Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am

So will it be Donald or San San? Hong Kong Olympic officials ducked the question when asked who would have the honour of receiving the Olympic torch when it arrives here on May 2.

Some reports have suggested Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen will be the first torch-bearer, followed by our golden girl Lee Lai-shan. Let's pray this is not the case as that would be pandering to the politicians. This is supposed to be a sport-related PR exercise, so why include government officials?

There is no one better qualified, and deserving, than windsurfer San San to carry the flame first. She is Hong Kong's only Olympic gold medallist (1996 Atlanta), a true home-grown heroine who upholds the finest qualities of sportsmanship. It should be a no-brainer she gets pride of place.

But officials are playing their cards close to their chest. 'We haven't decided yet. We have heard the speculation it could be Donald Tsang or San San, but nothing has been confirmed,' says Pang Chung, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee.

Pang and his boss, Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, the president of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee, were in Beijing this week getting approval on the final list of 120 torch-bearers who will carry the flame in Hong Kong.

You can bet your last grain of Thai rice you won't find names like Martin Lee Chu-ming or Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Long Hair, on that list. But the burning question is why should any politician or government civil servant be given the chance to carry the torch?

If sports and politics should be kept separate - as besieged Beijing Games organisers insist while they watch the world torch relay turn into a PR disaster - then isn't it right we should only use athletes and people closely involved with the sporting community?

Pang says that will mostly be the case on May 2. 'At least two-thirds of the 120 runners will be from sport circles,' he revealed. What about the rest? Celebrities like Jackie Chan, and those ubiquitous sponsors are almost a certainty, but wouldn't it be great if a little-known athlete, who has still to make his or her name, is given the opportunity?

For all those who take part, just remember the Olympic torch relay is just a modern-day gimmick to raise public awareness that the 'greatest show on earth' is around the corner. But in some cases, it has other, more worrying, connotations, like being used mainly as a propaganda tool.

The Olympics in ancient times never had a torch relay. It was only invented by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hitler's master of misinformation, Josef Goebbels, is credited with being the mastermind behind this piece of theatre as the fascists tried to link the Nazi regime to Olympian ideals.

Despite its questionable origins, the torch relay unfortunately has now become part of the Olympic Games. And every succeeding Olympics organising committee tries to make it bigger and better so as to drum up maximum publicity.

But this PR exercise has turned into a debacle for Beijing organisers as raucous protests against China's human-rights record hog the headlines.

Protests against the Olympic torch have been rare in the past, certainly not on the scale seen. In London, 37 people were arrested as they tried to disrupt the relay and snuff out the flame. The Paris leg was cut short with security officials forced to extinguish the flame three times and put it on a bus as police tried to clear the route of protesters. And in San Francisco, the route was cut in half and the flame barely seen by fans.

China had hoped the torch relay, which will cover 135 cities in 20 countries and 137,000km in 130 days, would be a journey of harmony. Instead it has become a PR nightmare.

One noteworthy aspect among the chaotic scenes played out this week in London and Paris is that both governments took pains to distance itself. In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown briefly greeted the flame when it arrived outside Downing Street, but significantly never handled the torch. In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy wasn't even part of the ceremony.

Can we expect Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to follow suit? No chance. He will have to show face to his masters in Beijing. All we can hope for is that when he makes his 'political' appearance, he plays second fiddle to San San.

But if Beijing hopes the Hong Kong leg will be trouble-free, they may have to think again. Already the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China has said it will organise a protest on May 2. Demonstrations on a par with London and Paris would be most embarrassing as Hong Kong is the first stop on Chinese soil.

Fok has pleaded for the torch run to be trouble free. He said 'even though everyone has the freedom to express themselves, I think it is not good to send a political message on the day the torch arrives'.

The irony is not lost, with the relay already being politicised - when Tsang turns up.

London had 2,000 of their best Metropolitan officers on foot, motorcycles, bikes and horseback on duty during the torch relay. Paris had 3,000, some on skates too, but the tale that unfolded from both cities was not a dream PR run, but rather a marathon nightmare.

The Hong Kong government will have watched with trepidation. They know May 2 is bound to be a red-letter day for would-be protesters. The police are bound to be out in numbers not seen since the World Trade Organisation meeting here in December 2005.

They will have the help of the baseball-capped, track-suited muscle provided by People's Armed Police, who surround the runners and are determined not to let the torch fall into the wrong hands. Their black gloves, ear-pieces and stern faces hardly portray harmony.

But at least San San will be safe from protesters.