Paris,» said Tenzin Dorjee, a member of Students for a Free Tibet who protested in Ancient Olympia. A rising chorus of international criticism and floated calls for a boycott have unnerved the Chinese leadership, which has turned up efforts to put its own version of the unrest before the international public. Another potential flashpoint is the route through Tibet. The flame is due to be carried to the summit of Mount Everest in May and pass through Lhasa in June. «It’s crucial for everyone who works in the Tibetan movement to emphasize to the public and get the message to the Chinese government that the Olympic Torch should not be allowed to go up Mount Everest and through Tibet,» said Anne Holmes, acting director of the London-based Free Tibet campaign. China hopes the Olympics will showcase its emergence from developing country into a world power. But as the Games approach, various groups have used the Olympics to leverage their causes. The IOC has faced calls to take a hard line with China. But Rogge reiterated his longstanding position that the Olympic body is not a political organization and stressed he is involved in private dialogue with Chinese leaders. «The IOC is engaged in what I call a ‘silent diplomacy’ with Chinese authorities since day one of the preparations of the Games,» Rogge said. At Monday’s ceremony, one of the three protesting members of the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders ran behind BOCOG President Liu Qi as he was giving a speech. The protester unfurled a black banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs. «If the Olympic Flame is sacred, human rights are even more so,» the French group said. «We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic Flame, a symbol of peace, without denouncing the dramatic situation of human rights in the country.» The first torch-bearer in the relay was Greece’s Alexandros Nikolaidis. After the torch left the stadium, a Tibetan woman covered in red paint or dye lay in the road approaching the village of Olympia while other protesters chanted «Free Tibet» and «Shame on China.» Japanese runner Haturi Yuuki came within a few meters of the protester, then stopped and ran in place while plainclothes police removed her. They also dragged off a man accompanying her who was waving a Tibetan flag. Police said the woman and the three members of Reporters Without Borders were being detained. One of the men arrested was Robert Menard, the group’s general secretary. «We’re asking the heads of government to boycott the opening ceremony,» one of the three protesters, Vincent Brossel, told AP Television News. «We’re not calling for a boycott of the Games.» Marcelle Roux, president of the French association France Tibet, said her group staged a demonstration at the Foreign Ministry in Paris, and planned more soon. «These are the Games of shame,» Roux said. «The Chinese government must have expected this kind of thing.»