Olympic Torch Relay Cheered Through Beijing Amid Tibet Protest

BEIJING: Flag-waving crowds cheered the torch relay through Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Wednesday as Olympic fever mounted, but a dramatic Tibet protest and a row over Darfur clouded the Games build-up.

Two days before the opening ceremony, tens of thousands of Beijing residents lined the historic square as the torch completed an epic journey across three continents to bring the Olympic flame to the Chinese capital.

Protests dogged the torch’s odyssey through Europe, the United States and parts of Asia, while May’s huge earthquake in Sichuan province overshadowed the Chinese leg, but there was genuine excitement on the streets of Beijing.

“I feel very excited and very proud because the Olympic Games is a 100-year dream of China’s,” said 60-year-old Jiang Rong, as astronaut Yang Liwei and basketball star Yao Ming helped open the final leg.

China has painted the Games as a celebration of three decades of economic reforms and hopes the event will showcase a rapidly modernising country, but it has been unable to shake off controversies and public relations problems.

As organisers made final preparations for Friday’s opening ceremony at the futuristic “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium, disputes over an array of issues persisted.

Four activists from Students for a Free Tibet staged a dare-devil protest near the Olympic stadium by climbing up an electricity pole and unfurling two giant banners.

The banners, which read “One World, One Dream: Free Tibet” and “Tibet Will Be Free”, were up for an hour before police ripped them down and detained the protesters, two Americans and two Britons, the group told AFP.

“We did this action today to highlight the Chinese government’s use of the Beijing Olympics as a propaganda tool,” one of the British protesters, Iain Thom, said in a message on the group’s website.

The four protesters were later ordered to leave the country, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Activists seeking to pressure China have vowed to use the Games to raise awareness of their causes, which include the nation’s rule of Tibet, arrests of dissidents, Internet censorship and gripes about Chinese foreign policy.

However US Winter Olympic speed-skating champion Joey Cheek, a prominent member of the Team Darfur activist group, saw his Chinese visa allowing him to attend the Games cancelled.

Team Darfur is a coalition of athletes calling for action to resolve the murderous conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. China, a close ally of Sudan, is accused of not doing enough to stem the violence.

The visa decision sparked an immediate protest from the United States, which urged Beijing to reconsider.

“We were disturbed to learn that the Chinese had refused his visa,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said from Thailand, where she is accompanying US President George W. Bush before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony.

Bush himself spoke out against China’s detention of dissidents in a speech to be delivered on Thursday. He also called for greater religious freedoms and respect for human rights.

But in a boost for the home nation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised China’s Olympic preparations and moved to warm ties, paying tribute to the countries’ “historic, unfailing and immovable friendship.”

Sarkozy had threatened to stay away from the opening ceremony following a Chinese crackdown on unrest in Tibet in March, before announcing that he would attend because of progress in talks between China and the Dalai Lama.

China has said that Islamic militants from northwest China were seeking to stage attacks on the Games, and it has deployed blanket security around the Olympic Village in an attempt to head off trouble.

Pollution remains another headache for the organisers. But even though a blanket of smog hung over the city on Wednesday, the authorities insisted they had no plans to invoke extra emergency measures to improve air quality.

“The conditions are not unfavourable at the moment and my understanding is that we are not going to be taking any extra measures,” said Sun Weide, Beijing Olympic organising committee spokesman.

The authorities have removed one million of the city’s 3.3 million cars from the roads and shut down more than 100 polluting factories and building sites in an attempt to clear Beijing’s notorious smog.

While some athletes have complained about pollution and even worn masks to protect their lungs, the International Olympic Committee has said it was happy with the air quality levels.

Despite the controversies, the organisers have reassured the 10,000 athletes and 500,000 other expected foreign visitors that the event would not only be safe, but that everything was in place to ensure a successful Olympics.

The first sporting competition of the Games took place on Wednesday. Germany and Brazil drew 0-0 in the northeastern city of Shenyang in the women’s football tournament. – AFP/de

Channel News Asia

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