‘What further shame awaits this once-proud symbol as it winds its way across the globe to Beijing?’

IT should be a stirring symbol of our common humanity.

The Olympic flame, lit at the birthplace of the games themselves, is taken around the world by thousands of torch-bearers, until it arrives at the site of this year’s event in Beijing.

Children lining the streets to see this famous symbol ought to look up at it and be inspired to believe they can achieve great things.

But there’s not much chance of that happening at the moment.

Children, and indeed adults, who lined the torch’s route in London and Paris this week would have been lucky to catch a glimpse of the Olympic flame.

The famous fire was obscured from view by an outer yellow wall of police officers and an inner blue shield of Chinese "guardians".

There were chaotic scenes in both England and France as people protesting against Chinese rule in Tibet tried to block, grab or even extinguish the torch.

It was a sorry mess.

At some point the authorities in London and Paris must have realised that the protests and the resulting security measures were going to ruin the torch procession as a spectacle. Yet they went ahead with it anyway, probably just to show that they hadn’t "given in".

What further shame awaits this once-proud symbol as it winds its way across the globe to Beijing?

And what protests are in store - from spectators and possibly athletes as well - when the games get underway this summer?

For the Chinese government, Beijing 2008 is not going according to plan. The games were supposed to mark that great country’s peaceful re-emergence as a world power.

But instead, it seems likely that the Beijing Olympics will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

I feel privileged to have visited China twice. It is a country with an ancient and fascinating culture.

But we should never lose sight of the fact that it is ruled by an oppressive government, which points missiles at the democratic island of Taiwan, which represses the people of Tibet and which denies basic human rights - like the right to form a trade union - to its billion-plus population.

This is the regime which was awarded the games in 2001, in the belief that the privilege of staging the Olympics would encourage human rights in China. It has not.

Of course the Chinese government - and its cheerleaders in the west - complain that we shouldn’t mix sport and politics.

That may sound like a good idea at first, but it’s a morally empty argument.

By that reasoning, there was no harm in staging the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin. It was only a sporting event after all.

That is not to say that the Chinese communists are as bad as the Nazis - they are not.

But the principle is the same. If sport and politics should never be mixed then any regime - no matter how vile - can host the Olympics.

In any case, the games were tarnished long before they were awarded to Beijing.

The original Olympian ideal - that athletes should gather once every four years to find who is the best - is a noble one.

But it has long been swallowed up by the huge cost of hosting the event and the massive level of sponsorship involved.

As just one example, the torch relay to Beijing is sponsored by Coca-Cola - not a drink which forms part of many athlete’s training diet I would imagine.

And the games have become so costly that staging them is a massive burden - even on rich countries like Britain.

The protesters may or may not succeed in dousing the Olympic flame as it makes its way to Beijing over the next few months.

But the noble spirit which that fire symbolised has long since been extinguished.

A no win contest?

SEEING Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson slug it out to become Mayor of London is rather like watching Chelsea play Man United.

I find myself thinking, isn’t there some way that both of them could lose?

Well, with the greatest respect to the other candidates in the race, the answer is no.

So next month one of these two men will be in charge of Europe’s largest city.

It’s not a pleasant thought.

Johnson is a joker, not a serious politician. He would be great company at a dinner party, but he’s not the sort of person you’d want as your doctor or your bank manager.

He has no experience of local government, yet wants to lead the biggest authority in the country, which has power over millions of people.

Livingstone is at least a serious politician, though he is one who has long ago drowned in his own ego.

Eight years in charge of London is more than enough for him.

These two men are a great argument against directly-elected mayors.

Of course, some people in the media love this contest, since both Ken and Boris are "personalities".

But politics is not a beauty contest. It’s not about who can give the best soundbite or crack the funniest joke.

Or at least it shouldn’t be.