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IOC expresses relief after San Francisco torch relay

The IOC expressed relief that the torch relay passed off without major incident in San Francisco, and reaffirmed the right of free speech for athletes at this summer's Beijing Olympics.

world Updated: Apr 10, 2008 10:07 IST

The IOC expressed relief on Thursday that the torch relay passed off without major incident in San Francisco, and reaffirmed the right of free speech for athletes at this summer's Beijing Olympics.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said the San Francisco relay had "fortunately" avoided much of the turmoil and disruptions that had marred the legs in London and Paris. "It was, however, not the joyous party that we had wished it to be," he said at the opening of a two-day IOC executive board meeting in Beijing.

"Athletes in many countries are in disarray and we need to reassure them. Our major responsibility is to offer them the games they deserve. ... We have 120 days to achieve this." The San Francisco parade route was changed and shortened to prevent disruptions by massive crowds of anti-China protesters. The planned closing ceremony at the waterfront was canceled and moved to San Francisco International Airport. The flame was put directly on a plane and was not displayed.

Still, IOC officials were grateful that there had been no violence.

"I'm very, very happy because there was no injuries," IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway said. "We were afraid of that. That didn't happen, so this was a very good result."

The IOC had not ruled out the possibility of suspending or scrapping the rest of the international leg of the relay, but with San Francisco out of the way, officials vowed to push on. "The torch relay has to continue," IOC vice president Gunilla Lindberg said.

"It's important that we don't give in to violence." The torch is now headed to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to a dozen other countries. The relay also is expected to face demonstrations in New Delhi, India, and possibly elsewhere on its 21-stop, six-continent tour before arriving in mainland China on May 4. The Olympics begin on August 8.

"I think the torch is moving into smoother water now," Heiberg said. "But we haven't finished the torch relay yet, so we'll have to keep an eye on what's happening."

While the torch relay is supposed to symbolize peace and harmony, it has become a magnet for protesters opposed to China's policies on Tibet and Darfur and the country's overall human rights record. Heavy security measures are now in place wherever the torch travels.

"I think it's necessary," Heiberg said. "Demonstrators should be allowed to demonstrate, but within limits. If the police is needed to keep law and order, we'll have to accept that." Rogge, meanwhile, sought to reassure athletes that they are free to express their political opinions _ as long as they do so away from official Olympic venues in Beijing.

Rogge said free expression has been enshrined in the Olympic Charter for more than 40 years as a "basic human right." However, the charter also forbids any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" in any Olympic sites or venues.

"I'm very clear on the fact that athletes have ample opportunities to express themselves without hindrance, but just by respecting the sacred environment of the Olympic village, the Olympic venues the podium and so forth," he said. Rogge said athletes should use "common sense" in complying with the rules.

"There is absolutely no problem for an athlete to express his or her views in an interview with media people," he said. "This can be done in his or her own country before the games. This can be done in the host country of the Olympics during the games and, of course, after the games. The only thing we ask is there should be no propaganda or demonstrations of political, religious and racial origin."

At the same time, Rogge said athletes should not feel pressured to speak out.

"Athletes have no responsibility to speak out on political, religious or racial matters," he said. "They are allowed to do so but there is no moral obligation on them to do that. And we have to protect the athletes. The freedom of expression and the freedom of information also includes the freedom not to speak and not to express yourself. And that must be respected."

Rogge said he would send guidelines explaining the policy to the world's national Olympic committees.