Olympic flame-lighting ceremony disrupted by protests against China

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece -- 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 Aug. 8 start of the Olympics.

Forecasts of clouds and rain had been considered the main threat to the pomp-filled torch-lighting ceremony, which included Greek actresses portraying high priestesses and a special mirror to light the flame. 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 statement for China over its crackdown in Tibet and other rights issues.

Three men advocating press freedom 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 said 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 expected to follow the torch throughout its 85,000-mile, 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.

Protests of China's rule turned violent March 14 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, sparking waves of unrest in surrounding provinces. China reported a death toll of 22 from the violence, but Tibet's exiled government says 80 Tibetans were killed. Nineteen died in subsequent violence in Gansu province, it said.

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.

China has blamed the riots on followers of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice again urged China to start talks with him.

Edward Friedman, a China specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said he expects Beijing to rally national pride by attacking its critics. Friedman said he expects China to put pressure on other countries to stay neutral and "to not do things to politicize the Olympics."

Luciano Barra, deputy chief executive officer of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, recalled how the torch relay in Italy was dogged by protesters opposed to construction of a rail tunnel. Organizers diverted the route at one stage to avoid the demonstrators.

"It makes me laugh compared to the current problem," Barra said.

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.

"The very idea that they will be able to parade the torch through Tibet after the crackdown is obscene given what's going on in Tibet," said Anne Holmes, acting director of the London-based Free Tibet campaign.

Tibetan groups have also urged the IOC to keep the relay out of the Himalayan region. Rogge, speaking before the incidents, said there were no plans by Beijing organizers, known as BOCOG, to change the route, but he didn't rule it out.

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.

Apart from Tibet, China has come under international criticism for support of Sudan and its role in Darfur. Last month, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser to the opening and closing ceremonies over the Darfur issue.

The IOC has faced calls to take a hard line with China. But Rogge reiterated his long-standing 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.

China state TV cut away from the protest by Reporters Without Borders at Monday's torch-lighting ceremony and showed a prerecorded scene, preventing Chinese viewers from seeing the incident. Chinese TV commentators did not mention the demonstration.

"If the Olympic flame is sacred, human rights are even more so," the Paris-based 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 torchbearer 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 feet 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.

The three Frenchmen were charged with the misdemeanor count of offending national symbols. They were released pending trial in late May, and said they hoped to return to France today.

"We're asking the heads of government to boycott the opening ceremony," one of the three protesters, Vincent Brossel, said. "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."

Tsering Palden, president of the New York-based Tibetan Youth Congress, said Tibetan activist groups will urge Coca-Cola this week to pull its sponsorship of the Olympic Games.

Coca-Cola Co. spokeswoman Kerry Kerr said the company remained committed to supporting the torch relay and "joins others in expressing deep concern for the situation on the ground in Tibet."

China has promised a smooth run-up to the Summer Games and is hoping a successful games will bolster its international image.

"The more determined the Dalai clique is to ruin the torch relay and the Olympic Games, the more hard and good work we need to do on the preparation and the implementation of all aspects," Yin Xunping, a Communist Party official, was quoted as saying by the Tibet Daily newspaper. Yin is party secretary of the Tibet Mountain Climbing Team, which is participating in the Mount Everest segment of the torch relay.

In Nepal, police in the capital of Katmandu broke up at least two separate protests by Tibetan refugees and monks and arrested as many as 475 protesters, officials said.

Chanting "China, stop killings in Tibet. U.N., we want justice," protesters were marching to U.N. headquarters in Katmandu when police stopped them about 300 feet away and snatched their banners.

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