The Olympic torch made its debut on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Monday, accompanied by great pomp and impressive choreography, as it started its relay around the world before August’s Summer Games.
But despite the best efforts of the hosts and the Intl. Olympic Committee to keep things upbeat, and the use of pro-Beijing Tibetan dancers to put a positive spin on relations with the Himalayan enclave, the recent violence in Tibet cast a pall over the proceedings.
It presents Beijing with a major public relations headache less than 130 days before the Opening Ceremony.
The torch was carried by Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang, then lit by President Hu Jintao in Tiananmen Square, the site of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989.
Events were watched over by a giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Hu kept things apolitical in his speech. “The Olympic flame symbolizes the Olympic spirits — hopes and dreams, brightness and happiness, friendship and peace,” he said. “With the spirits, it has come to the land of China.”
The IOC followed suit. “I am certain that the Games themselves will not only be a moment of sporting excellence but also an opportunity for the people of China and the world to learn, discover and respect each other,” president Jacques Rogge said in a speech read out by IOC official Hein Verbruggen.
China has been under pressure about its handling of violent anti-Chinese protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas last month. Human rights groups and Free Tibet activists are worried about detentions and abuse. Verifying these stories is impossible because China has shut out foreign reporters from the region.
President George W. Bush has urged Beijing to talk to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, while France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has hinted at a boycott of the Opening Ceremony, which is being organized by China’s leading helmer Zhang Yimou. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel will not attend, although it is unclear if she’s sending her regrets over Tibet or for other reasons.
China has been in combative mode, combining its message of Olympic hopes with a broadside against the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing blames for recent violence.
The official news agency Xinhua said it had a government report that contained evidence the Dalai Lama had planned the anti-Chinese unrest. The Nobel Prize winner denies the claims.
The international leg of the 130-day relay starts when the flame heads for Kazakhstan. It will be back in Beijing on Aug. 6, two days before it lights the cauldron at the Olympic Opening Ceremony.