Three activists protesting human rights abuses in China broke into the archaeological site where the flame lighting ceremony for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics was being held on Monday and ran toward the Temple of Hera holding a banner that read "No genocide games."
The protesters climbed over a fence to enter the grounds and attempted to reach the area where the ceremony was being held. They were thrown to the ground by police and detained.
"How can Beijing be allowed to host the Olympics given that they are committing a genocide against the Uyghurs?" one protester said as she ran toward the temple.
The flame was lit at the Greek birthplace of the ancient Olympics under heavy police security. With the public excluded amid pandemic safety measures, and a cloudless sky over the verdant site of Ancient Olympia, the flame was ceremoniously kindled using the rays of the sun before being carried off on a mini torch relay. Earlier, other protestors were detained by Greek police before they could reach the site.
Pro-democracy protests also had broken out during the lighting ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. Despite widespread international criticism of China's human rights record, the International Olympic Committee has shied away from the issue, saying it falls outside its remit. In his speech in the ancient stadium of Olympia, where in antiquity male athletes competed naked during a special truce among their often-warring cities, IOC President Thomas Bach stressed that the modern 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 will become the first city to have hosted both the winter and summer Olympics. In a tightly choreographed performance shortly afterwards, a Greek actress playing the part of a pagan priestess knelt to light the Olympic flame, using a bowl-shaped mirror to focus the sun's rays on a fuel-filled torch.
Standing in front of the few remaining columns of the ruined, 2,600-year-old Temple of Hera, she offered a symbolic prayer for the ancient Greek god of light, Apollo, to light the flame.
"Mountains fall silent, birdsong cease," she intoned as a TV drone buzzed overhead and ranks of photographers clicked their shutters. Yu Zaiqing, the vice president of the Beijing organizing committee, said the Games brought "confidence, warmth and hope" during the pandemic, which first appeared in China.
"We can and will deliver a streamlined, safe and splendid Olympic Games to the world," he said.
Police were much in evidence at and around the archaeological site where the ancient Games were held from 776 BC and for more than 1,000 years until the Christians stamped them out. Anyone heading for the venue had to have accreditation and pass through checkpoints and metal detectors.
On Sunday, two protesters were detained on the Acropolis in Athens trying to raise a banner to draw attention to human rights abuses in China. A statement from the New York-based organization Students for a Free Tibet called the international community to boycott the Beijing Games.
"The IOC is sending the world a message that it is OK to turn a blind eye to genocide and crimes against humanity in Hong Kong, Tibet, East Turkestan and Southern Mongolia," it added.
The Olympic flame will be taken to Athens and handed over to Beijing organizers on Tuesday at the renovated stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.
The Beijing Winter Games will run from February 4-20. Only spectators from mainland China will be allowed to attend.
Everyone at the Olympics — including athletes — will be expected to be vaccinated, or else have to spend 21 days in quarantine.