The Olympics torch, and protesters, arrive in Beijing (virtually)

You had to get up exceedingly early to catch a glimpse of the first, unscheduled pre-Olympics event on Wednesday, the day that the torch arrived in Beijing.

Unscheduled and illegal, that is: Four foreign activists briefly hung a ‘Free Tibet’ banner on a lamppost outside the eye-catching ‘Bird’s Nest’ National Stadium before police arrived on the scene.

The protest happened at 5:47 a.m., and police were on the scene 12 minutes later to cut it short, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency.

Students for a Free Tibet offered a different account, boasting to foreign reporters that the activists were up the lamp post for an hour before the police nabbed them.

Either way, it’s a safe bet that not many people were passing by the stadium at that hour, so they would have missed reading the pro-Tibetan independence slogans written in English and Chinese.

Never mind, though, because on the Internet a protest image lasts forever.

That’s where I got a look at the banner, not on the activists’ website, which is blocked here, but on many other news websites that can be accessed in China.

Go on, have a search. You’ll find it pretty quick, I guarantee.

Further south in the grand setting of Tiananmen Square, the official Olympics day’s event started out closer to 9 a.m., a much more reasonable time in my book.

On live TV, basketball star Yao Ming carried the flaming torch past the glassy-eyed portrait of Mao Zedong that stares south across the vast square.

Icon meet icon. A fantastic photo opportunity for the throngs of press photographers on hand, who had to arrive before dawn for security checks and to get a good spot.

I watched it at my apartment on TV, far from the crowds. So it turned out to be another virtual pre-Olympics experience, just like the Free Tibet banner.

I wasn’t the only one watching from afar, though.

The organizers of the relay, which flitted around the world and then spent three months zigzagging around China, aren’t taking any chances with security in Beijing.

With three days to go, the torch is touring some of Beijing’s most famous sights – Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace.

Greeting the torch are rows of organized cheerleaders, many affiliated with official Olympics sponsors such as Lenovo, the
Chinese computer company.

Track-suited security personnel jog alongside the runners, ready to deal with any calamity, though the relay through China has seen none of the organized protests that marred its passage through London, Paris, and San Francisco.

That said, three Americans did hold a brief protest after the torch’s passage in Tiananmen, according to Reuters. The object of their protest was China’s coercive family-planning laws that restrict most families to only one child.

So on the day of the torch’s arrival in Beijing, the host city, there wasn’t a regular, off-the-street spectator on the scene.

There were plenty of reporters, photographers, and cameramen.

Otherwise, how else would we know it had happened?

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