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Olympic torch arrives in London as capital braces for protests

The Olympic torch arrived in the British capital Saturday, where it is due to be carried aloft by a host of dignitaries, athletes and celebrities _ and likely greeted by angry demonstrators protesting China's human rights record and its recent crackdown in Tibet.
The torch has already met protests in Greece and in Istanbul, Turkey since it began its 85,000 mile (140,000 kilometer) journey to Beijing on March 31. In London _ due to be the next summer Olympic host, in 2012 _ it will face the strongest opposition yet to China's role as host of the Games.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he will greet the torch outside his 10 Downing Street home during its 31 mile (50 kilometer) journey from Wembley Stadium in the northwest to Greenwich in the southeast, shrugging off a call from some opposition politicians not to participate in the ceremony.
"It is also important to recognize, when you ask the question about the Olympic torch, that the Dalai Lama himself has said that he does not want to see a boycott of the Olympics," Brown said Saturday.
The torch's global odyssey is the longest in Olympic history and is meant to highlight China's growing economic and political power. But it has also offered protest groups abundant opportunity to draw attention to their concerns. Protesters opposing the recent crackdown in Tibet, China's support for the Sudanese regime and China's poor human rights record are all planning demonstrations in the capital.
"People are traveling from across the country and Europe as well to participate," said spokesman Terry Bettger of the Free Tibet Campaign.
London's Metropolitan Police said it was aware of six organizations, including the Free Tibet campaign, the spiritual group Falun Gong and a group calling for democracy in Myanmar, planning to protest. The force plans to deploy 2,000 officers along the torch route.
"Some of those (protesters) will leapfrog the route to make their voice known in different places," said Commander Bob Broadhurst. "I don't know whether they will be joined by others on the day. I anticipate that some of them probably will."
Authorities got a taste of what may come during the relay when two activists rappelled down Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament in central London Saturday to unfurl a wind-buffeted banner reading: "One World, One Dream: Free Tibet 2008." The words were a play on China's official Olympic slogan: "One World, One Dream."
Police said they arrested four people on suspicion of unlawful demonstration after the stunt.
The Chinese ambassador to Britain, whose role as a torchbearer has become a focus of protesters' ire, said the Olympics should be viewed as a sporting event.
"There's a lot more awareness about the influence of politics and there are better means for solving political problems. You don't solve them on the football ground, you don't solve them in the swimming pool," Ambassador Fu Ying told the British Broadcasting Corp. last week.
The BBC reported Thursday that Fu had pulled out of the relay, but the Chinese Embassy said no decision had been made, and declined to comment on news reports that a Chinese student organization has rallied members to protect the torch as it crosses London.
Among the 80 torchbearers scheduled to take part are double Olympic gold medal-winning runner Kelly Holmes, news anchor Trevor MacDonald and violinist Vanessa Mae.
Several high-profile torchbearers have dropped out to protest China's human rights record.
On Thursday, comedian Francesca Martinez said she would not participate because taking part would legitimize the Beijing government's crackdown on demonstrators in Tibet. Richard Vaughan, Britain's top badminton player, also said he would not participate because China was not doing enough to stop violence in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
One of London's oldest Chinese organizations said it was crucial that the event not be marred by protests. More than 80,000 people of Chinese origin live in London _ the largest Chinese community in Europe.
"The Olympic games are very important for all Chinese. In Chinatown everyone is very anxious to see the torch pass," said London Chinese Community Center spokeswoman Annie Wu. "We hope it goes smoothly."
Scholars who study the role of sports in society say the controversy surrounding China's hosting of the Olympics is to be expected.
"Oftentimes we see the tension of the world manifest itself at the Olympics. It's been political for over 100 years," said Purdue University history professor Randy W. Roberts.
The torch relay is expected to face more demonstrations in Paris, San Francisco, New Delhi and possibly elsewhere as it weaves its way across the globe on a 21-stop, six-continent tour before returning to mainland China on May 4.
The torch's round-the-world route might seem erratic to some, but it reflects the traditional Chinese perspective that China _ or the Middle Kingdom as its name is literally translated _ is the center of the world.
From this point of view the torch's path to London and Paris represents a journey to the westernmost edge of the world. Afterward, the Olympic flame will arc back over Beijing to the United States, the easternmost frontier, before looping southward to Buenos Aires.
The torch was flown into London on Saturday from St. Petersburg, where some of the city's most renowned athletes carried the Olympic flame.
In all, some 80 people carried the torch, beginning with Galina Zybina, a city native who won the Olympic shot put in 1952, the first year the Soviet Union took part in the games. Evgeni Plushenko, the current Olympic figure skating gold medalist, who lives in St. Petersburg, also was among the participants.

Updated : 2021-10-17 09:21 GMT+08:00