A PROTESTER WITH a cause couldn't invent a more obliging platform than the Olympic Torch Relay. By the time the relay left Beijing on April 1, Chinese organizers had done the hard work of scheduling and publicizing; all anyone with a grievance had to do was show up. And so protesters have indeed, unable to believe the opportunity their antagonist has so thoughtfully provided. Right there with the relay's Official Theme (the suddenly ironic "Journey of Harmony") and Official Sponsors (Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lenovo, all of which can be forgiven for feeling some buyer's remorse) is the Official Slogan: "Light the Passion, Share the Dream."
Passion is alight already among groups poised to inveigh against the Olympic host. They're objecting variously to China's crackdown in Tibet, support for the Sudanese enablers of the genocide in Darfur, coziness with the military rulers in Myanmar, suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, subjugation of the Muslim minority in its western provinces, curtailment of press freedoms and environmental apostasies. As for any sharing, the Dream may be mixed in there somewhere, but right now it's all about sharing the spotlight.
In London on Sunday, against the backdrop of another eight killed in Tibet, police detained 37 people, including one who tried to wrestle the torch from a runner and another who targeted the flame with a fire extinguisher. On Monday the torch hopped the Channel to Paris, where Mayor Bertrand Delano√´ made good on his vow to drape city hall with a banner proclaiming solidarity with human rights. The leg was cut short after the torch had to be snuffed and loaded onto a bus five times because of the chaotic protests. Also on Monday three people climbed the Golden Gate Bridge and unfurled a Tibetan flag and two banners ahead of the Olympic Torch's scheduled Wednesday arrival in San Francisco—where a Human Rights Torch and a Tibetan Freedom Torch were also scheduled to appear. The protesters may find themselves the victim of what's known in sports-marketing vernacular as "clutter." (At least one international brand, Ben & Jerry's, has thrown in with the protests: A three-vehicle caravan in solidarity with Darfur has made its way from Vermont to San Francisco, stopping at college towns and scoop shops along the way.)
Even as the Dalai Lama resists calls that he push for a boycott of the Games, it's hard to see the Torch Relay as the innocent pageantry, untethered to politics, that it had come to be in the previous several Olympiads. The Germans invented it for the 1936 Games to help glorify the Third Reich. But the Beijing organizers had envisioned the relay in the modern, Ueberrothian sense, as a smoothly run spectacle advertising a smoothly run Olympics. And sure, most of the relay will be uneventful, like the torch's anodyne stopover in Kazakhstan on April 2, about which the official China Daily dispatch reads like a Borat routine: "Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhang Xiyun carried the torch ... after receiving it from 50-year-old Kazakh singing legend Rosa Rymbaeva, whose ability to sing Chinese pop songs has long amazed." Still, it's one thing to send off the torch in Tiananmen Square with only official guests on hand, as the Chinese did on March 31, and another to run, literally, into the hurly-burly of world opinion and free speech.
According to a book by French journalist Roger Faligot, The Chinese Secret Service: From Mao to the Olympic Games, a healthy piece of China's $1.3 billion Olympic security budget is earmarked for an espionage effort to identify activists in advance of the Games and keep tabs on them once they arrive. Presumably at the top of that list are the three members of Reporters Without Borders who crashed the torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, on March 24. A black banner graced with a rendering of the Olympic rings as handcuffs played effectively off white-clad priestesses. The provocateurs deserved a 9.8 for artistic impression, a score that will be tough to beat. But others will try. Here's a brief Olympic Protest Preview:
• April 17, New Delhi: India's soccer captain has already pulled out of the relay in solidarity with the Dalai Lama. Organizers shortened this leg after Tibetan youths (there are 100,000 to 200,000 refugees in India) stormed the Chinese embassy last month.
• April 24, Canberra: The Aussie capital has a large community of Tibetan exiles and Falun Gong practitioners.
• April 28, Pyongyang, North Korea: If the most Stalinist country on earth can't keep this stop incident-free, it will be an ominous sign for the Beijing Games themselves.
• May 1--10, Mount Everest: At the behest of their Chinese neighbors, the Nepalese plan to shut down the north face for 10 days at the peak of climbing season to ensure the summit is free of signs and banners when the torch visits. That has mountaineers and expedition companies fuming, for their livelihoods depend on ascents. To the list of potential protesters, add gorp-fueled Sherpas.
• May 2, Hong Kong: As part of the agreement to transfer the territory from British rule, China pledged to allow freedom of protest—and this will be the ultimate test.
• June 20--21, Lhasa: Reports last week said Chinese officials are determined to cull Tibet of dissidents, and organizers insist the torch will make its way through the capital.
Upon awarding the Games to Beijing in 2001, the IOC said it wanted to encourage China to live up to the standard for human rights written into the Olympic Charter. Over 123 more days, 77,698 more miles and four more continents, the relay will, in fits and starts, subject the host nation not just to the light of the torch, but also to the light of international scrutiny. So too will the Olympics themselves—and that's reason enough that they go on.
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For Austin Murphy's on-the-scene coverage of the Olympic Torch Relay as it passes through San Francisco on Wednesday, go to SI.com.
"Police in London detained 37, including one who targeted the torch with A FIRE EXTINGUISHER."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND