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Olympic Flame Protests

DW staff (jen)April 7, 2008

A relay of the Olympic torch through Paris was canceled on Monday and the flame was put on a bus at the request of Chinese officials after pro-Tibetan protesters repeatedly disrupted its progress.

security men tackle a protester trying to stop the torch relay
The torch relay was hampered by hundreds of protestors in downtown ParisImage: AP

Chinese authorities decided to scratch the torch relay after human rights activists and pro-Tibet protests disrupted the passage of the flame in the French capital, forcing security officials to partly speed the flame through the streets of Paris in a bus.

Despite a heavy police escort, organizers had to twice extinguish the flame briefly after hundreds of pro-Tibet activists disrupted its progress.

Earlier, the Chinese cancelled a planned reception for the torch at Paris city hall at the last minute after a banner supporting human rights was hung from the facade of the building, mayor Bernard Delanoe told reporters.

"The Chinese officials decided they would not stop here because they were put out by Parisian citizens expressing their support for human rights. It is their responsibility," he said.

Black flag at the Eiffel

A day earlier, the torch relay was met with widespread protests in London where scuffles broke out between police and activists, leading to close to 40 arrests, before the lit torch eventually reached its goal.

On Monday, French athlete Stephane Diagana led the planned relay of 80 runners chosen to carry the flame through the Paris streets.

Anti-China protests in Paris
Security men tackle a protestor as French athlete Stephane Diagana carries the torchImage: AP

The torch was protected by a phalanx of motorcycle police, jogging firemen, police on roller blades and dozens of riot police vehicles, AFP news service reported. But it had barely progressed more than 200 meters (yards) before it was put aboard a bus to prevent any attempt to extinguish the flame.

Shortly after the trek began, media rights activists flew a black flag with the five Olympic rings turned into handcuffs from the Eiffel Tower.

Three members of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) group -- which disrupted the lighting of the flame in Athens -- evaded security measures to climb up inside the steel tower and unfurl the four-metre (13 foot) flag.

They then handcuffed themselves to the structure, more than 75 meters above ground, hampering the work of firefighters sent to remove them.

Rogge raises pressure on Beijing

The Olympic Flame -- also called the Olympic Light and the Olympic Eye -- is lit at Olympia, Greece, and carried in a relay to the spectacular opening ceremony at the Games themselves.

The origins of the flame ceremony lie in ancient Greece, but the idea of marking the opening of the Games with a relay goes back to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Even before the Paris run began, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge called on China Monday to peacefully end unrest in Tibet. His comments increased pressure on Beijing ahead of the Summer Games, which are to be held in China's capital in August.

A protester is arrested by two policemen as the Olympic Torch relay leaves Wembley Stadium,
London police had their hands full as they arrested 37 protesters on SundayImage: AP

Rogge's comments were made after the London leg of the Olympic torch relay was plagued by protests on Sunday, with further demonstrations expected in Paris on Monday.

Some 37 people were arrested in London amid chaos on Sunday, as British police scuffled with demonstrators protesting China's crackdown in Tibet and other human-rights issues. One man tried to snatch the Olympic torch, and another tried to extinguish the flame.

China: Protesters are saboteurs

In response, spokesmen for the Chinese criticized what they called "Tibetan separatists" for committing an "obvious act of defying the Olympic spirit," China's official Xinhua news agency said.

A Chinese Olympic official accused the protesters of trying to "sabotage" the London leg of the relay, adding, "the act will surely arouse the resentment of the peace-loving people and is bound to fail."

For its part, the International Olympic Committee expressed serious concern over the debacle. At the start of a Beijing meeting of national Olympic committee heads, Rogge called for a "rapid, peaceful resolution of Tibet."

"Violence for whatever reason is not compatible with the values of the torch relay or the Olympic Games," he said.

Heavy criticism of Beijing

Beijing is facing international criticism over its crackdown on protests in Tibet that began on March 10 and spread to other areas of China with Tibetan populations.

Exiled Tibetan leaders say more than 150 people have been killed in the unrest, triggered by what Tibetans say has been nearly 60 years of repression under Chinese rule.

China insists its security forces have killed no one while trying to quell the protests. However, it says Tibetan "rioters" have killed 20 people.

Determining the real situation has proved extremely difficult because China has sealed off Tibet and other hotspot areas from foreign journalists, while distributing only its version of events through its state-run press.

At the Beijing meeting, Rogge dismissed talk of a boycott of the Games over Tibet and other issues, including human rights.

"Some politicians have played with the idea of boycotts. As I speak today, however, there is no momentum for a generalised boycott," he said. "Fortunately, the public has realized that boycotts don't help and only penalize the athletes."

Germans seek to keep focus on sport

Meanwhile, German Olympic officials have reiterated their wish that the Games not be used as a protest site by politicians or athletes.

"Athletes can speak freely [within the rules of the Olympic Charter] in interviews, in talks and other discussions. But a sports competition cannot be burdened by political demonstrations," German International Olympic Committee Vice President Thomas Bach said to DPA news agency.

Thomas Bach, head of the IOC
Thomas Bach argues in favor of keeping sports and politics seperateImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Bach said he respected that politicians like French President Nicolas Sarkozy were critical of China in connection with its crackdown in Tibet, and were considering a boycott of the opening ceremony.

But, according to Bach, who himself was an Olympic fencing champion in the 1970s, sport should be respected as well.

"We respect the autonomous decision of politics just like we expect from politics to respect the decisions of sports organizations," he said.

Another IOC member, who spoke anonymously to DPA, wasn't as diplomatic as Bach in his frustration about Sarkozy and other politicians.

"I think that all this issue about a boycott is politicians misusing the Games. Why doesn't Sarkozy boycott the French businesses with China, agreements he finalized while he was talking about human rights?" the Olympian said.

According to Bach, those who focus on the politics of the nation hosting the Olympics are missing the main point.

"The discussion is about the role of sport on these issues, which role sport can play. Here it must use its strength, and the strength of sport is indeed to bring all 205 countries of the world together at one place for peaceful competition," he said.