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Rough road for "Journey of Harmony"

2008-04-30 00:00

Was the "Journey of Harmony" for the torch of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games supposed to be remembered like this? A young woman on a wheelchair wrestling for possession of the Olympic torch with violent protestors determined to seize it?

The image of crippled Chinese fencer Jin Jing fighting to protect the sacred flame from the attacks of "Tibet independence" separatists in Paris on April 7 will be a lasting symbol of the ordeal the Beijing Olympic torch has undergone in its worldwide relay, as well as a scar on the history of the modern Olympic movement.

Roadside spectators of the torch relay in Paris, the fifth leg of its global tour, were appalled when they witnessed pro-"Tibet independence" protestors -- four of them at one point -- scrambling to wrest the "Lucky Cloud" from 27-year-old Jin.

Looking fragile yet fearless, she shielded the torch with her body, leaving herself bruised and scratched on the chin and the right leg.

Jin had been scheduled to be the third torchbearer in the Paris relay, but the plan was changed because of the chaotic protests. The torch was eventually passed to her on the banks of the Seine River. But before it could be lit, protestors threw themselves at Jin and her two companions, one of whom is blind.

"My first instinct was to protect the torch," said Jin, now popularly applauded in China as a "smiling wheel-chaired angel." "I felt no pain from the scratches and injury on my right leg. I only wanted to protect the torch."

Jin, a Paralympic fencer from Shanghai, lost part of her right leg when she was nine after suffering a malignant tumor in her ankle.

"The disruption of the torch relay, and the practice of binding sports with politics, make people resentful," said Jin. "From the faces of the French spectators, I could see most of them didn't approve of those sabotaging actions too."

In a letter delivered by French Senate President Christian Poncelet in Shanghai on April 21, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Jin: "You showed outstanding courage, which honors you, and (through you) all your country."

The relay, meant to promote the Olympic spirit of unity through sports, was repeatedly disrupted by "Tibet independence" separatists and their sympathizers, who tried to grab the torch, block the relay route, or even extinguish the Olympic flame.

Earlier, a member of the French Green Party attempted to snatch the torch from former world 400-meter hurdles champion Stephane Diagana, the first torchbearer, but was stopped by policemen.

The demonstrators were waving banners, scuffling with police, and making concerted assaults to snuff out the flame.

Around 3,000 French police were deployed along the 28-km route from the Eiffel Tower to the Stade Charlety in the south of the city. The event started shortly after midday and continued at least an hour behind schedule due to the disruptions.

The torch was put on a bus four times as a precaution against the violent protestors. The relay was eventually cut short and completed by bus.

At least five protesters were detained for blocking the torch relay.

Things were no better in London on April 6, when unseasonable snow failed to deter crowds eager to see the Olympic flame as it passed through the streets of the host city of the 2012 Games.

At almost 50 kilometers, the London leg was the longest outside China. Eighty torchbearers ran through ten boroughs from Wembley in the west to Greenwich in the east.

Tens of thousands lined the route, far outnumbering protesters. However, a few "Tibet independence" separatists attempted to grab the torch or extinguish the flame.

British police arrested 25 people for public disorder offences. One tried to grab the torch from a relay participant, but he was pushed to the ground and taken away. Two were detained for attempting to extinguish the flame with a fire extinguisher.

As in London and Paris, the scheduled route of the sixth leg in San Francisco on April 9 was lined with separatists who tried to grab the torch.

The relay began well in China Bay Park, but facing disruption threats by the separatists, San Francisco police swiftly changed the route and cut it by half.

This U.S. leg ended without major incident in two and half hours, but the torchbearers had to run in pairs to ensure each had an opportunity to carry the torch.

The 2008 Olympic flame, lit in Olympia of Greece on March 24, is being run through 21 cities outside the Chinese mainland before its return for domestic relay. This unprecedented event involves 21,880 torchbearers.

The repeated disruptions by "Tibet independence" separatists have aroused indignation from both spectators and sports officials.

"We were saddened by what we saw in London and Paris. We were sad for the athletes and torchbearers. We were sad for the children who watched their heroes and role models being booed," said International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge.

"The IOC considers that it made a wise choice in awarding the games to Beijing and we have no regrets," said Rogge.

"I strongly oppose any assault or attack to the Olympic torch," said Lord Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association.

"The Olympic sacred fire is a symbol of peace, tolerance... and should not be affected by anybody in any way," said Guy Drut, of the French Olympic Committee.

"I think that people should have let this flame through, that they could have held their protests to one side," said Henri Serandour, head of the French Olympic Committee.

"Everyone has a right to express themselves, but to stop it passing shows a lack of respect for the basic freedom of our athletes to carry this flame, which is a message of peace to the whole world," he said.

"It's okay for you to demonstrate peacefully, but anything relative to violence is not good for us," said Indian actor and torchbearer Saif Ali Khan. "A lot of people are taking the platform of sports to promote their political points of view. In this way, the Olympic Games is being misused."

The Olympic Games was the only grand global event that gathered together 205 countries and regions, said French Secretary of State for Sport Bernard Laporte. "Kidnapping of the Olympics betrays the values of solidarity and sharing, two fundamental elements of human rights."

"One World, One dream," the slogan for the Beijing Olympics, reflects not only the theme of peace and development, but also the common human aspiration for a brighter future.

"We don't believe that a small number of radical saboteurs can represent the mass of people of their nations, and we don't believe that the Beijing Olympic Games and the Olympic spirit can be damaged by the small group of rioters," said a spokesman for the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee.


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