Policing the Olympic Torch: A Thoroughly Modern Contradiction
“The Games have always brought people together in peace to respect universal moral principles. The upcoming Games will feature athletes from all over the world and help promote the Olympic spirit.”
(Official Website of the Olympic Games)
Londoners have woken up today in the throes of a blizzard, white frosting coating their city. Temperatures in Lhasa are similar, with thundery hail showers blowing through their rooftop city. Beijing is chilly, but without the grace of snow. In all of these cities, thoughts of the impending Olympics heat the air.
The Olympic movement, with its message of peace and global harmony, however, has largely failed in London today. The enthusiasm and celebration that greeted the torchbearers in London four years ago, before the Athens Olympics, is scarcely to be seen. It is true that a global hotchpotch of people have lined the 31 mile route across London: Chinese, Tibetans, British people and tourists have turned out, in limited numbers, for a glimpse of the symbolic flame. The symbolism, though, is more Orwellian than Olympian. Neither the Chinese authorities, nor indeed the British government, can be delighted with the television images being broadcast across the world.
Most people lining the route have been barely able to snatch a glimpse of the torch, as it races by at surprising speed. As the day has worn on, the police presence has become considerably heavier and rougher. Bystanders have been prevented from approaching the procession, police riding bicycles, both in front and behind the magic circle, have pushed people out of the way both physically and verbally. The ring of police around the torch has grown so thick, as the afternoon has progressed, that at times it is only the fluorescent yellow of official uniforms that appears alight. Like it or not, the Beijing Olympics is now marred by a police presence across the world, from Athens through to China and now in London.
Understandable though the police concerns may have been, having dealt with fire extinguishers being unleashed towards the flame by creative protestors earlier in the morning, and then with a handful of individuals attempting to knock the flame from the torchbearers’ hands, there has been a disconcerting lack of regard for the rights of the onlookers, the legitimacy of the protestors and the message of the Olympics themselves. If we have to enforce public harmony with handcuffs and arrests, shout the police barricades, so be it. If the public cannot see the flame, let that be their punishment for failing to react as we would wish them to do so.
The Free Tibet group has successfully organised protests to line the route. Their instructions to supporters have been to be visible, loud and peaceful. That has certainly happened in spots along the route – chiefly in Bloomsbury Square, Tower Bridge and St Pauls – where the protestors have shouted and booed, check-by-jowl with the applauding onlookers who welcome the presence of this almighty sporting effort on their doorstep. In other places, it appears that a carefully orchestrated Chinese campaign has tried to suppress those protesting shouts with aggressive contra-campaigning. Large student groups of Chinese in and around Trafalgar Square have tried to drown out any protesting voices with loud singing demonstrations of their own, praising the motherland in Mandarin unison. The same groups deliberately have surrounded individual Tibetan flags with several unfurled Chinese flags and banners, so that lone voices calling for a Free Tibet seem to melt away in the snow. Don’t mix politics with sport, they say. The irony of this suppression appears to have escaped them.
Across the route, flags and banners have been waved – Free Tibet, the red Chinese national flag and the commercial savvy of the Samsung Olympics banner, being handed out from carrier bags by men walking through the crowds. “One World, One Dream” shout the many Chinese, out in proud force in Trafalgar Square. That very slogan ignores the fact that people in our one world have different dreams, and they dream in their own languages. The right of self-determination is a fundamental right for which societies have fought for millennia. The United Nations recognised that right of self-determination “is of particular importance because its realization is an essential condition for the effective guarantee and observance of individual human rights and for the promotion and strengthening of those rights”.
No amount of propaganda or manipulation of the truth can deny the Tibetan people their right to self-determination. The Olympics are a tremendous cause for celebration, and many people across the world have felt torn by a wish to celebrate this great sporting event and a simultaneous desire to condone the Chinese government for their brutal suppression of human rights. It may yet be possible to do both, but in order for that to happen, our own government needs to send out a clear message to Beijing. Gordon Brown’s ham-fisted efforts to appease both sides by appearing beside the torch, but without taking part in the relay, are a clear example of the damage done by sitting on the fence. Failure to speak out against the Chinese actions in Tibet, combined with the images of the police event that has been organised in London today, deliver an altogether alternative message of the Olympian movement in 2008. The people will do as we wish them to do, say the authorities in both London and Beijing, and if they do not, we will simply ignore them.
Last words, then, to the Olympic Charter:
“Olympism is a philosophy of life exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity…
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”.
Anyone lining the Torch Route today in London will have queried whether the upcoming Olympics will indeed be compliant with their own Charter. Human rights are for life, not just for one month every four years.
From the Torch Procession, London,
April 6th 2008