If the international Olympic torch relay was a genuine sporting event, one suspects that it would have been scrubbed from the schedules by now. The disruption to the progress of the flame in London on Sunday was replicated in Paris yesterday. On its journey through the French capital, the flame even had to be extinguished on a number of occasions when the Paris police deemed that it was "in danger" from Free Tibet campaigners.
When one considers that the whole point of the ceremonial procession is that the flame is seen to burn continuously, one wonders why the organisers did not simply give up and go home, rather than struggling on to the Charlety stadium by bus.
A number of questions are raised by this debacle. The second day of serious disruption raises doubts about the wisdom of the Olympic organisers in extending the torch's journey on a tour taking in San Francisco and Tibet, where the reception is likely to be just as hostile. Closer to home, our own capital's handling of the ceremony raises questions about our state of preparedness to handle the 2012 games. Why was it necessary, for instance, to parade the torch for such a long distance through London? The answer appears to be that it was deemed politically expedient to drag the event through a succession of the capital's boroughs to show that the 2012 Olympics are for the benefit of the entire city, rather than just east London. The result was an extended invitation for protesters to create havoc. This should serve as a lesson in the dangers of elevating politics above practicality.
And did no one foresee how sinister it would look for the torch-bearers to be surrounded by a shield of track-suited Chinese bodyguards, and an outer ring of Metropolitan Police officers in luminous jackets? The ceremony is supposed to be an image of harmony and brotherhood. Even if there had been no protests, this phalanx of security would have rendered such pretensions risible. What is the point of a torch relay if no one on the streets can actually see it?
More seriously, some of the tactics deployed by the Metropolitan Police against pro-Tibetan protesters were absurdly heavy-handed. A number of demonstrators were allegedly told by police they were not allowed to wear "Free Tibet" t-shirts. Others were ordered to take down Tibetan flags they had erected along the route. The Met seems to have assumed that, since it was charged with protecting a torch bound for Beijing, it was acceptable to import some of the law enforcement techniques common in that part of the world. Given that the Met planned for this operation for a year (and at the cost of about £1m), it is hard to put such behaviour down to the rashness of a few over-excited officers – especially in the light of events during the Chinese President's state visit here three years ago.
The Met and Beijing Olympic officials are reportedly engaged in a row over who was really in charge over Sunday's fraught procession. But the damage has been done. Perceptions of London's organisational and security competence have been dealt a heavy blow. The capital could hardly have picked a worse way to begin its preparations for the 2012 Games. An over-blown – and arguably unnecessary – ceremony has been ruined by heavy-handed policing, crude politics and inept planning. It would be tempting, and not altogether inaccurate, to argue that the torch relay has become something of a metaphor for the state of the modern Olympics.
Yet such a judgement would be premature. The Games in Beijing this summer, and indeed in London four years hence, can still be the success its hosts crave. But reaching the finish line unscathed will require a good deal more planning and considerably less hubris.Reuse content