April 8th, 2008

Artsy me - by Micha

More Olympic torch protests

Olympic torch extinguished three times

The Olympic flame was extinguished three times on Monday and the Paris leg of its round-the-world tour abandoned after the event descended into a French farce.

Pro-Tibet demonstrators in Paris succeeded where their London counterparts failed after the Beijing Olympic torch was put out — ironically not by protestors but security forces - as it made its way through the French capital despite a massive police escort.

The flame began its journey from the Eiffel Tower, with former French athlete Stephané Diagana kicking off the planned relay of 80 runners around Paris.

But barely 200 yards along the Left Bank of the Seine, the flame was snuffed out and put aboard a bus to prevent any attempt to extinguish it, despite the fact that a wall of police in riot vans, on bikes and even rollerblades prevented anyone approaching the Olympic cortege.

What appeared to be a panic decision was clearly an embarrassment to the French authorities who had put 3,000 police onto the streets — almost as many as for the Bastille Day military parade.

From then on, the procession advanced painfully slowly, stopping and starting as police checked for security risks, and the flame was reignited and then put out twice more.

Chinese representatives in Paris had predicted that the torch's relay would be a "great festival" for the French people and that any protests would come from a "tiny minority". This was clearly not the case.

Chanting "Free Tibet", "Shame on the Games" and "Peking assassins", pro-Tibet activists waved flags, booed and threw eggs at the athletes as they slowly jogged by on the torch's 18-mile route to the Charlety stadium south of the city.

At one stage, half a dozen protestors lunged at the flame but were stopped by police as they headed for it south along the Seine.

After promising a day of "spectacular" activists that disrupted the lighting of the flame in Athens scored another palpable hit: three of its members dodged police to scale the inside of the Eiffel Tower to unfurl a 13-foot black flag, depicting the Olympic rings as handcuffs.

The three, from Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom organisation, handcuffed themselves to the iron structure 75 yards up.

But there were also several rowdy groups of pro-Chinese supporters waving the country's red flag with yellow stars.

"You've been bought by the Chinese authorities," shouted one pro-Tibetan activist. "No, we are here out of love for our country. Tibet has been part of China for thousands of years," shot back a Chinese demonstrator.

Police stepped in when the row became heated. At least five people were arrested.

The high point of the Paris tour was supposed to be its stop at the town hall. But the city's mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, had already annoyed the Chinese by hanging a huge banner stating, "Paris defends human rights all over the world."

At one point protesters got inside the town hall itself and unfurled a Tibetan flag together with a black banner with Peking 2008 written on it.

There were also isolated scuffles with pro-China supporters. As the situation deteriorated by the minute, police decided to abandon a half-hour ceremony in front of the town hall. Paris was expected to be a flashpoint for the flame's tour after President Nicolas Sarkozy of France refused to rule out a boycott of the August 8 Olympic opening ceremony.

Beijing has faced growing international criticism over its handling of anti-Chinese protests in Tibet, which exiled Tibetan leaders say killed up to 150 people.

China says Tibetan rioters have killed 18 civilians and two policemen.

The Olympic flame's Paris relay came as International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge called on China, during a meeting of National Olympic Committee heads in Beijing, to peacefully end unrest in Tibet.

From Paris the flame leaves for the Americas, with stops in San Francisco on Wednesday and Buenos Aires on Friday, on the latest leg of a worldwide tour from Greece to Beijing

The tradition of a torch relay began in 1936, when the summer games were held in Berlin. Since then, an Olympic flame has been lit in front of the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus in Greece ahead of every summer and winter games, before being carried around the world to the host city.

The organisation is entirely in the hands of the host city's organising committee, but traditionally the flame kindled from a parabolic mirror in Olympia is used to light a lamp which travels around the world and is then used to light the torches which are carried on the relay.

For each leg of the relay, around 80 torches, each containing a small gas canister which provides the fuel for the flame, are carried by athletes and other dignitaries, who are allowed to keep their torch as a souvenir.

If one of the torches goes out during a relay, it is re-lit either from the "source" flame or from another back-up flame which has been lit from the source.

The torch is a high-tech aluminium device designed to withstand high winds and sabotage with fire extinguishers. It carries a design chosen by China is based on Tibetan clouds, a symbol of harmony within the Buddhist religion.

The disruptions this year have already prompted the Olympic organisers to drop their insistence that the Games and politics never mix.

In the clearest sign yet that the protests are beginning to unsettle the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, the IOC president said members were "very concerned" at the international repercussions of what had happened in Tibet.

"Events in Tibet have triggered a wave of protests among governments, media, and non-government organisations," he said. "The torch relay has been targeted. The International Olympic Committee has expressed its serious concern and called for a rapid, peaceful resolution of Tibet.

"Violence for whatever reason is not compatible with the values of the torch relay or the Olympic Games."