Protesters disrupted the flame-lighting ceremony for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on Monday in Greece, approaching the just-lit torch with a Tibetan flag and a banner that read “No Genocide Games.”
Free Tibet, a London-based group that works to end China’s occupation of the region, identified the protesters as Chemi Lhamo, Jason Leith and Fern MacDougal. The protesters can be heard but not seen in video of the flame-lighting ceremony, which took place amid heavy security at the Temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia, where the torch traditionally is lit ahead of its journey across the globe.
“How can Beijing be allowed to host the Olympics given that they are committing a genocide against the Uyghurs?” one protester said, referring to reports of human rights violations committed by the Chinese government against the Uyghur and other Muslim minority populations of the Xinjiang region in northwest China.
According to the Associated Press, police threw the protesters to the ground and arrested them, and Free Tibet’s Will Hoyles told The Washington Post that the three will remain detained until a court appearance Tuesday. Free Tibet added that Greek police arrested four other Tibetan activists as they were sitting in a car on a public road near the entrance to the ceremony.
The arrested protesters are “all in great spirits and glad to hear that their brave action is shining a light on the International Olympic Committee’s hypocrisy,” Free Tibet CEO Sam Walton said in a statement. “The IOC cannot with one breath say that the Olympics is all about solidarity and with the next ignore the plight of millions of people who are being oppressed by the Chinese regime.”
The International Olympic Committee has generally steered clear of China’s human rights record, and in a speech Monday, IOC President Thomas Bach said the Games must be “respected as politically neutral ground.”
“Only this political neutrality ensures that the Olympic Games can stand above and beyond the political differences that exist in our times,” he said. “The Olympic Games cannot address all the challenges in our world. But they set an example for a world where everyone respects the same rules and one another.”
Beijing is hosting the Olympics for the second time. Its first Games, the 2008 Summer Olympics, also saw protesters disrupt the torch relay in numerous cities. The London leg was met by thousands of pro-Tibet protesters, and the torch was carried via bus at one point to avoid them. When the torch reached Paris, Chinese Olympic officials extinguished it numerous times to prevent protesters from doing the same with water or fire extinguishers. In San Francisco, thousands of people converged to protest the torch, forcing city officials to alter its route through the city.
On Sunday, police arrested two protesters at the Acropolis in Athens for attempting to raise a banner that referenced human rights abuses in China. According to Free Tibet, the protesters were released ahead of their trial in January.
Greek Olympic officials will hand over the torch to their counterparts from Beijing on Tuesday in Athens, and like Monday’s ceremony, Tuesday’s event will not be open to the public. Normally, the torch is paraded around Greece for a week before leaving for its worldwide relay, but Olympic officials canceled that this year, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the torch will arrive in Beijing on Wednesday.