The men in blue-and-white track suits are traveling the world to protect the Olympic torch, but, in the flame's tumultuous tour so far, they have become a symbol of Beijing's heavy-handedness. The tracksuit-clad Sacred Torch Guard Team was drawn from China's paramilitary People's Armed Police, which is used for internal security. The group formed last August and trained by running six miles daily. While their chief mission is to protect the flame, they've also cracked down on protesters. Sebastian Coe, a two-time medalist and chairman of the London Games in 2012, called them "thugs" and said they tried to push him. A torchbearer in Paris, environmental journalist Yolaine De La Bigne, told the Associated Press that the team snatched away the Tibetan flag headband she was wearing.
Their presence has only exacerbated the protests that surround the relay, says Steve Tsang, a China specialist at Oxford University. "It is very much self-inflicted damage to China's position in the international community," he says. "In any event you'd have protests ... but the scale became much bigger when interest groups knew beforehand that they would be guaranteed prime-time television coverage. What was the Chinese government thinking? How could it send the People's Armed Police to beat up protesters, even push around foreign celebrities holding the torch, and not attract even more attention?"
On Wednesday, the route of the torch relay was shortened and changed as San Francisco authorities moved to head off any confrontation between pro-China and anti-China crowds. The venue of the closing ceremony for the run was also changed. San Francisco has some experience with dealing with Beijing's foes: the Chinese consulate in the city often sees protests by North Korean refugees and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. But the scale of Wednesday's events is huge: Tibetan activists hung a banner from the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday, and thousands attended a vigil on the eve of the flame's arrival. A slew of other activists are congregating around the issue, from advocates for Burmese democracy (China backs the country's junta) to nudists who want the Olympics to revert to the custom of ancient Greece and have the athletes compete naked. The San Francisco police department canceled all vacations and leaves to prepare for Wednesday's relay.
The protests, which have been spurred by last month's unrest in Tibet, reached a jarring high point in last week's huge, chaotic outpourings in London and Paris. The unrest has made a mockery of the theme for this summer's Beijing Olympics: "One World, One Dream." In the words of David Zweig, head of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, "'One World, One Dream' has turned out to be quite a nightmare,"
Yet the protests are producing harmony in at least one part of the world: China. While the Chinese government has called the protests "vile," many ordinary Chinese see the protests as evidence of that the West aims to humiliate and control China. The state press has been filled with indignation, especially after the Paris leg, and labeled the protests the work of "Tibetan separatist forces." Chinese torchbearer Jin Jing, who uses a wheelchair, has emerged as a hero in the domestic press. Shanghai-based paper Oriental Morning Post wrote that when the "splittists made a move towards the torch, Jin Jing turned away and protected the torch with her body, while looking proud through the turmoil."
The tone is also reflected on the Chinese Internet, with students and overseas Chinese encouraged to show support for the Beijing Games during the torch relay. Unlike the period after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, when the patriotism of many Chinese abroad was dampened by a distrust of the Communist Party, the torch protests have inspired cries of unity. "From now on, we will fight for ourselves," one Chinese woman in San Francisco wrote in a Chinese Internet forum. "We know it is our ever-stronger motherland that's frightening the western world. It is our development and confidence that's causing them panic. From certain aspect, a new Chinese value has formed through the torch, and all the Chinese people are coming together once again."
After suggestions that the torch relay be cut short were made earlier this week, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge denied there were any plans to do so. Beijing would be unlikely to agree in any case. But having seen the dissent and protest that's followed the torch's 85,000-mile "Journey of Harmony" to the Chinese capital, the Chinese government has to be wondering what this means for its hopes of a glorious Summer Olympics. With reporting by Lin Yang