The Beijing Olympics Lighting Ceremony


Some reflections on why the RSF protest in Ancient Olympia took place and whether we can judge it: It is conceivable that the RSF regard the presence of Chinese authorities in Olympia as a violation of that sacred space.  So, in their view it is already a polluted space and their intervention cannot diminish any further what is already a violent assault on the Olympic ideals. Indeed, from this perspective, their protest constitutes a necessary counter-balance to restore the spirit of the Olympic ideals. I note that their protest might have been very different - it could have involved physical violence towards an individual. Instead, it was an act that aimed strictly to gain a presence within a television camera frame and I put it to you that it is this space, rather than Olympia, that they were invading. It also took place during speeches, rather than the lighting ceremony. These are relevant details that should inform our judgment of the specifics of their act.

Equally, the politics of sacred space needs further unraveling here. On what basis should we conclude that Olympia is a sacred space, rather than a space that is historically valued by certain communities? The live broadcast on BBC News 24 (in which I saw Roy!) had commentators speaking throughout the Priestesses performance and, typically, commentators are silent during sacred ceremonies. Also, the priestesses are actresses so, while this should not diminish the value of the proceedings to us, we might not claim it has the gravity of a religious ceremony, for instance.

Additionally, to suggest that what has been achieved by the IOC's negotiations with China is satisfactory does not stand. The RSF's work on China extends well before the Olympics were planned for Beijing and if one looks at their campaigns, most of what they discuss aims clearly to utilize the Olympics as a mechanism for their own campaigns. They trade on the idea that many people care about the Olympics and their utilization of it is necessarily aggressive. Incidentally, their protest was pro-Tibet - especially as foreign journalists were required to leave there recently (now being let back it seems) - but not wholly about Tibet. It seems to me that the bulk of the RSF campaign is about DOMESTIC journalist freedom in mainland China.

Here in the UK, I feel that the intervention by the RSF has set the frame for the entire commentary about the Beijing Olympics. Moreover, I don't think this should trouble us or China greatly. Great Games should be about more than just the results of competition and a trouble free undertaking. However, in pursuing this aspiration, we must engage with the educative process of conflict negotiations. For me, this is the Olympic spirit.

Where is the evidence to support the claim that what the IOC has achieved with media freedom in China is sufficient to allow journalists to undertake their work? My feeling from journalists is that these freedoms to travel and so on are all perfectly fine providing you do not wish to undertake anything that is too critical of the state and I hardly think this is likely to be a satisfactory state of affairs for any journalist. Also, to the extent that the IOC has concerned itself predominantly with the freedom of Olympic journalists ie those that are reporting sports events, this hardly consists of a broad opening up of China to Western media.

If our claim is that the IOC has enabled the door to open, then this certainly has merit, but if what we see is appalling, that merit has limited currency. Moreover, to the extent that the invasion of sacred space has the greatest impact on people's sensibilities, then I see the methods and target of the RSF protestors as completely logical. It is the disruption of ceremony that provides the symbolic impact that protestors seek. We must also recognize that all aspects of the flame relay are concurrently symbolic to certain audiences and underpinned by significant commercial sponsorship. This fact hardly coheres with the view that this journey is strictly, spiritually pure.

I appreciate the long view of international diplomacy, but there are many who believe that the open door to china could shut just as quickly after the closing ceremony and, for them, this is why it is necessary to exert as much pressure now. I also see the acts of organizations as the RSF as constitutive of international diplomatic efforts, in the same way that we might talk of Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. On this basis, I think we are too close to this situation to adequately judge its long term implications. For now, my eyes and ears in Greece and China tell me that, for the first time in history, journalists were not permitted into the Acropolis for the torch arrival and that Tiananmen Square was also severely restricted in the last few days.

Finally, let's remember that China's new 'Olympic' legislation for foreign media, which began in January 2007, ends in November 2008.

I appreciate these are sensitive issues, but I think this is why we need to pursue different points of view in order to come to terms with what is happening.