This was supposed to be China's week. The launch of the longest Olympic torch relay in history was heralded in the Chinese press as a spectacle that would bring the nation glory, until Monday, when editors of Beijing's newspapers struggled to edit blood-covered Tibetan protesters out of photos of the torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece.
China's week has become Tibet's moment. Tibetans and their supporters are being driven by the belief that this Olympic year and its vast media attention are a last opportunity to challenge Beijing's rule. It now looks like activists have succeeded in making China's 57-year occupation of the territory the dominant issue of the 2008 Olympic Games.
Behind this dramatic capture of the world's attention are three young women from British Columbia, who have spent much of the seven years since China won the Games organizing thousands of international volunteers and hundreds of Tibet-related organizations into a six-month campaign of stealth activism intended to humiliate China before an international audience.
Standing just to the edge of the TV cameras in Greece on Monday was Kate Woznow, a 28-year-old Vancouverite who organized the day's attention-grabbing interventions - blood-covered Tibetans lay down in front of the torch carrier during the lighting ceremony - from the offices of Students for a Free Tibet in New York, where she runs the Olympic-related campaign:
"We realized seven years ago, when China got the Olympics, what an incredible opportunity this would be to shine a spotlight on the terrible treatment of Tibet," she said as she arrived in London to organize a day of demonstrations to coincide with the torch's arrival in Beijing on Monday.
The Tibet cause has been popular on campuses for years, and has attracted celebrities such as actor Richard Gere, but it has long had the somewhat passive image typified by bumper stickers and drum circles. The runup to the Olympics has changed that, as have the events in Tibet this month, which have reportedly seen more than 100 Tibetans killed by Chinese authorities in nationwide uprisings that seem to have been spurred by the Olympics protests.
"Young people really got it; they've been signing up and telling us that they have a real determination to push the bar, to make this the year when there's some change for Tibet. They know that every media organization in the world is going to be focused on the Olympics, so for years we've realized that what we have to do is to be creative and find ways to insert the Tibet issue into that frame."
As Ms. Woznow was bailing the Tibetan students out of Greek jail (the two who appeared most prominently on TV were Swiss citizens), another B.C. woman, 28-year-old Freya Putt, was in her office in Washington, preparing documents that would be sent to 150 Tibet support groups around the world giving them detailed notes on how to behave when organizing similar disruptions as the torch makes its six-month trip around the world.
Last May, the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile put together a meeting in Brussels of all the major Tibet organizations - there are hundreds, and they're organized under a Washington-based umbrella group, the International Tibet Support Network. There, the exiled Tibetans decided that the Olympics should be the single focus of their activities for the next 15 months, and they hired a full-time organizer for the Olympic-disruption campaign.
They picked Ms. Putt, a University of Victoria graduate who had spent years in the student movement. When Tibet activists disrupted then-prime-minister Jean Chrétien's 2001 visit to China, Ms. Putt was there, directing it and communicating with the media as students unfurled a protest banner behind the Chinese and Canadian leaders. One of the demonstrators was Ms. Woznow, who was arrested and detained by Chinese authorities.
From Washington, Ms. Putt has steered a disorderly circle of thousands of volunteers on six continents into a carefully designed campaign that will combine Greenpeace-style attention-getting techniques with the Buddhist country's traditionally non-violent values, all directed at the thousands of media outlets that are converging on Beijing.
She also leads the efforts to communicate with the International Olympic Committee, whose president, the Belgian Jacques Rogge, has refused to consider requests to prevent China from sending the torch relay over Mount Everest and through Tibet, which Tibetans consider a gesture of subjection. The committee may be forced to bend after European leaders suggested this week that they will stay away from the opening ceremonies unless China changes its approach to Tibet.
And she works closely with groups that are using the Olympics to bring attention to China's other controversies, including its support for the government of Sudan during the Darfur crisis and its mistreatment of the media.
"I make sure we're co-ordinating all these groups around the world, making sure we're speaking with a common message and focusing our efforts so they'll have the greatest impact," Ms. Putt said. "I make sure that we have a common target, that all of these groups' energies are going in the same direction, which is to put pressure on the Chinese leaders in Beijing to make Tibet the critical issue that really needs to be resolved immediately."
While Ms. Woznow had become involved in the politics of Tibet after a yearlong tour of China in 1999, Ms. Putt got involved through her family: Her mother had been a volunteer in India with the aid agency CUSO in the 1960s, working with Tibetan refugees who were flooding across the border. So when Ms. Putt encountered Tibet activists at the University of Victoria, she was quickly drawn into their circle.
She soon met another young B.C. woman, Lhadon Tethong, a family acquaintance. Her mother had also worked with CUSO near Tibet, and had married a Tibetan activist who had been in the Dalai Lama's inner circle; the two had moved to Canada, where Ms. Tethong was born.
Today Ms. Tethong, 34, is the charismatic executive director of Washington-based Students for a Free Tibet, with 650 chapters around the world, and is perhaps the leading figure in the international Olympic-protest campaign.
The three women work closely together, drawing on their long experience in Canada. "We've all kind of grown up together," Ms. Woznow says. "It's been a kind of maturing of the movement as we've gotten older, and I think now is its most exciting time."
But Ms. Tethong, unlike her non-Tibetan friends, has never visited Tibet. Given her family's history, that would be too dangerous. But she did sneak into China last year and help organize the unfurling of a large banner on the Great Wall and a protest on Mount Everest, all the while posting video clips on the Web. She was taken into custody by Chinese police and questioned.
In an interview yesterday from Dharamsala, India, where she has been working with Tibetans all month, Ms. Tethong explained that the Olympics have come to be seen as a decisive historical moment, and that the bloody events of recent weeks have not dimmed a hope that this year's international attention will force China to change its stand toward Tibet.
"We want to lessen the damage that can be done to Tibetans by shining as bright a light as possible on them, especially during the Games and this torch relay," she said.
"The Chinese government wants something from this; they want world acceptance. That's why they're taking the risk of inviting the world in for these Games. They want to be part of the club and to be liked. And our job as young activists is to deny them this, to tell them that their approach to Tibet is going to cost them something, it'll cost them face. And loss of face is the most serious thing we can deliver."
The three women have been campaigning around the Olympics since 2000, when Beijing was bidding to be host of the 2008 Games. At the time, they were simply trying to prevent China from getting the Games. When that campaign failed, there was a mood of dismay, and the issue was dropped for a couple years.
Then, about 2005 or 2006, there was an epiphany, a realization that China's Games could be the ultimate opportunity to make a change, if angry, mistreated and dying Tibetans became their emblematic image.
The campaign falls into a long tradition of political campaigning around Olympic Games. It probably began in 1936, when Adolf Hitler hosted the Berlin Olympics as a showcase for the new fascist Germany, and there was a major international discussion of a boycott. It was Hitler who introduced the torch relay, intended to show off his regime's power and purity, and gave the opening ceremonies much of their nation-promoting pomp.
Because the opening events of the Olympics became tools of national promotion after 1936, they soon became targets of activism, including the civil-rights protests by athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Games, the boycott by several democratic countries of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the reciprocal Communist boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
"Even when we were opposing Beijing's bid," Ms. Putt said from Washington, "people knew that if China was awarded the Olympics, it would mean that all the attention of the media and a huge number of people around the world would be on China in a way that it isn't normally. And for Tibetans, they've been struggling to get their voices heard for 50 or 60 years. It's not a fresh issue, it's not a violent conflict, and because of that it's hard to get a sense of attention and urgency on the issue. So we knew right away that it was an opportunity not to be missed."
As the torch makes its slow journey around the world, passing through Beijing this weekend before crossing Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas before returning to China for its controversial trip through Tibet in May, the three Canadian women are working their BlackBerrys and laptops late into the night, ensuring that something dramatic will happen at each stop.
Their biggest plans, however, are for August, when Beijing will be on every TV station and the front page of every publication. "We are determined to have non-violent direct action in the heart of Beijing, inside the Games, every day," Ms. Tethong says.
"We know that Tibet won't be free in September, but we want the next generation of Chinese leaders to know that this occupation is very costly for them, that its cost to their reputation outweighs any benefits. That's what we want to accomplish this summer."
German chancellor, Angela Merkel, yesterday announced she has decided not to attend the Olympics in Beijing.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, confirmed that Ms. Merkel was staying away. Poland's Donald Tusk and the Czech Republic's Vaclav Klaus had previously announced they had declined to attend the opening ceremonies.
Making an appeal
The European Union is appealing to China to resolve the crisis in Tibet through peaceful means. The appeal comes from foreign ministers of the EU's 27 countries, at a two-day meeting in Slovenia. The ministers say Tibet's cultural heritage must be respected. No officials at the EU meeting are asking for a full-blown boycott.
Greek authorities prevented more demonstrations against China's crackdown in Tibet yesterday as the Olympic flame headed for Athens and its symbolic handover to Beijing Games organizers. Echoing an increasingly tense week as the torch travelled around the country, police stopped 20 demonstrators putting up a banner in Volos, arresting one person. About 10 Danish activists were also blocked by police around 70 kilometres outside Larissa, again in central Greece.
Paying A visit
China yesterday allowed the first foreign diplomats to visit Tibet after deadly riots, as European nations appeared split on the idea of boycotting the Beijing Olympics opening. Two weeks after protests in the Himalayan region turned deadly, diplomats from 15 embassies, including those of the United States, Britain, France, Japan and Canada arrived in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, for a hastily arranged tour.
Calling for symbols
Former German Olympic medalists yesterday called for those competing in the 2008 Olympics to wear a specially designed green and blue bracelet to protest against human-rights violations by China in Tibet.
The four are Stefan Pfannmoller, a bronze medalist in the canoe at the 2004 Athens Game; former German handball star Stefan Kretzschmar, 1992 Olympic swimming champion Dagmar Hase, and four-time Olympic rowing champion Katrin Boron.
Sources: Associated Press, AFP, Reuters
IN THE OLYMPIC MOVEMENT
1920 The International Olympic Committee registers disapproval of the military aggression of the First World War by not inviting Germany to the games in Antwerp.
1940 The Olympic Games are originally scheduled to be held in Tokyo, but several countries plan to boycott the Games there because Japan is waging an aggressive war in Asia. Japan then decides the Games would be a distraction from its military goals. Despite the outbreak of war a year earlier, the Olympics are scheduled for Helsinki. Just weeks before they are to go ahead, the Soviet Union invades Finland. The Olympics are cancelled.
1948 In the aftermath of the Second World War, the committee bans Germany and Japan from the London Games.
1964 South Africa is banned from the Olympics for its refusal to condemn apartheid.
in the Games
1968 At the Mexico City Olympics, black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise black-gloved fists in the air during the playing of the U.S. national anthem after they receive their medals. The U.S. Olympic Committee suspends the pair and bans them from the Olympic village.
1972 At the Olympics in Munich, Palestinian terrorists kill 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. The incident ravages the Olympic ideals of peace and unity and changes the way Olympics are planned.
1996 A pipe bomb explodes in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, killing two people, but the motive or group responsible was never determined.
Outside the Games
1936 In 1932, the International Olympic Committee chooses Berlin as the 1936 Olympic site. In 1933, Adolf Hitler is elected chancellor of the Reich. The Nazi Party's anti-Semitic violence and legal decrees, particularly those banning Jews from participating with "Aryans" in sports, spurs the American Jewish Congress and the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to call for the United States to boycott the Berlin Games. U.S. Olympic committee members vote for U.S. participation, and as an act of protest, several U.S. Jewish athletes, including Harvard University track star Milton Green, refuse to go. U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens wins four gold medals. In Germany, the Nazis portray blacks as inferior and ridicule the United States for relying on "black auxiliaries." But the German people feel otherwise. Crowds of 110,000 cheer Mr. Owens in Berlin's Olympic Stadium and his autograph or picture is sought as he walks the streets.
1956 Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq decline to participate in the Games in Melbourne to protest the invasion of the Suez Canal, while Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands withdraw to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary.
1968 Mexican students who are protesting the money spent on the games are confronted by the Mexican army. Between 200 and 300 are shot dead and hundreds more are injured.
1976 Twenty-five African nations withdraw from the Games in Montreal in protest against New Zealand's rugby team touring in South Africa. The IOC refuses to ban New Zealand,arguing that the controversy involves a rugby tour and rugby is not an Olympic sport. Taiwan withdraws when China presses Canada to deny the Taiwanese the right to compete as the Republic of China.
1980 The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979 prompts U.S. President Jimmy Carter to call for a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games, which more than 40 countries eventually join.
1984 In retaliation for that boycott, the Soviet Union organizes a boycott of the Los Angeles Games, along with 13 other nations.
Sources: International Herald Tribune, BBC, about.com, ESPN, Daily Utah Chronicle, teacherVision