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Political Games

A steady stream of interruptions to the Olympic torch parade in several countries together with high profile stunts by the Chinese, like lighting the flame on the top of Mount Everest, ensures only that activists will continue to take aim at the 2008 Games with increasing vehemence.

This is really playing with fire. In reality of course the torch relay has nothing to do with the games themselves. It was resurrected by Hitler before the 1936 Berlin Olympics (not an especially noble precedent one might think) and only became international before the 2004 Games in Athens. The torch relay is entirely political. To pretend that it is not is simply naïve.

Now, after weeks of world-wide media attention, the overwhelming imagery left in my mind is one of Clouseau-inspired comedy (French policemen on rollerblades whisking the torch onto a bus in undignified confusion) bundled up with biting satire (the five Olympic rings as handcuffs draped on the façade of Notre Dame), tragedy (the Tibetan snow-lion flying high above San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge) and menacing farce (the squad of Chinese paramilitary police in blue and white tracksuits accompanying the torchbearers).

Within China, the official press has portrayed such disruptions to the relay as marginal amidst massive popular support from ordinary citizens. Indeed the majority of Chinese people would be unaware of the passions that have been aroused elsewhere.

Next month the torch will be taken with much ceremony into Tibet. This is highly contentious and may prove to be foolish in the extreme. It will once again enflame extreme emotions, particularly in those who have a gripe with China over their mishandling of Tibet. The Chinese will not back down, however, as to do so would entail a massive loss of face.

With such high profile global media attention what better target is there for airing grievances on a range of human rights issues? It is almost guaranteed that proceedings leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics herald further (potentially catastrophic) disruptions to the games themselves. Security must be a real headache for those involved in protecting the thousands of athletes and spectators.

For a while the devastating earthquake and storms that have killed so many in Sichuan province during the past few days have quelled the voices of protest. But this calm will be short-lived. The political storm still threatens and with each protest the pressure mounts on Western leaders not to attend the opening theatrics.

In the longer term the image of China may be damaged irreparably. A celebration intended to mark China’s emergence as a friendly global power has made some people think for the first time that its rise is something to dread.

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