Olympics torch lit amid protest

Pro-Tibet demonstrators tried to hijack the Beijing Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia on Monday.

In a globally televised ceremony to mark the start of a five-month torch relay, the actress Maria Nafpliotou, playing the high priestess, used a break in the clouds to light the torch in front of the Temple of Hera.

However, just before the torch-lighting ceremony inside the archaeological site that played host to the Olympics in ancient Greece, a few demonstrators tried to break a tight police cordon.

One of them, unfurling a banner, managed to approach Beijing Games chief Liu Qi during his speech in front of hundreds of officials, but was taken away without reaching him.

Police said the demonstrator was a 48-year old Tibetan and that three men had so far been detained.

Exiled Tibetans had pledged to demonstrate on the day against China’s security crackdown in the region and what they say is the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) hesitance to pressure Beijing to improve its human rights record.

Police said an additional 25 protesters had attempted to come in but a strong police presence kept them at bay before they dispersed.

Liu, who kept his cool during the demonstration, said: “The Olympic flame will radiate light and happiness, peace and friendship, and hope and dreams to the people of China and the whole world.”

Greek athlete Alexandros Nikolaidis, an Athens 2004 Games tae kwon do silver medallist, is the first torchbearer starting a six-day Greek relay before the flame is handed over to the Chinese on March 30.

“I express here the hope that the symbol of the torch will be recognised by everybody and that the right circumstances can be created, wherever the torch travels, for it to resonate,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said in a speech inside the ancient stadium.

Greek police said they had also detained Tibetan activist Tenzin Dorjee of the Students for Free Tibet group in Olympia. He was not part of the protest but was planning to stage a demonstration later in the day.

‘Silent diplomacy’

Meanwhile, IOC president Jacques Rogge said on Monday he is engaged in “silent diplomacy” with China on Tibet and other human rights issues in advance of the Beijing Olympics.

Rogge gave his most extensive public comments on China’s political situation in an interview with The Associated Press in Ancient Olympia, where he was attending the flame-lighting ceremony.

In the 45-minute interview, Rogge reiterated his long-standing position that the IOC is not a political organisation and cannot interfere in the internal affairs of China. But he stressed that he is involved in private dialogue with Chinese leaders and insisted the human rights situation has improved since Beijing got the Games seven years ago.

“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.
“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, who will chair IOC executive board meetings in Beijing next month, said he will then meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

“I have a series of points to discuss with him and I’m sure he has points to discuss with me,” he said, without elaborating. “I repeat, we are not a political body, we are not an NGO, but it is our responsibility to make sure the athletes get the best possible Games which they deserve.”

Rogge contested claims that the human rights situation in China had deteriorated since the IOC gave the Games to Beijing in 2001.

“I dispute that, I challenge that,” he said. “Awarding the Games to China has put China in the limelight and opened the [human rights] issues up to the world. Tibet, rightfully so, is on the front page. But it would not be on the front page if the Games were not being organised in China.”

He added: “I believe the Games have advanced the agenda of human rights. Is the situation perfect? By no means. Has it improved? I’m saying yes. Is the glass half full, or half empty? I’m saying half full.”

Violence

The violence in Tibet has brought China’s policies to the fore in the final months before the Games. Protests began on March 10 on the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and turned violent four days later, touching off demonstrations among Tibetans in three neighbouring provinces.

Beijing’s official death toll from the rioting is 22, but the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile has said 99 Tibetans have been killed.

Rogge expressed concern about the violence but would not criticise China for its crackdown. “It’s difficult to make a judgment on the responsibilities, but violence from whatever side is something which of course is worrying us,” he said.

Rogge said the IOC can no more than join world leaders in calling for a peaceful resolution of the situation. “The United States of America, the European Union and the pope have called for a peaceful resolution and a reduction of violence,” he said. “We are saying what the world leaders are saying.”

Rogge expressed concern at the possibility of violent protests along the Olympic torch relay route.

“The torch relay is a symbol of peace, a symbol of unity of people of the world and of the Olympic truce,” he said. “We call on everyone not to use violence. I don’t think the public opinion would accept violence in such a public event. It would be counterproductive.”

The torch relay is scheduled to go through Tibet, creating a possible flashpoint. Rogge said there are no plans to change the route, but didn’t rule it out.

“The original torch relay route has been confirmed by Bocog and Chinese authorities,” he said. “So far, as I speak now, the IOC is in agreement with that. No one can foresee the future.”

Boycott

Rogge also said there is no “credible momentum whatsoever” for any Olympic boycott over Tibet. “The major governments do not want it, the sports community definitely do not want it, and I’m sure the public opinion does not want it,” he said.

Some politicians have suggested the possibility of government leaders boycotting the opening ceremony, but Rogge also said there is no broad support for such a move.

Despite the heightened controversy surrounding the games, Rogge said the decision to give the Olympics to Beijing was the right one.

“When we awarded the Games to China, we knew there would be discussions,” he said. “We were not naive. We knew discussions would flare up in the last six months and that has happened ... We cannot deny one-fifth of mankind the advantages of Olympism ... We believe the Games will be a catalyst for change and will open a country which used to be mysterious to much of the world.”

While some national Olympic committees have been criticised for reportedly trying to muzzle athletes from speaking on political issues at the Games, Rogge said competitors will be free to express their opinions—as long as they are outside Olympic venues and the athletes’ village.

“We do not want the Olympic venues to be the place where politics are being discussed,” he said. “Outside the venues, the athletes are free to do anything they want.”

For example, an athlete would be free to walk around non-Olympic sites wearing a pro-Tibet T-shirt.

“I have had assurances from the Chinese authorities they would respect the free expression of the athletes,” Rogge said. “The athletes of course have to respect the laws of the country. In any country in the world, if you want to demonstrate as a group you have to advise the authorities. But if an athlete wants to walk with a T-shirt and have an interview with the media, that is no problem.”—Sapa-AP, Reuters

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