Perceptive Travel - Olympic Fire and Brimstone

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Olympic Fire and Brimstone
By Michael Buckley



The torch has embarked on what is surely the strangest journey of discord in the history of the modern Olympics. In May and June, the Olympic torch will see the flame heat up as it goes through Tibet, where a vicious crackdown on Tibetans by Chinese troops is in progress. With a run–up like this, the Beijing Games in August promise to be the most contentious ever.



Protest placard with variation on the five-ring Olympic logo

The modern Olympic torch relay has an impeccable pedigree. It was introduced by Hitler to showcase the Third Reich's might for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Propaganda chief Josef Goebbels masterminded the Olympic spiel––which blended seamlessly with the Nazi belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the German Reich. Nazi flags and insignia were in abundance at events, promoting a strident brand of nationalism. Steel–clad magnesium torches to carry the Olympic flame were designed by industrial giant Krupp. A few years later, German invaders were back in the same European countries where the torch was paraded, only this time they were equipped with Krupp munitions.

The trans–continental journey of the torch is of more recent vintage: it started in Athens at the 2004 Olympics. Taking its cue from Athens, the Chinese government decided to go all out and send the torch on a journey through 20 nations involving thousands of torchbearers––a spectacular celebration of China's emergence as a world power. And the torch is slated to go places it has never been before, like the top of Mount Everest. Sounds great for the host to boast, but this Olympic relay has not turned out to be the "Journey of Harmony" touted by Beijing. The torch has instead turned into a lightning rod for controversy and a public relations nightmare for the Chinese government. Major pro–Tibet demonstrations have flared up along the route, in tandem with protests from human rights groups and Falun Gong followers.


Re-enactment sketch of human rights abuses in Tibet, at a protest in Canada.

The Security Gauntlet
There is a uniquely Chinese solution to all this: send in the military. Or in this case, the paramilitary. The London leg of the torch relay was closely guarded by a phalanx of 14 Chinese security men wearing blue–and–white tracksuits. That's an Olympic first––a torch with its own private security force.


The Paramilitary Olympics? Chinese soldiers on parade in Lhasa.

A Hong Kong source revealed that this unit bears the title of the "Sacred Flame Protection Unit" and is composed of 30 elite agents hand–picked by Beijing from the People's Armed Police paramilitary group. The men were variously referred to by Chinese sources as "flame attendants" or "torch escorts." The men–in–blue skirted around various pro–Tibet demonstrators who flung themselves in front of the torchbearers or tried to extinguish the flame. In Paris, torchbearer and Paralympic fencer Jin Jing became an overnight heroine in China when she defended the torch from demonstrators.

In a number of countries, the torch relay route has been cut short, abruptly changed, or run with extraordinary security. So much security in fact that spectators can't see the torch, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of the relay. An online campaign launched from China mobilized scores of overseas Chinese students to show up at stages of the route waving Chinese flags and shouting "Go China!" to drown out protesters. In South Korea in April, some 300 anti–China protesters showed up for the torch relay, mainly blasting China's repatriation of North Korean refugees. They were far outnumbered by red–clad Chinese supporters––estimated at 6,000 in number, mainly college students. In several incidents, Chinese supporters surrounded and beat up small groups of protesters, marking the first time that Chinese have run amok in the capital of a foreign country. An editorial in Seoul's largest–selling daily questioned whether Beijing is fit to host the Olympics––whether China has the common sense and standards to be a suitable host.

Within China, the relay should present no problem, as paramilitary security will be out in force. Tibet is a possible flashpoint. Tibet Party chairman Jampa Phuntsog, speaking at a news conference in Beijing in April, warned if there are "problems" during the Olympic torch relay from Tibetans, "We will without doubt deal with these persons severely…we will not be merciful."

What he most likely means is that Chinese troops would shoot protesters on the spot, something already seen in Tibet. To ensure there are no problems from foreign protesters in Tibet, the Chinese have simply abolished them. It seems authorities have closed down tourism into Tibet until September, after the Olympics are over. They have also closed down climbing on Everest during the torch relay, and have even pressured Nepal into closing down their side of the mountain for climbers.


The torch is going to the top of Everest, seen here from the north face in Tibet.

Propaganda Gone Wrong
Taking the torch to the top of Everest is the star event of the Chinese propaganda machine. This is a stunt: this leg has little to do with Olympic sport––and a lot to do with proud chest–thumping. Later, the plan is to parade the torch past the Potala Palace in Lhasa and a few other key landmarks in Tibet for photo–ops. Tibetans–in–exile are outraged that this will happen just months after many Tibetans were killed by Chinese army forces in Lhasa, and thousands more were arrested.


Chinese troops in riot gear, at the ready in Lhasa.

Amnesty International recently stated that as the world's biggest executioner, China gets the "gold medal" for global executions. It is debatable whether Western outrage and protest will have an impact on China's widespread abuse of human rights. It's rather like condemning elite athletes for using the latest performance–enhancing drugs (as yet undetectable). Both parties will vehemently deny they do it, but then turn around and keep on doing it anyway.

The Olympic torch is really just a sideshow: what lies behind it is more disturbing. Within China, nationalism has been whipped up to deal with criticism from the West, leading to an Olympic standoff. This nationalism does not bode well as a run–up to a major international sporting event. China is not exactly getting into the Olympic spirit when millions within China are encouraged by state media to believe there is a vast plot by Westerners against them.

Nationalism in China is strongly linked to being anti–foreign. Not only that: hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese living abroad are willing to adopt the same stance, claiming that CNN and BBC reporting is biased, and that China is getting a bad rap. This leads to a question prominent in the minds of foreign athletes: how will they be treated in Beijing? Will Chinese commentators refer to athletes as American running dogs and French jackals?

Some Modest Proposals
China's spin doctors seriously need to review the handling of the torch relay and the Olympic promotion strategy. To this end, here are some modest proposals on how the Chinese government can improve its Olympic image:

1) Invite the Dalai Lama to carry the torch for part of the planned route through Tibet. The torch is a symbol of peace, as is the Dalai Lama, so this would be a perfect match. Think of the huge crowds of delirious Tibetans who would show up for this event. It would make for great television coverage, as the Dalai Lama hasn't set foot in Tibet for 50 years.

2) Bring some fun and humor to the torch relay. Time to lighten up. One idea would be to arrange for a Yeti to take part in the torch relay to the top of Mount Everest in Tibet. This would make for magnificent photo opportunities. However, Yetis are notoriously shy of cameras, and are known to be terrified of fire. A climber wearing a hairy Yeti suit could be the solution here. Get hold of Steven Spielberg to see if he can help out––maybe he has changed his mind since backing out of the Olympic opening ceremony over Darfur.

3) For the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, bring in busloads of Tibetan political prisoners, Uighur nationalists, Falun Gong followers and Chinese dissident bloggers. Dress them up in red tracksuits featuring Chinese flag designs, and shackle them into seats in a special soundproof box. This would be an excellent way of filling opening ceremony seats emptied by all the boycotts.

4) Get the silent sponsors to take a stand. Get Olympic torch relay sponsors Coca–Cola, Samsung and Lenovo to speak out publicly. The leaders of Qatar, Tanzania and Kazakhstan have voiced approval of China's harsh methods (not too different from their own). Coke has embarked on major Olympic advertising efforts within China, releasing a song titled Red Around the World that promotes an online torch relay, where people can win Coke souvenirs. But the company has remained dead silent on politics.

5) Open the airwaves and data pipes for Chinese citizens, allowing full–on access to satellite TV news and the Internet. Sure, the people will be shocked when the vastness of news censorship within China is revealed. But it's a double–edged sword: opening up the airwaves will allow ordinary Chinese to bombard Western media with positive feedback on the Olympics, thus fulfilling their patriotic duty to defend the Motherland. Hey, this article might even make it through the Great Firewall that way…


Bejing page screen shot for Reporters Without Borders. © Reporters Sans Frontieres

Olympic Rhetoric
An awful lot of silly things have been said about the 2008 torch relay by people trying to dodge human rights issues. The bottom line is you can't stage any part of the Olympics in a zone of extreme conflict, and Tibet has turned into one. When protests erupted in Tibet in March this year, the Communist Party line stated: "We must wage a people's war to expose the malicious acts of these hostile forces." The Olympic torch is slated to go through that same Tibetan zone where a "people's war" is in progress. Here's a selection of hokum about the 2008 Olympics:

Tibet, rightfully so, is on the front page. But it would not be on the front page if the Games were not being organized in China.
––Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC

The power of this Olympic torch will shine a light on the recesses of the host city and China's record.
––Lord Moynihan, British Olympic Association chairman

By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human rights.
––Liu Jingmin, Beijing 2008 Olympics Games Bid Committee

To see what Tibetans think about the Olympic torch and human rights, go to www.Tibetanfreedomtorch.org. This site mimics the layout of the official Beijing torch relay website, but focuses on an alternate torch relay run by Tibetans, with some torchbearers lurching around covered in blood and bandages.





Michael Buckley has traveled widely in Tibet and the Himalayan region. He is author of Heartlands: Travels in the Tibetan World, and Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide. The guidebook is supported by a website: www.himmies.com

All photos © Michael Buckley except where indicated.




Related stories:

Karsting Away in Vietnam by Michael Buckley
Lands of Lost Liberties by Michael Buckley
Breakfast in Bhutan by Michael Buckley
The Qi of China by Carol White




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Buy Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Buy Heartlands: Travels in the Tibetan World at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Buy Moon Handbooks: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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