The road to Beijing: I am carrying a torch for Olympic ideal, not China

A million people lined the streets of Xi'an to watch the flame pass by, having the time of their lives. But what about the Red Guards and all that red tape? By Alan Hubbard
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This is the year in which carrying the Olympic flame has been a matter of conscience, and mine was searched long and hard before I accepted an invitation to run with the torch in China last week.

The Games were awarded to the Chinese seven years ago with the expressed hope that this would encourage them to improve human rights. So far this has not proved to be the case. Sebastian Coe says sport should be above politics, but the Chinese have been playing politics with the Games more than any host city, using them for cynical self-aggrandisement with barely a peep of protest from the International Olympic Committee.

But I have always carried a torch for the Olympic ethos, and this is why I decided to play a run-on part. It took place in the city of Xi'an in north-west China, ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty. I was invited by Samsung, the technological giants and one of the principal Olympic sponsorship partners, after a similar invitation from the International Olympic Committee four years ago as a journalistic veteran of 10 Games.

The debate raging in my mind was whether repeating it in China was morally right; I recalled that those who protested that human rights were more important than the Olympics had been jailed, and that the Chinese had threatened to shoot any demonstrators on the most controversial leg of the relay, in the Tibetan capital last month.

Fortunately there were no demos in locked-down Lhasa, nor have there been anywhere in China. The earthquake in Szechuan province clearly has taken the heat out of the human rights issues. The IOC president, Jacques Rogge, said the free reporting of the earthquake "could not have happened without the Games. We have always said the Games would open up China to the world." We'll see.

"Are you going to write negative things about China?" asked the young man handing over my ticket at Heathrow's China Eastern Airlines desk. "Why do the media always write such negative things?" It was something I was repeatedly asked while I was there. But my decision to run with the torch was because it is supposed to represent traditional Olympic values and not be symbolic of the host country. It was certainly no endorsement of the Chinese regime, since I have always believed it wrong to have awarded the Games to Beijing. But it was done so on a democratic vote and, come what may, the Games need to go on. Even the Dalai Lama says so.

Beijing is not the only host city to have brought political oppression to the Olympic table. There are examples from Berlin in 1936 to Seoul (1988) via Mexico City (1968) and Moscow (1980), and the idea of a torch relay was actually the brainchild of one of Hitler's henchmen, Josef Goebbels. While this year's demo-hit relay, spanning 85,000 miles and five continents, has been more than a storm in a china tea-cup, attracting scorn and hostility in several stop-overs, Beijing has ridden it out and doubtless will present a memorable Games, probably of unsurpassable magnificence.

Taking part in the relay that will end on 8 August in the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing proved an emotionally charged experience. There are a million reasons why I am glad I decided to run, and all were watching in Xi'an. It has a population of 8.3 million, and one million – yes, one million – turned out to cheer the torch-bearers, who included Chinese pop idols and sports stars, led by local hero Tian Liang, a diving gold medallist in the past two Olympics. He is now retired; otherwise he would have towered between young Tom Daley and history in Beijing some 800 miles down the Silk Road.

I was one of 207 people carrying the flame through streets lined by a sea of painted faces chanting "Jia-yo!", which I was told is the equivalent of "Come on my son!". The run through China had been scaled down so resources could be diverted to the aftermath of the earthquake. Xi'an, one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilisation, is now the political and economic centre of north-west China, and home of the Terracotta Army. Basketball star Wang Libin, who completed the final leg at the after-life palace built to hold China's first emperor and his terracotta warriors for eternity, said: "I hope the Beijing Olympics push forward progress in our society and promote social harmony in our country."

I was not alone in feeling some ambiguity about accepting the invitation. Wendy Morrell, 49, who took part in the London leg in a wheelchair and was a guest of Samsung in Xi'an, is a member of Amnesty International yet still supported the relay. A former archer, she suffered brain damage in 1989 when she was hit on the head by a discus in Birmingham while training for the European Championships.

"I thought about it a great deal but decided that if I withdrew, who the hell would care?" she explained. "My gesture would make little impact. But by taking part in a wheelchair I feel I am able to raise the awareness of disabled people – and that is something that really needs doing in China and the Far East."

Ten thousand police and militia, many of them equipped, disquietingly, with video cameras, guarded the route. Reaching the starting point had been a security nightmare, almost like a game of Chinese chequers, our bus being shunted between road blocks by troops impervious to pleas from officials to let us through despite our passes being waved in their impassive faces.

In the end we had to get out and walk. Doubtless this was a taste of what is to come in Beijing, where 100,000 security officials are to be deployed. There are arguments that stereotypes should be re-examined in the light of the Games but the image of Red Guards and even redder tape prevails. And whatever the Chinese is for jobsworths, they will be there en masse in Beijing.

Once under way, the run was well organised and the crowd probably well orchestrated, although their joy seemed spontaneous. No likelihood of anyone throwing themselves under the feet of the runners here, crying "Long Live Free Tibet". Quiz any Olympic mandarin about human rights and they ask what Tibet has to do with taekwondo or Darfur with the decathlon. Tiananmen Square? "But what about Guantanamo Bay?" Multiple executions? "How may people did the US put to death last year?"

The red-and-white aluminium torch, which now rests with the Athens one among my Olympic souvenirs, stands 72 centimetres high, is gas lit and is designed to stay alight even in heavy rain.It is said to represent the1,000-year-old Chinese culture of harmony between man and nature.

I took the scroll-shaped torch from another Brit, 18-year-old Edward Straiton from Stone in Staffordshire, like Wendy Morrell a winner of Samsung's Better Life Heroes competition, judged by Sir Steve Redgrave, for those who had overcome adversity to inspire others. Though suffering from diabetes and epilepsy, he works tirelessly to raise money for various charities. Running with the torch, he said, "was a dream come true".

My run – or slow trot – lasted just a couple of hundred metres, which probably took me longer than it takes Lord Coe to run a mile. There was none of the heavy-handedness shown in London by the torch's posse of outrunners, who behaved like bouncers and were labelled as "goons" by Coe but defended by the Chinese ambassador as "lovely, sunny, nice boys whose parents must feel very hurt". It was all very civilised when on a humid, cloudy morning, with more than a hint of leaden-like pollution, we 207 torchbearers stage-posted the 9.2km route after the first torch had been lit at the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.

After lighting the torch of the next runner, the chairman of the local shooting association, I was pulled towards hundreds of spectators wanting to shake my hand and pose for photographs. The coach taking us back to the hotel was marooned for an hour by a crowd cheering, pointing and pressing flag-waving tots to the windows. Many wore red T-shirts adorned with a heart and proclaiming "Love China". One of the students assigned to assist and interpret for us proclaimed herself "gobsmacked".

You do feel honoured, you do feel humbled when you see the torch light up so many lives.

China is obviously captivated by the Games and for the ecstatic citizens of Xi'an, watching the progress of the Olympic torch, their eyes wide with awe, surely it was the highlight of their lives. Maybe, just maybe, when the Sacred Flame arrives in Beijing 26 days from now to ignite the Olympic cauldron, it will shed fresh shafts of light over the world's most populous and perplexing nation.