Rain, protests threaten Olympic flame-lighting

One way or another, Beijing will get its Olympic flame.

At Sunday’s final rehearsal, clouds over the ancient Games’ ruined birthplace prevented organisers from kindling the torch for the 2008 Olympics in the traditional way—using the sun’s rays harnessed in a convex mirror.

Instead, a Greek actress in the white gown and sandals of a pagan high priestess used a back-up flame lit at a rehearsal on Saturday.

That flame will be sent to China if storms forecast for Monday scuttle the official lighting ceremony beside the 2 600-year-old Temple of Hera in ancient Olympia.

“We hope the weather is good tomorrow,” Culture Minister Michalis Liapis said.

Clouds spoiled the ceremony for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the past three Winter Olympics.

But bad weather is not the only headache for the mock-ancient ceremony’s organisers—who took the rare step of moving Monday’s event an hour back to avoid rainstorms.

About 1 000 police will surround Ancient Olympia to keep pro-Tibetan protesters away from the flame-lighting, which International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge is scheduled to attend.

In a statement on Sunday, Rogge expressed his concern over the violence in Tibet, and said the 2008 Beijing Games will help China change for the better.

“We believe that China will change by opening the country to the scrutiny of the world through the 25 000 media who will attend the games,” Rogge said. “The Olympic Games are a force for good. They are a catalyst for change, not a panacea for all ills.”

Rogge was due in Ancient Olympia late on Sunday.

Protests planned

Tendor Dahortsang, a protest organiser, said campaigners opposed to China’s rule in Tibet were planning a peaceful protest on Monday.

“We’re keeping the details under wraps because we’re not done planning right now and also because of security concerns as there is a lot of scrutiny on this [event],” he said.
“We want to be there and to tell the world the truth about China ... China’s crackdown on peaceful Tibetan protesters, [and its] 50 years of illegal occupation of Tibet.”

Protests started on March 10 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa 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.

A Greek government official said politics had no place at the ancient site.

“We are determined to safeguard the flame ceremony,” he said, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to comment on the event. “This has nothing to do with political disputes.”

Tibetans and their supporters have protested in cities around the world against China. Some fear the arrival of the Olympic torch—scheduled to travel through 20 countries before the Beijing Olympics open on August 8—could spark violent protests against China.

On March 10, Tibetan groups, joined by Dahortsang, held a protest at Olympia. Greek police prevented a group of athletes from entering the ancient stadium, and extinguished a torch carried by one of the protesters.

Ceremony

More than 30 Greek actresses, dancers and musicians took part in Sunday’s ceremony at the Temple of Hera and the adjacent stadium, where the Games took place before a crowd of up to 40 000 in antiquity.

Actress Maria Nafpliotou offered a mock prayer to the ancient sun god, Apollo, before trying to light the flame with the mirror. “Hush all voices, and you birds, for [Apollo] will soon be among us,” she said.

For the first time, organisers have set an age limit of 40 for participants in the carefully orchestrated event.

“The image is very important,” Greek IOC vice-president Lambis Nikolaou said. “The younger the girls, the prettier they are.”

From Olympia, the flame will be carried for 1 528km through Greece by 645 runners. It will be handed over to Chinese authorities at the refurbished ancient stadium in Athens where the first modern Games were held in 1896.

A relay of runners will then carry the flame for 137 000km over 130 days—the torch’s longest journey yet.

Once-lush forests around Ancient Olympia were ravaged during massive summer forest fires that killed 66 people. Greek officials have since planted more than 30 000 saplings and bushes round the world heritage site ahead of Monday’s flame-lighting.

The Olympics were the most important sporting event in ancient Greece, held every four years during a sacred truce. They started in 776 BC and lasted more than 1 000 years, until their abolition in 394 AD by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius.

Although cauldrons were lit during the ancient Games, the torch is a modern concept introduced at the 1936 Berlin Games.—Sapa-AP

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