Olympic torch relay sparks controversy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2008, 12:00am

Protesters are dogging the torch relay from city to city. With more trouble to come people are divided on whether sports and politics should mix

The 2008 Beijing Olympics is shaping up to be the biggest public relations challenge the central government has ever faced as slogan-chanting activists and flag-waving protesters obstructed the torch relay over the past week.

Last week, scenes of protesters swarming around Olympic torch-bearers in London and Paris made newspaper headlines around the world.

Protests against China's policies on human rights and Tibet were so vehement, security officials were forced to put out the flame and rush the torch onto a bus.

In spite of the huge resources the government set aside to spruce up Beijing in time for the Games, recent measures adopted to quell unrest seem to have eclipsed all its goodwill.

Measures to quell the unrest in Lhasa last month incurred condemnation from around the world. In a move that aroused more controversy, the court jailed prominent human rights activist Hu Jia for three and a half years for 'subverting the state'. Human rights group used the verdict to accuse Beijing of trying to stamp out dissent ahead of the Games.

Ideally, the Olympics is supposed to be a celebration of fair competition and human athleticism.

However, given the campaigns waged by different organisations the world over to obstruct the Games, the event seems to have become a platform for detractors to voice their grievances and pressure the government to change.

France-based Reporters Without Borders has called for a boycott of the Games over China's alleged human rights abuses. New York-based Students for a Free Tibet has waged a series of campaigns to condemn China's treatment of dissent in the region.

Celebrities and athletes have also joined the fray.

Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg dropped out as an artistic adviser to the Games - over China's policy in Sudan - in February. Norwegian cyclist Thor Hushovd announced last month that he might boycott the opening ceremony in response to China's treatment of Tibetans.

It seems that everyone has an axe to grind when it comes to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

While protests against the Games have helped shed light on the demands of Tibetan and Uygur activists, the way demonstrators and interest groups hijacked the torch relay to achieve their political ends has tainted the spirit of the Olympics.

The negative overseas reports dogging China have not only caused great embarrassment to the government, they were also denounced as an insidious attempt to interfere with the internal affairs of China. Former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin appealed to people to respect the Olympic host.

In remarks he made at the Eiffel Tower where the Beijing Olympic torch relay would commence, he said China, as an age-old country with a 5,000-year history, deserved respect and was entitled to choose the way of development compatible with its conditions.

However, Beijing will have to work hard to salvage its image before the Games' grand opening in August.

The Financial Times reported earlier this month the government would employ a public relations company to do just that. While western leaders have long thrived on the political astuteness of spin doctors, the concept of public relations is relatively new to China. Political statements are laden with stuffy Chinese and unabashed propaganda which alienates almost everyone.

Beijing will need all the PR it can get. With all this disagreement, the 2008 Beijing Games is certain to become one of the most controversial Olympics in history.