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07 Apr 2008 08:08
The Beijing torch relay was conceived as “a journey of harmony”. But there was precious little unity on display in London on Sunday as the most powerful symbol of the Olympic movement completed a troubled and occasionally violent passage across the capital.
Shortly before 10.30am, Sir Steve Redgrave was handed the torch at a snow-bound Wembley Stadium at the start of an event intended as a celebration of the Olympic ideals.
By the time it arrived at the O2 Arena in Greenwich at 6pm, it had been buffeted and barged by clashes between pro-Tibetan demonstrators and Chinese students, and its passage interrupted by several direct incursions from protesters.
The London leg of the relay may have been a year in the planning—the metropolitan police deployed more than 2Â 000 officers at a cost of Â£1-million—but the strength of feeling among protesters left officers scrambling to keep the torch safe, and facing accusations of brutality to boot.
Thirty-seven people were arrested and, long before Ellen MacArthur took the flame on its final journey across the Thames, security concerns meant that the runners carrying it were obscured behind a phalanx of police and Chinese security guards provided by Beijing.
The tone for an incongruous day was set at Wembley, where overnight snow meant that an event intended for 3Â 000 people was attended by barely 300, most of them Chinese nationals, pro-Tibetan demonstrators or representatives of the three torch-relay sponsors pressing flags and merchandise into the hands of anyone not already armed with a banner.
Before the torch arrived, police circulated among Tibetan demonstrators, ordering them to remove T-shirts and confiscating Tibetan flags in an apparent breach of a promise from Met commanders that police would not intervene to prevent embarrassment to Beijing.
Yonten Ngama, a Tibetan who has been resident in the United Kingdom for four years, was ordered to remove a T-shirt scrawled with three slogans, “China stop the killing”, “No torch in Tibet” and “Talk to the Dalai Lama”.
“They didn’t tell me why; they just said I couldn’t wear it,” he said. Police on the ground declined to comment on the reasons for confiscating the T-shirt.
Once the torch had been lit, it took less than five minutes for the protesters to make their presence felt. As it was about to be passed on to a red London bus, a protester leapt from the crowd and was bundled to the floor by security personnel.
Police arrested at least eight demonstrators for public-order offences, though several claimed they had simply chanted slogans. This pattern was repeated throughout the day as the huge crowds that turned out for the 2004 Athens torch relay stayed away, leaving the streets to Chinese nationals, the regime’s detractors, battle buses hired by the sponsors and the massive police presence.
At Ladbroke Grove, shortly after the flame had passed from the bus to relay runners, it was almost wrestled from the hands of TV presenter Konnie Huq.
The first signs of tension between Chinese nationals and protesters came outside the British Museum, where anyone carrying a Tibetan banner was barracked by those carrying Chinese flags.
Congy Wang (21), a Chinese student at City University, explained that she had attended to support her country. “We want to show people around the world we are not as physically violent as people think. No matter what they are fighting for, I really don’t think this is the time. We have been told just to stand by with no violence and no shouting.”
Despite corralling several hundred protesters behind barricades, the police advised the Chinese ambassador, Fu Ying, to abandon plans to carry the torch along Museum Street. She later carried the torch through Chinatown with a heavy police escort.
The largest demonstration came in Whitehall opposite the gates of Downing Street, where what little dignity the event retained was removed by the presence of a battle bus sponsored by Samsung. Carrying a dozen female dancers wearing leotards and clutching pompoms, it stopped alongside the demonstrators as the torch made its way down Whitehall and blared the theme tune from Fame.
In Downing Street itself, the torch was accompanied by 16 security guards and as many police officers, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Olympics Minister, Tessa Jowell, greeted it to a backdrop of chanting and the beat of helicopters overhead.
On a difficult day for Britain’s own Olympic aspirations, Jowell conceded that the torch had brought an atmosphere of “threat and menace” rather than joy.
“You talk about the Olympic ideal and then you see the attempt to manage the safe passage of the torch in practice and it appears incongruous,” she said. “But you have to ask what should we have done, and had we cancelled part of the relay, that would have been a concession with a very dangerous precedent.”
In 2012, London is considering its own torch relay, promising a journey of “hope and reconciliation”. After Sunday, those plans are under review.—guardian.co.uk Â
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