The Olympic Torch Relay got underway in Canberra this morning amid massive security and a major display of Chinese nationalism from the thousands of students bussed in for the event.

The official torch lighting ceremony itself was a rather lacklustre affair. Either there were massive withdrawals from the guest list or organisers vastly over-catered on chairs, leaving the smoking ceremony, national anthems and sundry speeches to be performed in front of rows and rows of empty seats. Crowds were kept fifty-odd metres away behind barricades.

Most Chinese students — the majority carrying or wearing flags, and frequently directed by marshals in white t-shirts — were more interested in chanting at and berating anti-China protestors, with at least one being arrested when he tried to jump the barricade to get at Tibetan independence supporters who were marching along the back of Reconciliation Place. Only a booming rendition of the Chinese national anthem got their attention briefly back to proceedings.

The occasional individual who advanced into the students clutching a Free Tibet placard was met with what appeared to be a prepared tactic of being surrounded by large Chinese flags. Otherwise, the two sides were kept well separated by the AFP. The infamous torch attendants – one of whom was reportedly later manhandled by a zealous AFP officer – kept a low profile, with only two joining in the vast throng of police officers surrounding the torch as it set off around Canberra. First stop was a trip across Lake Burley Griffin from the back of the ceremony venue – escorted by a small armada of police boats.

Despite it being clear for weeks that Chinese students, most likely organised by the Chinese Embassy, were flocking to Canberra for the event, organiser Ted Quinlan admitted today they hadn’t been prepared for it, expressing surprise at “a well-coordinated plan to take the day by weight of numbers.” It was well-coordinated, and it was a huge success. You don’t have to go to China to see Chinese nationalism at work. Our capital city will do just fine.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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