The Olympic Torch's Troubled Tour

Posted on: 11 April 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

In the first of our columns commenting on this week's hot issue, Mark O'Haire examines the controversy surrounding the circumnavigation of the Olympic torch.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has decided, along with the organisers of the Beijing Olympics to persist with the relay of the Olympic torch. 

With trouble flaring along the London and Paris legs, authorities in San Francisco made alternative arrangements to escape further disruption. In fact, the city mayor, Gavin Newsom, switched routes at the 11th hour to leave protesters and sightseers angry and disappointed.

There seemed no doubt that the fear of violence and disruption motivated San Francisco's authorities to pull off a diversion, fooling supporters, protesters and the world's media who waited for several hours for a glimpse of the symbol of harmony. San Fransisco was already attracting criticism for its handling of the relay leg but high ranking city officials were relieved to see the event pass of peacefully. 

All eyes are of the world were on Argentina and the 'surprise' the Argentine protesters had promised, although latest reports say it completed it's journey through Buenos Aires unscathed.

The torch is meant to promote peace and harmony yet all the world has seen in the last week is discord, anguish and anger amongst hundreds of pro-Tibet protesters.

The Beijing Olympics has been the source of many problems since they were awarded the games back in July 2001. Pollution, smog and traffic were thought to be the organisers’ biggest hurdle but now China’s human rights record has been thrown right in at the deep end.

In London, soon after Sir Steve Redgrave began the Olympic torch leg of London, a protester tried to snatch the torch off former Blue Peter host Konnie Huq whilst another tried to extinguish the flame.

Small scuffles broke out along the route between protesters and police but the damage was already done as images were flashed worldwide of the disturbances in London.

But why now and why the Olympics? Beijing’s preparations in terms of stadium and facilities have been impressive. The organisers have every reason to feel satisfied and the Olympics looks to be heading to a new frontier, the world’s most populated country.  But then the Olympics has had a long chequered past when it comes to political protest.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin created the event for one main reason - to promote world unity through sporting competition.  He was successful in his desire as countries participating took great honour in the competition.

But in the 1936 Berlin Games, Adolf Hitler took exception. He took the chance to show of post World War 1 Germany and wanted to forward his view that the Aryan race as being the best in every aspect. He believed black people stood no chance of competing but Jesse Owens proved him wrong – winning four gold medals before being forced to return them in Hitler’s protest.

In 1968, the Mexico City Olympics, Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute during the USA national anthem after both winning medals whilst the 1956, 1972, 1976 1980 and 1984 all saw countries boycott the games in political protest.

The current head of the IOC Jacques Rogge has become increasingly worried by the power of protests in the lead up to this August’s Olympic Games, so much so that meetings have already been held in secret with regards to safeguarding Olympic ideals this summer.
Rogge has refused to mention Tibet in any public discussion in fear of upsetting the Chinese, yet as the IOC covers over the protests, the baying crowd increases.

Banners were put up across parts of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge as California prepares for its chance to run the torch relay but will Beijing and the IOC again be forced to abandon the event.

Both parties have already been criticised heavily for their poor organisation of the relay itself and with the Tibet issue still not reaching any sort of conclusion soon, the IOC’s decision could leave them with more than just egg on their face.

By Mark O'Haire. 

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