If I were the Chinese bureaucrat responsible for guarding the sacred Olympic flame, the place I’d worry about most is Australia.
It was there, just before the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, that a student pretending to be an Olympic athlete ran up to the mayor of Sydney and presented him with an “Olympic torch” consisting of burning underpants in a can nailed on top of a chair leg. He was gone before they realized it wasn’t the real thing.
His intention was to mock this pathetic neo-pagan ceremony that was invented by the Nazis to spice up the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The 1936 Olympics was Nazi Germany’s coming-out party, so Hitler’s people arranged for 3,442 “racially pure” Aryans to run a relay race with an “Olympic torch” along the 3,442-kilometre route from the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus to the stadium in Berlin.
There had never been a torch connected with the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece, and the revived Games got along just fine without an international relay race for 40 years before the Berlin Olympics of 1936 – but if there was one thing the Nazis did well, it was propaganda.
Leni Riefenstahl even made a documentary film about the torch’s journey from Athens to Berlin (and within five years Hitler’s armies had occupied all the countries along the route).
This year’s Olympic Games were supposed to be Communist China’s coming-out party, and the route is even more ambitious: 21 countries on all six continents.
After the propaganda triumphs of the Free Tibet movement in London, Paris and San Francisco, the rain of humiliations for the Chinese regime may ease off for a while (although I wouldn’t guarantee the torch an easy ride in Buenos Aires either).
But after Dar es Salaam, Muscat and Islamabad, where they don’t care much about Tibet, comes New Delhi, where some people care a great deal.
There will be a lot of Tibetans in New Delhi, so the run there, if it happens, may resemble a low-intensity war. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta may be quiet, but then comes Canberra.
As England is the spiritual homeland of irony, so is Australia the world capital of mockery, and by the time the torch gets there (if it ever does), the Australians are going to feel challenged. It was burning underpants in 1956; what might it be in 2008?
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has already said that the blue-track-suited Chinese “thugs” who have jogged alongside the torchbearers in other countries to fend off protesters will not be allowed to operate there.
It has become a nightmare for the poor doomed Chinese bureaucrats who set this thing up: constant humiliations if they carry on with the planned route (which also goes through Tibet itself!), and utter humiliation if they cancel it.
For the moment, they are brazening it out. “The Olympic flame belongs to the people around the world,” said Wang Hui, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee. “The behaviour of a few separatists would not gain sympathy from people and will cause strong criticism and is doomed to fail.”
So far, though, I haven’t been hearing much criticism.
Never mind the silly torch and the equally bizarre three-layer cake that is the actual Olympic Games of today (an international athletics competition on the bottom, an orgy of nationalist self-congratulation in the middle and a sickly sweet pantomime of international love and brotherhood on top).
What’s actually colliding here are two irreconcilable views of the world.
For almost all Chinese, the turmoil in Tibet is a threat to national unity.
Only in the past century have Tibet and the Turkish-speaking, Muslim province of Xinjiang come to be seen as a necessary part of that national unity.
For almost everybody else, China’s relationship to Tibet is obviously a colonial one, and it’s perfectly natural for the Tibetans to seek independence.
But foreign governments will never support Tibet’s independence, because they depend on China’s trade and value “stability” in China above all else.
Foreign individuals are under no such constraints, and the interminable multinational Tour Of The Torch is giving them a lot of opportunities to show their feelings.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.