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Torch troubles

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Mihir Bose | 15:51 UK time, Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The Olympic torch, meant to promote peace and harmony, is now producing the sort of discord and anguish that I have rarely seen in an Olympic gathering, especially with a Games only four months away.

By this time, and with Beijing's preparations in terms of stadium and facilities having gone so well, the men and women who run the Olympics movement should have had every reason to feel satisfied.

They have taken the Olympics to a new frontier; the world's most populated country. Yes there will be problems - smog, traffic etc. But these have always been seen as manageable. After all every Olympics produces scare stories before the Games which often prove just that once the opening ceremony is held.

Yet talking to major figures in the Olympic movement, including senior members of the International Olympic Committee, it is clear the mood in the hotel in Beijing where they have gathered is actually one of intense nervousness.

The Olympic movement feels it has lost charge of the torch. The events in London and Paris were watched with dismay and San Francisco is being awaited with trepidation.

The last time I saw the Olympics movement being buffeted by events like this was in 1999, just before the Sydney Games. Back then, the mood was induced by the fact that many members of the International Olympic Committee had been found guilty of breaking committee rules but fell short of corruption. Although the members were soon identified, it was not until the Sydney Games started and they proved an outstanding success, that the IOC recovered its nerve.

That crisis nearly brought the IOC down. This torch issue is not on that level and it does not threaten the movement. Yet interestingly both the Salt Lake City crisis and the torch disaster have produced similar soundbites.

The day after the Salt Lake City saga came to light, then President Juan Antonio Samaranch said the sun would rise again. Today Alex Gilady, an IOC member, spoke of his sadness that the Olympic torch was extinguished in Paris - the birthplace of the modern Olympics - but added Olympians had seen dark days and good days and insisted the movement would recover.

French police scuffle with protestors in Paris

Like the Salt Lake City crisis, the current problems are self-induced and have made the members reflect as to what could have been done to prevent them.

There is, of course, the inevitable talk of blaming the media and even the protesters for their alleged violence. One IOC executive member, Sam Ramsamy, was quite vociferous on this issue and made no secret of his distaste for the protester’s violent actions.

But many others recognise that China's decision to have such a worldwide torch relay, despite warnings from the IOC, is the major factor.

As senior IOC members have told me, the co-ordination commission for the Beijing Games, which monitors Beijing's progress, repeatedly warned the Chinese not to have such a worldwide tour with the torch.

But the Chinese, keen to advertise their status as the world's new super-power, ignored it and went further.

They really made the Olympic torch China's torch.

They brought it back to China, to Tiananmen Square, lit it there, and then, surrounded by their security staff, sent it around the world.

Now the IOC, waiting on events in San Francisco, is considering the alternatives.

If San Francisco goes like London or Paris then, as at least one senior IOC member has told me, the pressure to cancel the international part of the relay may be too strong to resist.

Another high official said even if it continues, it should just mean taking the torch, not through streets of foreign cities protected by Chinese security, but to each country simply as a photo opportunity with a high dignitary, then back on the plane and onto the next country.

In other words, a torch relay that is only a relay in name and a compromise to get over a dreadful problem.

That may well have to happen for these Games, but the IOC now also knows it must now re-think all future torch relays too.

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