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Stand up, for today you can force China through a tunnel of shame

April 8, 2008

The London torch procession shows how craven Britain has become: ignore
it or protest

Simon Jenkins
Sunday Times
April 6, 2008

Today’s London publicity stunt for the Chinese regime should be ignored
by the public and any reputable athlete or politician, unless to
register a fierce protest. The four-month “journey of harmony” of the
Olympic torch (or many cloned torches) through 21 nations is an exercise
in political laundering. It is appalling that the prime minister is to
“greet” his torch in Downing Street.

This tour has nothing to do with sport. It has been staged by the
Chinese government, not the International Olympic Committee, with
“celebrity runners” in each country approved by the commercial sponsors,
Coca-Cola, Lenovo and Samsung. In Britain those conned into joining
include Tim Henman, Sir Trevor McDonald, Vanessa-Mae, the Sugababes, Ken
Livingstone and Gordon Brown. It shows how craven Britain has become to
its membership of the so-called Olympic family and its Chinese parents.

The idea of carrying a lit torch from the Temple of Hera in Greece was
invented by Hitler in 1936 to suggest a link between the German people
and fellow Aryans in southern Europe. It was revived as a political act
by Sydney in 2000 with a regional tour symbolising Australia’s links
with the Pacific rim of Asia. Athens staged a world tour in 2004 in
honour of the Games returning to their original home.

Nothing has equalled the present shenanigans. China’s ruling politburo
knows that these Games carry heavy political baggage. Everything is
image. The regime wants value for money from its $30 billion and that
would never accrue from a mere fortnight’s track and field events.

That is why today’s London run, which began in Athens last month, will
return to China by touching down in Lhasa, Tibet. There it will meet a
torch from the summit of Everest. The centrality of Lhasa to the tour is
to emphasise that Everest is in China by virtue of being in Tibet. It is
not the protesting Tibetans who are polluting sport with politics, but
their Chinese overlords.

Participants in today’s display are thus endorsing an event the climax
of which is to celebrate a dictator’s conquest of a neighbour. When
Saddam Hussein did that to Kuwait, Britain went to war. The least
Britain owes the Tibetans is not to add to their humiliation. Playing
sport is one thing, political cheerleading is another.

I normally dislike boycotts, embargoes and sendings to Coventry. They
tend to hurt the wrong people and only boost the self-importance of
those at whom they are directed. That particularly applies in areas such
as sport, where non-political contact between young people in
conflict-ridden parts of the world should be promoted rather than
suppressed.

For that reason it is right, as the Dalai Lama has said, for athletes to
participate in the Beijing Olympics, as in Hitler’s in 1936 and Moscow’s
in 1980. But the athletes and their political and media hangers-on
should recognise that the Games have never been politics-free, not since
their revival in 1896. The ambition of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, their
promoter, was emphatically political, hoping that big nations would
“fight each other at the Games” instead of rushing into wars of national
prestige.

Since then a self-perpetuating mafia, the IOC, has relentlessly hyped
the Games as festivals of national prestige to push their cost way
beyond that of any other world championship and beyond the hopes of any
poor city or nation.

It demands permanent stadiums, villages and massive security, most of it
useless for any lasting purpose. The world is littered with vacant and
derelict Olympics venues. London has caved in to the same pressure and
is building unnecessary sites for athletics, swimming and cycling, as
well as London facilities for horse riding and shooting that could have
been staged in the home counties at Hickstead and Bisley.

The IOC knows that only by investing the Games in flatulent pretension
can it hope for rich governments to keep it in the style to which it has
become accustomed. Nothing but dictatorship could have drained Beijing
of the $30 billion that its Games are costing. After Britain’s
experience of IOC lifestyle requirements - such as “Zil lanes” in Mile
End Road for its personal limousines - it may have to rely on other
dictatorships in future.

The pretension is embodied in the torch, a 20th century invention,
called “a symbol of peace, justice and brotherhood” that is “bringing
people together on its journey of harmony”. Its “mother flame” is being
transported about the world in a specially adapted Air China jet, with
10 “flame attendants”, like Greek acolytes. The torch requires its own
motorcade and a nightly hotel room where it must be surrounded by
unsleeping guards.

No sport does itself credit by associating with antics reminiscent of
the crazed millionaire in Dr No. Yet even London has capitulated to this
nonsense, with the British Museum, Downing Street, Canary Wharf and the
Docklands Light Railway all cashing in. Taxpayers must spend £1m on
eight hours of police overtime culminating in the lighting of an
“Olympic cauldron” at the Millennium Dome. If this were not the Olympics
it would be total nutcase country, with the Witches of the Sabbath and
the Flat Earth Society demanding equal time.

Handling the politics of the Olympics will clearly be a matter of some
delicacy. The Chinese ambassador in London may yet absent herself from
today’s event. Gordon Brown and his cabinet should do likewise. The
British, led by Tessa Jowell, the ensnared Olympics minister,
periodically intone their “concern for civil rights in China” as if it
were a Buddhist mantra. It makes no difference.

 From the moment the Games were awarded to Beijing, all involved knew
they risked becoming quislings to the Chinese cause.

Many athletes have protested that boycotting the Games because of Tibet
or civil rights would be a “terrible blow to young people who have
trained for years”. But most sporting championships are purely about
sport, such as those devoted to cycling in Manchester last week. By
contrast, athletes always knew that Beijing would be a seismic political
event.

In Tibet 140 people are reported to have died, preliminary to the
athletes’ enjoyment of their sport. Eight were reported shot last week
for supporting the Dalai Lama. The Chinese have closed Lhasa to clamp
down on further protest, as they had to close Tiananmen Square for the
first receipt of the torch. They have arrested 70 Uighurs in the
“autonomous” province of Xinjiang. Dissidents in Beijing are being
arrested and condemned to who knows what fate. One writer, Hu Jai, has
been imprisoned and tortured for doing what the IOC boss, Jacques Rogge,
advocated, namely that the Olympics be used to publicise human rights
abuses in China. What is Rogge doing now?

The Olympics are a festival of chauvinism, a farrago of anthems and
flags and medal tables and prestige. Those participating in the Olympics
are not individual players, as in most sporting occasions. They are
Coubertin’s soldiers, defending their nation’s honour in a charged
political climate. The Olympics are a United Nations general assembly by
another name. China and the IOC are relying on the ceremonial flummery
to validate the Games financially and politically.

There is now no way those participating can cut the Games down to
sporting size. The IOC has long closed that option. But in this contest
of political symbolisms, they can return like for like. The more odious
the host regime, the more assiduous visitors can be in publicising the
odium.

Politicians should go nowhere near these Games except in protest. Leave
them to sport. Today and at every stop along the way, the torch and its
bearers must suffer a tunnel of shame, parodying its protestations of
peace, brotherhood and justice. This is an opportunity to publicise and
protest against the world’s greatest dictatorship.

The BBC’s 400 Olympics staff are on the mother of all junkets, in
contempt alike for China’s oppressed and Britain’s licence-fee payers.
It will be shocking if such a media bonanza ignores its wretched
political environs.

China last week welcomed the British government as a member of something
called the Olympic family. If this is a family, I hope that for the next
four months it is an intensely unhappy one.
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