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IOC member rips 'disaster' of global torch relay

A senior International Olympic Committee member said the Beijing Games escaped political boycotts only due to the goodwill following May's devastating earthquake.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A senior International Olympic Committee member said the Beijing Games escaped political boycotts only due to the goodwill following May's devastating earthquake.

Canadian member Dick Pound said during the IOC's general assembly Tuesday that the global torch relay never should have taken place in light of expected protests by activists opposed to China's policies on Tibet, human rights and other issues.

"This came very close to becoming a disaster," he said. "The risks were obvious and should have been assessed a little more carefully. The result is there was a crisis affecting the games."

The relay was disrupted by anti-China protests in London, Paris and other cities.

Earlier, IOC president Jacques Rogge said the committee would consider whether to eliminate international relays in the future, but it was the outspoken Pound who raised the issue to a more contentious level.

"In my country and in many other countries in my part of the world, we were in full boycott mode," he said. "Public opinion and political opinion was moving toward an actual boycott of the games, and it was only the earthquake tragedy that diverted attention from what could otherwise have been something very, very serious."

Nearly 70,000 people were killed and 5 million left homeless in the May 12 quake in Sichuan province.

Pound said the IOC should fully analyze the relay situation to make sure it never happens again.

"It's been done and resolved and we escaped this disaster," he said, as leaders of the Beijing organizing committee listened from the dais.

Rogge said the IOC will always retain its tradition of lighting the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia and starting the torch relay in Greece. But he reiterated the IOC might limit the flame processions to domestic routes within the Olympic host countries.

"We respect protests and freedom of expression, but violence is against the Olympic spirit," Rogge said. "We believe in the strong symbolism of the torch relay."

He noted the relay was also disrupted in Italy before the 2006 Winter Games in Turin by anti-globalization demonstrators and protesters opposed to road construction projects in the region.

"It is illusory to think the simple elimination of the international relay will make all the problems disappear," Rogge said. "The torch relay attracts the media, and the media attracts the protesters. To make it only a national relay will not solve all the problems."

Senior Chinese IOC member He Zhenliang said he was "very disappointed" by the anti-China protests, adding the Olympic flame was a powerful symbol to unite the world's youth to compete in peace and harmony.

"After these incidents, we are convinced more than ever that we need to cherish and preserve the flame," he said. "We must make all efforts to make sure these incidents are never repeated again. It is a hope. I don't know if it will become a reality."

The torch relay has passed off peacefully since coming to China, and the flame is currently in Sichuan province. The relay will culminate in Beijing with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron at Friday night's opening ceremony.

"I am convinced the games will be a great success and will be well organized," Rogge said. "These games will leave a fantastic legacy for China."

Hein Verbruggen, the Dutch member who leads the IOC panel coordinating the Beijing Olympics, acknowledged the committee had underestimated some of the key challenges facing the games, such as media freedoms, the environment, political issues and geopolitical events.

"In the future, we need to be more hands-on and pro-active on issues that engage our image and credibility," Verbruggen said. "It is heavily image based. We cannot allow to be hijacked by pressure groups and vested interests."

He reiterated the IOC believes the games will be a "force for good" and catalyst for change in China, but the committee should not be held accountable for government policies in China or other host countries.

"The games must be read within the context of each nation," Verbruggen said. "We are being hosted by the Chinese. The IOC and the Olympic movement should not be expected to resolve issues which are not related to the athletic competition. We would compromise our mission and responsibility if we tried to resolve all problems unrelated to the games."

Beijing organizing committee chief Liu Qi delivered his final report to the IOC before the games, saying everything was ready for the accredited 11,128 athletes from 205 national delegations. More than 6,000 athletes from 170 countries have checked into the Olympic village so far, he said.

"I have no doubt that we will stage high-level Olympic Games with distinguishing features and open a new chapter in the Olympic movement," Liu said.