Is the Olympic torch too hot to handle?

This morning it is time to look at the Olympic ideals, and the sorry progress of the torch around the world. It is a story of two cultures who seem unable to comprehend each other, of mistaken spinners for China, the Olympic movement and some torch host governments who think they can spin away the scenes on our televisions. It is a story of muddled authority and little sensible thought about what was likely to happen.

Reading the words of the Chinese Ambassador in the UK in this Sunday’s press reinforced the message that an authoritarian single party state like China looks at human rights and freedom of expression in a very different way to a democratic country. There was seeming incomprehension that protesters could be so unfair to the noble torch bearers in the cause of Tibet, as if the torch supporters from China were in some way noble and the torch carriers exempt from any unfortunate associations. There was patient explanation that if only they understood just how well Tibet was doing under China, and how many people wanted Tibet to be part of China, the protest would wither away. There was just a hint of a warning, when the Ambassador told us that it was doing grave damage to the image of the West in China.

Listening to the UK government explaining that those on the streets supporting China and the Olympic movement were different and should be treated differently from those peacefully protesting against one or both created another sense of unreality. I asked the Foreign Secretary before the torch flew into London what instructions the government was issuing to the police, as I was worried the police were going to be placed in a very difficult position between two strong groups, pro and anti China. I received a bland and tortured reply, trying to run with the fox and ride with the hounds at the same time.

What I had hoped for was a more considered answer. It should have gone something like this:

“I am grateful to the Rt Hon gentleman, who has given me this opportunity to set out the government’s view on this important matter. We have decided that the people of London who wish to should have an opportunity to see the torch being carried by leading athletes, unimpeded by violent or intrusive protest. We also believe that those who wish to protest about the matter of Tibet and human rights should be allowed to do so peacefully. We therefore have asked the Organising Committee to agree to a shortened route for the torch around Hyde Park, where the barriers used for royal processions will be used to keep back the crowd so they can view but cannot interfere with the torch and its carriers. The police will be asked to station themselves along the line of route in sufficient numbers to ensure no-one seeks to rush or leap the barrier, allowing people to view the torch. We have informed the Chinese authorities that we do not need the help of their security people to ensure the safe passage of the torch – we have a long tradition of royal processions in London without incident. People may display banners and T shirt logos along the line of route, but not in a way which stops others seeing the torch.”

It would also have helped if government Ministers had kept out of the limelight and left it to the Olympic movement and its chosen representatives in London.

I would give the same advice to any country that has not yet received the torch but is going to. If they wish to continue with it it would be best to chose a route which can be protected sensibly without intrusive security, and the authorities should allow peaceful protest.

The Olympic movement has some difficult decisions to make from here. It seems to want to continue with the progress of the torch despite the volume of criticism it has engendered. If that is so it must make better arrangements. The problems will get more formidable in Tibet, where the world’s media will want to congregate to follow – or make- a story. It will not be the kind of story the Olympic movement wants. Stopping the media or controlling the media in Tibet will reinforce the human rights protest elsewhere. Allowing the media will give greater prominence to the Tibet issue. Is that what China herself really wants?


  1. Stuart Fairney
    April 14, 2008

    I wonder if all the self-promoting torch bearers would have had no problem keeping “sport seperate fropm politics” in the 1936 Olympics?

  2. Letters From A Tory
    April 14, 2008

    I sincerely hope that the Olympic committee enforce a free press during the course of the games, as China cannot be allowed to dictate the actions of the world's media.

  3. Rose
    April 14, 2008

    How many people in the world believe in democracy, and do we give a good account of it?

  4. Cicero
    April 14, 2008

    John, what time do you wake up!?

    Reply Around 6.30 am

  5. APL
    April 14, 2008

    about the olympic sparkler….

    How dare Brown and the Home secretary permit (representatives -ed) of a foreign power to strut around the streets of London, dressed as sportsmen.

    We know the Home secretary (I think Leader of the House wore the vest-ed)is afraid to walk on the streets of her own constituency without a stab proof vest despite being surrounded by the top brass of the Met. Nevertheless, it shows an even greater lack of confidence in the british police that the escort for the stupid torch** should have been contracted out to a foreign power.

    Brown, Blair*, the wretched woman who pretends to be home secretary and who's name is utterly forgettable, are (authoritarians -ed|) to the last individual. They love China, and the Chinese governments policies (words left out-ed). What else are Id cards and their repeated attempts in this country to lock people up for ever increasing periods of time without even bothering to establish their guilt.

    These people are revolting.

    *Don't forget the Chinese state visit.
    ** By the way, is the olympic torch really very green? After all keeping the flame burning continiously must be producing lots of CO2. Then flying the flipping thing around the world – what has happened to the Greenoids, cat got their toungues?

  6. Freeborn John
    April 14, 2008

    China represents not just the violation of human rights but also a (possible-ed) threat to some of its neighbours, notably Taiwan. There is no balance of power within East Asia itself; the balance of power there is depends on external agencies, notably the United States and its allies. We in the West have a responsibility to support democracy in Taiwan and the right of Tibetans to national self-determination.(The stated policy of the Dali Lama is to seek autonomy within China. The UK government has not been clear in how far it wishes to go over these issues.-ed)

    Even if unlawful acts on our streets cannot be condoned, I find it difficult to criticise the protesters here as their acts have been effective in raising the issue of Tibet to public prominence after a long period when many have been content to turn a blind eye so long as there is money to be made from China.

    Britons want good relations with China, but that country must make progress on human rights and toward becoming a democracy. My experience of people from the PRC, through work and travel there, is that most Chinese citizens are like us in many respects, and very open to the West, but the Chinese state is a different thing entirely. The Chinese ambassador may complain about people in London, Paris or San Francisco trying to grab the Olympic torch or block its progress, but such acts are in no way comparable to (things the Chinese state has done -ed)

  7. Freeborn John
    April 14, 2008

    JR: ‘The stated policy of the Dali Lama is to seek autonomy within China’

    The term ‘autonomous region’ is a political oxymoron which, in the absence of a majority vote of Tibetans to be governed by Beijing, is incompatible with their right to national self-determination.

  8. Terry
    April 14, 2008

    I believe the Olympics are about athletics… not politics. But running a torch around the world, isn't about athletics – it's about marketing. So I have mixed views on this one…

    Marketing China as a host to the games does bring attention to China. Just as the 2012 games will bring attention onto the UK. Is anyone predicting anti-war protests around the world when the UK hosts the games?

    If we want to stand up for human rights and democracy in China, than we would need to make more relevant changes locally other than choosing how we feel about a torch passing through our towns.

    Fact is, so many major companies around the world are happy to move their factories to the only major communist country in the world, so that they can make more money. And us consumers are happy forgetting human rights and the rest, when it comes to buying products from China. So if a torch running through town get's more attention than the iPods and other Chinese made gadgets we buy daily – why is it that we don't look at our own behaviour and the behaviour of our companies in the same context of supporting a repressive regime? The Olympics costs money and rarely makes money for host countries. So what's the fuss? They aren't cashing in MORE on the Olympics than they are cashing in on all the jobs we send there.

    So here's my question for the west…

    What happens when eventually China ditches communism and unions start to form there… prices go up and the we suddenly find ourselves in a "catch 22" position that we can't argue much about. That's why no one is the west (certainly not the companies anyway) argues too loudly about proper democracy reform in China. And that should get more protest than a torch parading in town.

    Shouldn't we really be looking at a bigger picture here. And shouldn't we be a little more thoughtful about whether or not we support China – instead of letting our companies move all the manufacturing jobs to the biggest communist country in the world?

  9. Mike Stallard
    April 15, 2008

    I have just read "Open Europe" on coming the French Presidency and the Daily Mail on how the referendum in Ireland is being handled.
    I am also aware of our own involvement in Afghanistan and our disastrous intervention in Iraq.
    The Armed forces and the Police will be centrally trained, I read, and will be deployed where the EU orders them (including the streets of London).
    Things are rapidly becoming seriously undemocratic. How, for instance, will the new President of (your and my) Europe be chosen?

    We are not working much here in UK – and the Chinese are working very hard. They are rich. We are broke.

    Having said all that – congratulations on a splendid piece of common sense.

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