Olympic dream torched by heat of protest

As protests and controversy continue to follow the procession of the Olympic torch on its journey towards Beijing, DUNCAN MACKAY, a former SJA Sports Writer of the Year, recounts his reasons for running with the torch and his experience when the relay was in London

When I was asked to carry the Olympic torch through London, I had romantic visions of running down the street watched by thousands of excited spectators with, perhaps, the theme tune from Chariots of Fire playing in the background.

The reality could hardly have been more different.

Instead of crowds of enthusiastic fans cheering me on, I was surrounded by a dozen blue track-suited Chinese paramilitaries, another 10 Metropolitan Police officers running alongside me and four more officers behind me on mountain bikes. And it was not Vangelis providing the soundtrack for my great moment but the noise of protesters shouting insults at me and yelling that I should be ashamed that I was taking part.

In a journalistic career spanning 20 years, I have been caught up in the middle of fighting football fans and had a Greek policeman pull on a gun on me as he tried to keep me out of a hotel housing Olympic officials. But this was easily was the most uncomfortable thing I had ever been through.

I had wrestled hard with my conscience about carrying the torch when I was asked by the International Olympic Committee. I was aware of the issues surrounding China and am as disgusted as everyone else at that appalling record on human rights and their crackdown in places like Tibet.

In the end I decided to go ahead because I believe that the torch symbolises the Olympic spirit (although, yes, I do know that it was originally conceived by the Nazis for the 1936 Games in Berlin) and the Games are a truly unique event, the only thing that unites 205 nations for a few days every four years. The torch was around before Beijing was awarded the Games and will be around for a long time afterwards.

I also had my own deeply personal reasons for doing it, having suffered a serious illness last year and then lost my wife to breast cancer. I believed that carrying the torch represented a new beginning for me.

Watching the early stages of the London relay on television, though, it was clear that this was going to be far from the “journey of harmony” that the Beijing organisers had hoped. When I arrived at my designated point and handed my rather fetching orange and white uniform, there was clearly tension among my fellow torch-bearers.

We were then hoarded on to a bus with police outriders and driven through streets where angry protesters waved banners at us and gave us obscene gestures. I felt like one of the miners who continued to work during the strike in the 1980s and were then bussed in daily past pickets.

The first torch bearer to be dropped off was Paula Radcliffe at the top of Tower Bridge, which she has run triumphantly on so many occasions before cheering crowds on her way to winning the London Marathon. Yet as she soon as she got off the bus she was faced with people leaning over the crash barriers, their faces contorted in anger, screaming at her. “Shame on you Paula”, and “You’ve got the blood of Tibet on your hands” was among what was shouted at her.

A few minutes later it was my turn. The road, in Mansell Street in Whitechapel, once terrorised by Jack the Ripper, seemed strangely devoid of any crowd. Then about five minutes before I was due to receive the torch a rumbling begun, quietly at first but growing progressively louder.

Suddenly, hundreds of protesters came round the corner. On one side of the road were groups representing Free Tibet and Amnesty International, the other pro-Chinese supporters waving Beijing 2008 flags. They were then followed by the torch and the accompanying security.

I was handed the torch and we were off – well, me and my phalanx of guards. But I had only run a few steps before a blue-track-suited arm was thrust across my chest and I was told to “slow down”. Then the Met officer, clearly his temper pushed to breaking point by events of earlier, running next to me erupted. “Fucking hell mate,” he screamed. “I keep telling you that we’re in charge here, not you.”

The Beijing “flame attendant”, who I later discovered had been recruited from China’s military and were described as “thugs” by London 2012 organiser Sebastian Coe, merely stared ahead. A few moments later my leg was over. I had not seen any trouble but I had never been abused by so many people.

It was an experience, just not quite the one I imagined.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Sunday Herald.

SJA member Duncan Mackay is the editor and publisher of Olympic website insidethegames.

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