Torch bearers in Tiananmen Square

Moment of fame: Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 6 Aug 2008

Moment of fame: Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 6 Aug 2008

This morning I had the privilege of carrying the Olympic torch through Tiananmen Square on its final leg to the Beijing National Stadium where the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics will be held at 8.00 pm on Friday, 8 August. John Barton and I were two of 29 foreigners that had been invited to carry the torch in Beijing today after it had arrived overnight from the earthquake-stricken province of Sichuan.

Originally John was going to carry the torch in a province a long way out of Beijing at the end of July, and I was going to carry it in Qinhuangdao on 3 August, but they changed those relays to earlier dates because of the earthquake in Sichuan province (they wanted to leave Sichuan until last, before Beijing).

Neither of us could change our schedule (it was too late for me to get an earlier flight to Beijing – everything was full) so we asked the organising committee if they could give us slots in Beijing. And a few days ago they confirmed that we could run here.

Memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre

But when I learned that we would be running in Tiananmen Square, I was stunned. After the massacre of hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 by troops with tanks and automatic rifles, I had vowed never to set foot in China in my lifetime. Seeing the aftermath of the massacre in press photos had shocked me to the core.

The rest of the world was shocked too at the time, and the response by the Chinese government in blaming the students for their own deaths, expelling foreign journalists and cracking down on protests in other parts of China made me feel that this was a country that I never wanted to visit.

However, after being appointed Secretary-General of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union in 2002, of which China was an active member, I had no choice but to go to China, and bite my tongue as far as discussions on recent Chinese history was concerned.

That was hard enough, but now I was being asked to run over the ground where the Chinese military had ruthlessly gunned down hundreds of unarmed students. I considered backing out of the torch run, perhaps feigning a last minute knee injury to avoid embarrassment.

I talked about this to John Barton when I arrived in Beijing. He said he shared my concerns and wished we were running somewhere else in Beijing, but the Tiananmen Square massacre was a long time ago, and China had changed, so it was a bit like saying I wouldn't go to Germany because of the terrible things that happened in World War 2.

Of course, he was right. Although 1989 was a long time after 1945, there comes a time when you have to put past events behind you. I love visiting Germany and never feel any animosity towards the country because of what happened in the past.

With John Barton, waiting for the bus to take us to Tiananmen Square. I still had my headband on upside down at that stage,

With John Barton, waiting for the bus to take us to Tiananmen Square. I still had my headband on upside down at that stage,

So I headed out to Tiananmen Square feeling a little less uneasy about the run than when I arrived in Beijing, but still wishing it had been in another location.

When we were originally invited to be torch bearers, we thought we would be running about 250 metres like in previous Olympics, but then we heard that the relay slots had been cut back to 100 metres because they were trying to fit in more runners.

But when we got to Tiananmen Square, we found that the relay slots had been cut down to about 30 metres because the committee was under pressure to squeeze more people in - so it turned out to be a pretty short run! I later learned that there were a total of 433 torch bearers today - more than on any day since the torch began its journey in Greece about six months ago.

There was an opening ceremony to receive the torch in the Forbidden City, and then about eight torch bearers, starting with Beijing Communist Party boss, Liu Qi (who also heads up the Games organising committee), and China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, carried it through the Forbidden City to the Meridien Gate where it was handed to Yao Ming, the Chinese NBA basketball star. He carried it out into Tiananmen Square and then it went once around the perimeter of the square and once around the inside. Others running with us included the pianist Lang Lang and the film director Zhang Yimou.

John and I were positioned on the eastern side of the square near Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. We arrived on a bus with the other torch bearers, and they dropped us off at 30 metre intervals along the relay route. As we were driving along the relay route, about half a kilometre in front of the torch (at one stage the torch was almost catching us up so we had to speed up) I noticed that all the ‘public’ lining the relay route were dressed in uniforms or had t-shirts on of the same type. There didn’t seem to be any ‘ordinary’ people there.

Spectators 'screened and approved'

I learned later that thousands of people had turned up for the torch relay that morning (and hundreds had slept over night in the square to get a good spot) but before the torch relay started, the police had moved them all out of the square and bussed in thousands of people from dance and martial arts clubs, and community groups and associations whose members had been ‘screened and approved’ by the authorities.

Along the road where John and I were positioned, the spectators were all old women (probably from a retirement village or something) who were wearing ordinary street clothes but were all wearing a large badge and waving a Chinese flag.

So we realised then that the whole of the Tiananmen Square torch relay was being stage managed for television. And as the torch passed by the ‘approved’ crowds, the cheering and waving was not necessarily spontaneous, but what they had been told to do and probably had been practicing for months.

That’s not to say that there was anything artificial about the crowds’ enthusiasm, because it was clear to see that they were excited about being there, and it certainly was a great spectacle as the torch was carried through Tiananmen Square.

John was running before me, so he was to pass the flame to me, and then I would take it to the next runner – a Chinese man who had told me on the bus that he was just a ‘shopkeeper’ (although I wondered whether his ‘shop’ might have been one of those multi-million dollar emporiums that have sprung up around Beijing in recent years).

The organisation of the torch relay was as efficient as it could possibly be. Just prior to being dropped off we were handed our torch, and then as we got off the bus someone checked our uniforms to make sure the Olympic rings were on up the right way (I had my headband upside down), and as John came down the road carrying the torch, one of the escort runners who was running about 10 metres ahead of the torch used a key to turn on the gas cylinder inside my torch.

We had been instructed to pass the flame by holding the torches at a 45 degree angle. We were told that we were not allowed to shake hands, but we could give each other a high-five before I set off on my short run.

We had also been told to ‘smile and look happy’ and to look at the media truck that was in front of us (it had two TV cameras and about a dozen press photographers sitting in the back) as we waved to the crowds.

"Smile and be happy" we are told

The atmosphere was electric, so we hardly needed to be asked to ‘smile and look happy’, but I had to keep remembering to look at the media truck.

But it was all over in a flash. It seemed that hardly had I started running, I was approaching the next runner, so had to pass the flame having borne it for probably no more than 15 seconds.

Along came another escort runner who turned off the gas in my torch. He was followed by a bus on which I was ushered. Someone sitting in the front seat of the bus took my torch, opened it and pulled out the gas cylinder, and then gave me back the empty torch.

(We had been told that we could keep our torches, which was very generous of the organising committee because in Athens in 2004, torch bearers had to pay US$250 if they wanted to keep their torch).

With Mavis Ma and my Olympic torch. This shot was taken shortly before we got on the buses to go to Tiananmen Square.

With Mavis Ma and my Olympic torch. This shot was taken shortly before we got on the buses to go to Tiananmen Square.

After the bus had filled with torch bearers that had done their bit, we headed back to the China People’s Palace Hotel where we had rendezvoused earlier that morning.

I must say that even though the whole thing was stage managed, the enthusiasm of the people involved was impressive. I had read reports about the escort runners pushing and shoving the torch bearers and shouting commands at them to hold the torch higher when the relay was held in other parts of the world, but here in Beijing they were as polite as could be and everyone was saying things like “nice to have you here”, “have a good day” and “hope you enjoy your torch run”.

When we got off the bus at the China People’s Palace Hotel, that was our first encounter with ‘ordinary’ people. A crowd had gathered around the front of the hotel (I guess they wanted to catch glimpses of people like Yao Ming who had rode on the bus with us along with the other torch bearers). A few came up to us and ask if they could touch our torches, and before long we were surrounded by crowds of people holding onto our torches and having their pictures taken with us. They wouldn’t have had a clue who we were, but must have thought we were someone famous from the western world.

We were asked to autograph caps and t-shirts (whilst people were wearing them) and it took us about half an hour before we could tear ourselves away from the crowd.

I went inside the hotel where the organising committee was providing packing tubes for our torches, and even there I had hotel managers and staff asking to be photographed with me holding the torch. One smartly dressed female manager took off her jacket and asked me to autograph the sleeve of her white silk blouse. I tried to tell her I wasn’t anyone famous, but she didn’t seem to understand and insisted that I deface her crisp white blouse.

It was certainly an experience to be treated like a celebrity – but I don’t think I’d like to be one for real. People grabbing you, pulling you, thrusting caps and pens in your face – I can understand why pop stars and the like get tired of pandering to their fans after a while.

My only regret about the experience is that because the public couldn’t get into Tiananmen Square, none of my work colleagues could take a photograph of John and me running – so that was a disappointment, but lots of people said they saw us on live television, so we are hoping someone we know might have recorded it.

Postscript added 23 August:

Today I was given a DVD recording of the Tiananmen Square torch relay, so at least I was able to get a few screen shots off it (see below) to keep as souvenirs. The quality is not very good, but it’s better than nothing.

Below are two shots of John as he came before me (he was runner No 95), followed by one of me (I was runner No 96) because I've pasted the other shot to the top of this post.

The greatest show on earth?

Smog, fog or ‘humidity haze’