Tibet activists sidetrack Beijing Winter Olympics flame ceremony

An agent tries to stop protesters holding the Tibetan flag and banner as they crash the flame lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Ancient Olympia archeological site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece on October 18, 2021. (AFP)

Activists grabbed the spotlight at the flame-lighting ceremony for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in Greece on Monday by unfurling a Tibetan flag and a banner that said "no genocide" at the Games.

The demonstrators pulled out the flag and banner during the ceremony in Olympia attended by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach and several dozen dignitaries including Chinese officials.

Greek police forced the demonstrators, who had appeared in the ruins of the site of the Ancient Olympics, to take down the flag and the banner before detaining them.

The incident, which came a day after three Tibet activists staged a demonstration at the Acropolis in Athens calling for a boycott of next year's Games, illustrates the challenges faced by the first Olympics to be held in China since the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

Tibet has alternated over the centuries between independence and control by China, which says it "peacefully liberated" the rugged plateau in 1951 and brought infrastructure and education to the previously underdeveloped region.

But many exiled Tibetans accuse the Chinese central government of religious repression, torture and eroding their culture.

A spokesperson for the London-based Free Tibet organisation identified the protesters as Chemi Lhamo, Jason Leith and Fern MacDougal.

'Greed ahead of ideals'

"The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly put greed ahead of the Olympic ideals so it is up (to) governments around the world to take action and withdraw their teams from the Beijing 2022. Tibetan protests around the 2008 Beijing Olympics led to a crackdown that made it the least free place in the world," Leith said in a statement prior to the ceremony, according to Free Tibet.

"The Chinese government's reaction to recent sanctions by the UK government shows that it is sensitive to symbolic actions that disrupt its attempts to paint a rosy picture of life under its rule. A full boycott of these Games will send a clear message that the world will no longer stand idly by as the Chinese government continually escalates its abuses," he added.

"We're calling on the sponsors, the broadcasters, the international governments to not be complicit in genocide and to boycott Beijing 2022," Chemi Lhamo said, according to Free Tibet.

'Beijing to write history'

Following tradition, the Olympic flame was lit from the rays of the sun in the ruins of the ancient Temple of Hera.

"Beijing will write history as the first city ever to host both the summer and winter editions of the Olympic Games," Bach said in a speech.

"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," he said.

Around 2,900 athletes, representing approximately 85 National Olympic Committees, will compete in the Winter Games between 4 and 20 February 2022.

"In these difficult times we are still living through, the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 will be an important moment to bring the world together in a spirit of peace, friendship and solidarity," Bach said.

"We need more solidarity. More solidarity within societies, and more solidarity among societies."

Due to coronavirus restrictions, the ceremony was held in front of an audience limited to IOC members, the Greek and Chinese Olympic committees, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and the media.

In a break with tradition, there will be no torch relay on Greek soil.

Instead, the flame is due to be carried to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, a second-century AD arena used in both the 1896 and 2004 Games, and on Tuesday it will be handed over to the delegation from Beijing 2022 to be flown to China.

Pro-Tibet activists, as well as representatives of China's Uyghur community and human rights experts, are scheduled to hold a press conference at an Athens hotel on Tuesday.

They say they will "denounce the severe failure of the International Olympic Committee" in awarding the Winter Games to China.

A police spokesman told AFP the three protesters arrested at the Acropolis on Sunday would be freed pending a trial in January.

A judicial source said they will be charged with disturbing the peace at an archaeological site, a misdemeanour offence that usually results in a suspended sentence.