Page last updated at 23:42 GMT, Saturday, 5 April 2008 00:42 UK

Burning debate over relay boycott

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

Olympic torch being lit in Athens at the handover ceremony to China before the 2008 games
The Olympic flame has become a focus for discontent at Beijing

Some of the planned torch bearers have pulled out of the Olympic flame ceremony in London in protest at Chinese government policy. But should sporting events be used to make a political stand?

It is meant to symbolise the ability of sport to bring together people from around the world.

But the presence in London of the Olympic flame en route to the 2008 Beijing games has so far provoked argument and division.

As the torch is carried through the capital's streets, large-scale demonstrations are expected from critics of China's government - particularly over its policy in Tibet.

Tibet's government-in-exile, based in India, says about 140 people were killed in the crackdown on recent unrest by Chinese security forces. Beijing disputes this, saying 19 people were killed by rioters.

Tennis player Tim Henman, athlete Kelly Holmes and cricketer Kevin Pietersen will be among the 80 bearers.

But in solidarity with the demonstrators, other celebrities from the worlds of sport and entertainment who were due to have taken part in the relay have dropped out.

'Symbol of peace'

Comedian Francesca Martinez and Richard Vaughan, the UK's top badminton player, have announced they will not participate in Sunday's relay.

Mr Vaughan said he wanted to express his anger at Beijing's policy on Darfur.

"Being an economic power, they have a responsibility to help stop humanitarian crises and I don't feel that China is doing that," he added.

Ms Martinez said she supported the Tibetan cause.

The Olympic games often provides a platform for people to take their issues on to a world stage
Dame Ellen MacArthur

Matt Whitticase, of the Free Tibet Campaign, said he applauded the stand they were taking.

"We would urge people to pull out on the basis that the torch relay is being used by the Chinese government for propaganda purposes," he said.

"The Olympic torch is a symbol of peace, and given what has happened in the last few weeks they should be challenged."

Others have agonised over whether to participate. Former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq admitted she was thinking of dropping out, before deciding she could make a more powerful statement by simultaneously taking part and speaking out against China.

Writing in the Sun newspaper, she said carrying the Olympic flame was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity", but acknowledged: "I do feel uneasy about China's human rights abuses and how they treat many minorities, including the people of Tibet. The situation is dreadful."

Hopefully the Games would become "a platform for change in China," she added.

Sir Steve Redgrave said he had been inundated with e-mails urging him to boycott the event, adding: "I can see why."

Some of the planned torch carriers have found reasons to drop out. Mark Byford, the BBC's deputy director general, has withdrawn for "operational reasons". Presenter Gabby Logan has cited Radio Five Live commitments.

'Debate and change'

But among the dignitaries who have chosen to take part, some have offered principled arguments for continuing despite China's human rights record.

Beijing Olympics committee head Liu Qi (R) hands the torch to Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) on 31 March 2008
China is determined to hold a successful Olympic Games
Yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur said she hoped the Olympics would promote greater openness.

"Sport and politics are often thrown together and there is little doubt that the Olympic games often provides a platform for people to take their issues on to a world stage," she said.

"That can sometimes be a positive thing as debate and change can follow."

One retired athlete who has confronted the dilemma before is Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies.

She won silver for the UK in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, despite then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's call for a boycott of the games over the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan.

"There's no way the boycott would have made any difference," Ms Davies told the BBC News website.

"The only people it hurts are athletes, who only have one chance every four years to compete at the Olympics.

"We should be looking at trade embargoes against China, not token gestures."

The Olympic flame has a long way to travel before Beijing's controversial games. And it appears the fierce arguments about the rights and wrongs of participating will continue to rage as well.

1: Wembley 1030BST
2: Ladbroke Grove 1100
3: British Museum 1220
4: China Town 1230
5: Trafalgar Square 1250
6: Southbank Centre 1330
7: Somerset House 1415
8: St Paul's Cathedral 1430
9: Potter's Fields 1500
10: Whitchapel Road 1530
11: Stratford 1600
12: Canary Wharf 1700
13: North Greenwich 1800
Source: Mayor of London

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02 Apr 08 |  Olympics
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24 Mar 08 |  In Pictures
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22 Feb 08 |  Olympics

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