Olympic spirit comes to Britain

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If you were on the snowy streets of London yesterday and were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of an Olympic torchbearer carrying the sacred flame of Olympia, then count yourself lucky. Most spectators saw little more than a blur of fluorescent-yellow police jackets.

Officers were forced to surround Britain's 80 torchbearers, who did eventually include the Chinese ambassador, with a protection ring of Olympic proportions yesterday as they wound their way through the capital, flanked by thousands of angry protesters who had descended upon London to voice their fury at China's human rights record and Gordon Brown's decision to receive the flame in Downing Street.

An enormous security cordon that had something of the pantomime about it turned the relay into a public relations embarrassment for both the Chinese and British authorities, who have desperately tried to bill the 130-day global odyssey as a "journey of harmony". Until yesterday, they had largely managed to avoid widespread protests against China's human rights record.

At times the relay ground to a halt as officers were forced to tackle anyone committed enough to break through the barriers and take on the phalanx of heavies that surrounded every step the torchbearers took. By mid-afternoon, 35 people had been arrested – more than one for every mile of the route.

The procession began relatively smoothly yesterday morning, with the five-times gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave running the first leg from Wembley Stadium amid some jubilation. But it quickly became clear that angry confrontations and scenes of pandemonium were going to dominate the 31-mile event despite the enormous security cordon and 2,000 officers en route.

Within five minutes of Sir Steve handing the torch to another bearer, a woman shouting "Free Tibet" was arrested for trying to steal the flame as it entered an open-top bus.

In the most serious incident of the day, at Ladbroke Grove, a pro-Tibet activist broke through the security cordon and tried to wrestle the flame from the television presenter Konnie Huq.

Speaking afterwards, Ms Huq – who admitted having misgivings about taking part in the relay because of China's actions in Tibet – tried to brush off the incident and said she had no hard feelings about the protester. "He obviously feels very strongly about his cause and everyone here has a right to have their opinion," she said.

Further along the route more contestants were lining up to take part. Ten minutes on and another protester was arrested trying to put out the torch with a fire extinguisher. then, as the relay travelled along Oxford Street in an open-top bus, the human rights activist Peter Tatchell jumped in its path holding a sign which read: "Free Tibet, Free Hu Jia". Hu Jia, a prominent Chinese human rights activist, was jailed on Thursday for more than three years for "inciting subversion of state power".

Three times the organisers were forced to reroute the torch or place it in an open-top bus to get past protesters, who were predominantly pro-Tibet activists but also included Falun Gong devotees and those angry at China's support for the Sudanese and Burmese governments. Torchbearers such as the rugby player Kenny Logan, who had been expecting to run their part of the course, had to make do instead with holding the red and silver torch aloft from the top of a red bus.

In a brief pyrrhic victory for the Chinese embassy in London, Beijing's ambassador to the UK, Fu Ying, did eventually run a short section of the relay through Chinatown despite rumours that she had been ordered to pull out of the procession because of the protests. Campaigners have condemned her participation in the race as an attempt to provide favourable publicity for China at a time when Beijing has killed and arrested hundreds in Tibet, according to human rights groups.

Some of the noisiest and most chaotic protests yesterday occurred outside St Paul's, the British Museum and Downing Street, where Gordon Brown was forced to receive the torch from the former Olympic champion Denise Lewis behind closed gates as hundreds of anti-China protesters scuffled with police outside on Whitehall. Campaigners had urged Mr Brown to boycott the relay and the Games' opening ceremony on 8 August unless China did more to improve its human right record. As shouts of "Free Tibet" echoed across Whitehall, the Prime Minister noticeably refrained from touching the torch.

But the Prime Minister's decision to greet the torch was widely derided by those gathered outside. Tamsin Tsering, a protester from Surrey who married a Tibetan eight years ago and was standing opposite Downing Street with her daughter, said: "I'm very disappointed to see that Brown has ignored us and greeted the torch. It clearly shows us that business, not human rights, are this Government's priorities."

As the Chinese delegation of "torch attendants", dressed in blue-and-white tracksuits and wearing radio earpieces, then left the Prime Minister and headed towards Westminster Bridge, they were loudly booed by more than 500 protesters carrying Tibetan flags and posters bearing slogans such as "Flame of Shame" and "No Olympic Torch in Tibet".

As the torch progressed east towards its final destination in Greenwich, the protests died down but the police maintained a tight security cordon around the torch bearers. The longest respite for the relay organisers was the boat journey that took the torch from Canary Wharf to the 02 Arena, where Dame Kelly Holmes lit the Olympic cauldron.

Campaigners warned that yesterday's protests would be the first of many as the torch makes its way to Paris tonight and on to San Francisco later in the week

Mark Farmanar, director of Burma Campaign UK, said. "This was supposed to be a PR coup for China and it's turned into an absolute disaster for them. I just hope that they'll realise that they can't hide behind the Olympic Games and need to address their human rights issues."

Lhadon Tethong, an activist with Students for a Free Tibet who is following the Torch to San Francisco, said: "Clearly, the journey of harmony is not as harmonious as the Chinese would have liked. Today they lost a huge amount of face and the protests will only get bigger as the torch continues its journey."

The next stop for the flame is Paris, but it leaves behind a day of protest, anger, soggy streets and a little comedy. It was, in short, a very British day of rage.

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