Passions Over Torch Run Hot

The fourth and fifth stops on a planned 85,000 mile relay bearing the Olympic flame from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece to the site of this year’s Summer Games in Bejing, China turned ugly over the weekend, as thousands of protesters in London and Paris disrupted the procession, drawing attention to China’s reputation for human rights abuses and its heavy-handed suppression of internal dissent in Tibet.

Police arrested at least 30 people in London on Sunday, as a roster of British sports luminaries and entertainment personalities spent eight hours surrounded by a phalanx of Chinese government security personnel and London police, who fended off protesters trying to get to the torch and snuff it out. Dozens of people managed to break through security cordons and get near the torch before being wrestled to the ground; one man was beaten back as he ran toward the flame with a fire extinguisher. Police said over 2000 officers were deployed along the 31 mile route to maintain order.

On Monday in Paris, the scene devolved to chaos as 3000 police and security personnel in boats, on bikes and inline skates struggled with angry protesters along the route from the Eiffel Tower,

Eiffel Tower protest, 080407

past the Louvre, and along the Champs-Elysees. Anxious relay organizers halted the procession, extinguished the torch, and placed it aboard a bus five times throughout the day before finally deciding to cancel the last leg of the journey into Charlety track and field stadium across the Seine from central Paris.

Ahead of the flame’s planned arrival in San Francisco on Wednesday, when more protests are expected, climbers wearing harnesses and helmets scaled the Golden gate bridge to hang protest banners reading “Free Tibet.”

Golden Gate protest, 080407

Time was, China the slumbering giant lived behind its Great Wall and was largely a great mystery to much of the rest of the world. But the world has become a smaller, far less private place in the past thirty years and China’s ascendant position in its economic and political hierarchy places it squarely in the sights of many who feel her rise has come at far too great a human cost.

The tension between China’s desire for acceptance on the world stage and its demand to be free from interference in the ordering of its internal affairs adds a curious and none-too-welcome edge to the coming Olympic games.

Odds are, the experience will change both China and the Olympics, if not the world, forever.

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