Beijing Olympic Torch Relay 2008 Stop 4: London Light the passion, share the dream
Light the passion? Well they got that right. As for sharing the dream, it was more of a nightmare to be honest. Fiery protests, Tibetan temperatures, dodgy scheduling, blatant marketing and rampantsecurity. I think there were some sporting ideals lost in the middle too. Still, I bet an awful lot of police officers got an awful lot of overtime. Here are four snapshots from along the way.
British Museum (12 noon) There were masses of pro-Tibet protesters at the British Museum. Just up the road to be precise, in Bloomsbury Square, safely corralled up a side street so that they could shout at the passing parade from behind a helmeted cordon without getting in the way. Probably a thousand or so angry individuals, waving Tibetan flags and yelling slogans at any official vehicle with the temerity to sweep by. The Coca Cola bus got it in the neck first. "Stop the torture!" And then the grinning Samsung girls gyrating on the back of a lorry. "Stop the killing!" There followed a long noisy pause before the official Olympic double decker crawled into view. "Shame on China! Free Tibet!" The torch waited patiently, somewhere inside the bus, before crawling forward in front of the growling mob. Flags fluttered and balloons bobbed, while the chorus of angry voices grew ever louder. Many of these belonged to Tibetans themselves, or to a sincere throng of woolly-hat wearers and Guardian readers. The bloke in front of me began booing anything and everything that passed. It was when he started deliberately booing a group of Chinese athletes that I started to feel distinctly uncomfortable. There's a thin line between rightful protest and naked racism, and I feared he'd crossed it. Thankfully he seemed to be in a deluded minority. I slunk off, past a Chinese protester being apprehended by the police. Doubly disappointing. When 2012 comes round, we shouldn't be surprised when the world turns round and spits back at us.
Trafalgar Square (1pm) Here's how not to hold a successful public event. Invite everyone to turn up at noon, when the main event's at one. Don't erect a stage, just get your performers to dance around at ground level so that only a select few on the edge of the terrace can see what's going on. Pick a bloody cold day, preferably with snow, and then waste money by adding blue tickertape snow of your own. Get a white-haired ITN newscaster to wield the torch, then hide him inside a crowd of jogging minders so that onlookers are shielded from the one thing they've come to see. Watch the faces of the native Chinese community who are here to feel proud, and see their disappointment. And fill the square with branded advertising collateral, and attempt to hand it out to innocent spectators by pretending it's nothing more than a balloon or a flag. I was particularly disappointed by the flags. On the front a small "Beijing 2008" logo overshadowed by the big blue blob of the Korean "presenting partner", and on the rear a great big corporate logo on a featureless blue background. These shameless adverts were being handed out all along the route by opportunistic marketeers. I still have my unbranded 2004 torch relay flag. I recycled my 2008 flag immediately.
Somerset House (2:15pm) I thought I'd go and watch one of the set piece celebrations along the route. Not the great big multicultural spectacle on the South Bank, but the rather smaller affair inside Somerset House. I got there a bit too early, and had to stand around for half an hour in the courtyard feeling increasingly cold as yet another snow shower swirled around us. The crowd never grew too large, which we discovered later was because we'd been sealed inside behind closed iron gates. "Could you hold up the rope?" asked one of the insufficient security guards attempting to keep us well back. We declined. First into the makeshift arena, at last, came the Bollywood Brass Band. They were more Yorkshire fancy dress than Delhi realism, to be honest, but a rousing success all the same. And then 60 small schoolchildren filed out from the Seamen's Hall, jiggling up and down to keep themselves warm in the April chill. They were wearing waterproof red plastic capes, which are an essential fashion item when you're about to leap and dance amongst a courtyard filled with fountains. Unfortunately several of the children ran across the gushing jets and soaked the inside of their costume, while the lack of sleeves meant that most of their arm movements remained invisible. We loved the spectacle, however improvised the choreography, and the performers well deserved their final ovation. And finally the torch arrived, held high by a leggy blonde, hanging around for only a few seconds before continuing into the seething protests outside. But we at least, through the eyes of children, had seen the true Olympic message.
Bow Road (4pm) The good citizens of E3 appeared to have forgotten that the torch was passing through. But as four o'clock approached, and the buzz of helicopters filled the sky overhead, a few headed down to Bow Road to watch the flame go by. Many were of Chinese origin, here to watch a potent symbol from the motherland passing along their local street. The vicar was out with his camera, having set his bell ringers the task of welcoming the flame to Bow (or maybe he just pressed a button inside the tower, it was hard to be sure). And there were no protesters whatsoever, not this far out of town. What could go wrong? The road to the flyover suddenly cleared of traffic and a very large number of police motorbikes zoomed past. And a van, and another van, and the Coca Cola open-topped bus. Was the flame aboard? We didn't think so. Those grinning Samsung girls were next, keeping up their professional act as they danced for a crowd who almost certainly couldn't afford a widescreen telly like the one on the float. And then silence. Was that it?
Thankfully not. After a brief interlude of ordinary vehicles, the empty road reappeared. Yet more police outriders whizzed by, as if every motorcycle copper in the capital was having a whale of a time breaking the speed limit in 10 different boroughs in one day. And then a 4×4, and a couple of vans, and a single-decker red bus. I'd seen this procession several times before, so I knew the single-decker was just a support vehicle packed with bottles of Coke and Malvern Water. More vans followed, and the TV crew lorry, and another single-decker bus, and a luxury coach, and some more vans. Still we scanned the road for sight of any open-topped vehicle that might be carrying a beaming athlete waving a torch. None appeared, only a steady stream of very normal looking traffic. It very slowly dawned on us, with a distinctly sinking feeling, that the flame had already passed. Bugger. It must have been concealed inside one of the unflagged single-deckers, by now at least half a mile away on the road to Stratford. The vicar and I shared a look, as if to say "pah!", and walked away. Here we were, a community on the very edge of the Olympic Zone, and the authorities had sped by without acknowledging our existence or even attempting to include us as part of the celebrations. I do hope that this isn't a sign of things to come in 2012, but I fear it might be.