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The Tortuous Journey of the Olympic Torch

The British authorities must have been delighted to see the back of the Olympic flame as it left London for Paris on Sunday, after protestors against China’s actions in Tibet, and its human rights record in general, disrupted the UK leg of the international torch relay to spectacular effect.

It’s hard to tell who was most embarrassed by yesterday’s events: Gordon Brown’s government, their counterparts in Beijing or the International Olympic Committee.

The protests were continuing in Paris today. And with another round scheduled for Wednesday in San Francisco, where plans for anti-China protests are well in hand, followed by Buenos Aires — another city that isn’t averse to a bit of political activism — there’s no sign that the torch’s journey around the globe is about to get any easier. But the British protestors have, to use a appropriately sporting expression, set the bar of disruption pretty high.

Organisers of the London event were expecting trouble. Campaigners against Chinese rule in Tibet had promised to disrupt the relay, and the torch was paraded across the capital with the kind of security usually reserved for terrorist suspects arriving at court. Each torch bearer was surrounded by a phalanx of Chinese security guards, and by an outer cordon of fluorescent-jacketed police officers who variously walked, jogged and cycled the 31-mile route. Those London bobbies are certainly fit.

The Chinese ambassador’s stint at carrying the torch was switched to wrong-foot the demonstators, and when the protestors became too numerous for the police to handle the torch was smuggled into a bus to continue its journey. But despite the security, dozens of protestors managed to assail the procession at various points along the route.

One almost managed to snatch the torch from the grasp of a startled-looking children’s TV presenter, while another briefly threatened the flame’s eternal status with a fire extinguisher. Protester after protester was wrestled to the ground by police and buried under a day-glo yellow avalanche, as the procession was ordered on its way with shouts of Go! Go! Go! At times the TV pictures resembled a montage of famous assassination attempts.

The British government was clearly embarrassed at having to host the relay, with recent events in Tibet still fresh in the British public’s memory, and new atrocities reported just the day before. While both Prime Minister Brown and Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell were filmed and photographed with the torch bearers, both made a point of not holding the torch — almost the literal embodiment of a political hot potato — themselves.

With the Games coming to London in 2012, Britain has no choice but to play its part in the festivities building up to Beijing. So we had the usual platitudes from ministers and sports personalities about keeping politics out of sport. The attitude of the aforementioned TV presenter, Konni Huq was typical:

“I believe in the Olympic values, the Olympic ideals… it’s just unfortunate that China has such a terrible track record when it comes to human rights and they are the host nation.”

“Unfortunate” indeed. Maybe the idiotic Ms Huq would like to share her particular brand of moral philosophy with Zeng Jinyan, wife of Hu Jia, the human rights activist who was jailed for three-and-a-half year for subversion last week, and who is herself under house arrest along with the couple’s two-month-old daughter.

Supporters of holding the Games in China argue that they will do more to bring about change in the country than censure and isolation; there’s a chance they could be right, but previous instances of murderous dictatorships staging the games hardly give cause for optimism. The 1936 Games in Berlin were hijacked by the Nazis for propaganda purposes, while the 1980 Moscow games did nothing to modify the behaviour of the Soviet Union at the time, and don’t appear to have had any long-term rehabilitative effects on modern-day Russia.

However, “engagement” remains the preferred policy of governments for dealing with unsavoury regimes, and as long as the International Olympic Committee, an organisation that resembles some kind of nightmare hybrid of the United Nations and The Coca Cola Company, and which has become a byword for political expediency and corruption, continues to award the games to such regimes (Tehran 2016, anyone?), governments around the world are likely to take the view that they can use the opportunity to bring some polite but firm pressure to bear. And athletes will continue to convince themselves that they aren’t being exploited, and that their participation can bring about change.

While Beijing may be able to keep a lid on unrest when the Games begin in August, the torch relay and other events outside its control give campaigners an international stage on which to focus attention on China’s actions in Tibet, as well as its support for Sudan and its appalling treatment of political dissidents.

Yesterday’s scenes in London were broadcast around the world, and with the promise of more to follow national governments will come under increasing pressure to at least boycott the opening ceremony of the Games or make some other gesture, even if they insist on allowing their athletes to participate. There were certainly some ideals being upheld yesterday, even if they weren’t of the Olympic variety.

Mike McNally blogs at The Monkey Tennis Centre