LONDON – Demonstrators grabbed at the Olympic torch, blocked its path and tried to snuff out its flame Sunday in raucous protests of China’s human rights record that forced a string of last-second changes to a chaotic relay through London.
The biggest protests since last month’s torch-lighting in Greece tarnished China’s hope for a harmonious prelude to a Summer Games celebrating its rise as a global power. Instead, the flame’s 85,000-mile journey from Greece to Beijing has become a stage for activists decrying China’s recent crackdown on Tibetans and support for Sudan despite civilian deaths in Darfur.
Demonstrators attempted to board the bus trailing the torch shortly after British five-time gold medal rower Steve Redgrave started the relay at Wembley Stadium.
Less than an hour later, a protester slipped through a tight police cordon and gripped the torch before he was thrown to the ground and arrested.
“Before I knew what was happening this guy had lurched toward me and was grabbing the torch out of my hand, and I was determinedly clinging on,” former children’s television host Konnie Huq told British Broadcasting Corp. television.
“I do feel for the cause,” she said. “I think that China has got a despicable human rights record.”
Another demonstrator tried to snuff the flame with a spray of white powder from a fire extinguisher, police said. Still others threw themselves in the torch’s path. They were tackled or dragged off by police. Authorities said 37 people were arrested.
London’s Metropolitan police said some 2,000 officers, on foot, motorcycles, bikes and on horseback tried to keep the procession under control.
One group of Tibetan protesters was corralled in metal barricades across from Bloomsbury Square.
“It feels like we are restrained like a sheep in a barn,” said Passang Dolne, 27, a Tibetan national who works as a nurse in London. “It really hurts.”
Chinese nationals about 100 yards away were allowed to move freely as they waved Chinese flags distributed by the Chinese Embassy and the Bank of China.
“We don’t like the Tibet people who use this time against the Chinese. It’s not a proper venue,” said Ting Yan, 27.