Olympic torch: a perfect response

Who says Sunday was a shambles? Who says the police were “humiliated”? A triumph, I call it. What are the Olympics about if not persistence, courage and goodwill towards foreigners (in this case Tibetans), and the expression of these qualities through the kind of doughty physical fitness that leaps over barriers and wrestles sinewy opponents? As for the police, they did their job and kept everyone concerned alive. Good.

OK, a few of the protesters were just out for a ruck; that is the case in all demonstrations. But most were sincere and non-violent and took pains to get Tibetan flags and paint literate banners. You do not need to be fanatically anti-Chinese to admit that the Chinese Government is not behaving well in Tibet, or to be uneasy at the calculated pageantry of the Olympic torch's procession through our streets with a phalanx of Chinese guards. Given that Turkey and Greece had already demonstrated and France was gearing up, it would have been feeble indeed if Britain had not bothered.

Even some bearers - like Sir Steve Redgrave who started the relay and Konnie Huq who nearly had the torch grabbed off her - say they are glad to live in a country where people can protest. It takes stuffed shirts such as Duncan Goodhew and Seb Coe to huff that it was a “disgrace” and the event ruined by “a few people breaking the law”. It would have been equally efficiently and deservedly ruined just by the myriad flags, atrocity photos and placards. The excitable Huq-wrestlers and police-kickers were inevitable, regrettable perhaps, but marginal. The point is that the demonstrators made their point.

Western democracies had no need to go along with this relay. The international flame-tour is not time-honoured. Hitler invented it in 1936 with the torch coming from Greece to Germany as a pan-Aryan gesture. It did not catch on for 64 years, until Sydney touted it round the Pacific rim, again for political reasons. Then Athens staged a tour in 2004 to mark the Games' return to their first home. It just went round the bidding cities, with little brouhaha, turned up at Wimbledon and went up the Mall with Sir Roger Bannister. It passed calmly; but then Greece was not engaged in abusing an oppressed province. It is China - economically rising, full of national pride - that set up this unprecedented 85,000 mile epic and demanded that the flame - with attendant security toughs - should be carried through every possible country. And end up, triumphant, in beaten and tortured Lhasa. If that is not political, what is?

Tessa Jowell, the Minister for the Olympics, paid sullen lip service to the freedom of demonstration on the Today programme yesterday, but added: “Would it have been better if the torch had passed smiling crowds and cheering children? Yes it would.” No, Tessa, it wouldn't. Given the Tibet situation - deaths, torture, religion and dissent silenced - it would have been damn suspicious.

And talking of suspicious, I have no idea why the aforementioned Konnie Huq of Blue Peter fame was carrying the torch at all. But she did us all a service with her artless revelations about the mysterious Chinese “torch attendants” in blue tracksuits who ran alongside her inside the phalanx of puffing Metropolitan police. The tracksuited ones were, she said wonderingly, “very full-on”. They had some kind of an altercation with the British police, she says, and kept forcing her hand up to hold the torch higher. Unattractive, wouldn't you say? Rather like the American secret servicemen who so patronise our police when a US president visits. These things jar. More, to me, than the barrier-jumpers and wielders of fire extinguishers.

Almost equally unattractive was the spectacle of Gordon Brown welcoming the flame at Downing Street with one of his best “uneasy” expressions, and the BBC's odd implication that it was er, sort of OK because he shook hands but didn't actually touch the torch. Wouldn't want to burn his fingers.

Strangely, so you might think after all that, I am not against the Beijing Olympics or advocating a pious boycott. Provided the athletes are allowed to speak out freely, they should be left to compete in peace. The world should hope that the event contributes - as it yet might - to China's genuine if gradual emergence into a family of nations holding more humane values. A boycott would be, apart from anything else, massively hypocritical. Each of us deals with China every single day. Our banks have profitable branches there, we need the cargo ships they build at such a rapid rate, Chinese investment props up British industries and we sell to them and gladly buy their goods on the high street. Chinese recyclers turn our plastic bottles into cheap fleeces that we then equally gladly wear (ironically, probably a lot of those fleeces were jumping over barriers on Sunday). Ignoring China's energy and drive in a globalised economy would be impossible. And stupid.

But joining in China's triumphalism is not necessary. Not right now, not with the suffering and injustice rife in Tibet. This torch procession is nakedly political and should not have been encouraged by our leaders, even leaders in a panic about the confusion and mismanaged costs that threatens to make our own 2012 Games unpopular. Hopes of “smiling crowds and cheering children” were beyond stupid. It was a bad call.

Luckily, when the guttering flame reached London there were enough spirited protesters to save our national honour. I am as grateful to them as to any gold medallist. More so, actually.

Libby Purves