The crackdown in Tibet has attracted the kind of attention the Chinese government hoped to avoid when it was given the chance to host the Summer Olympics. Tomorrow, the iconic symbol of the games, the Olympic flame, will begin an 85,000-mile journey across five continents, and it appears protesters will dog torch bearers along the way.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: John Hoberman of the University of Texas has been tracking the mix of politics and Olympics for decades, and says he's never seen anything like this.

Dr. JOHN HOBERMAN (Germanic Studies, University of Texas): This could be shaping up to be the most politically tumultuous Olympics in Olympic history.

BERKES: That's quite a prediction given the boycotts of the 1980s, the terrorist attack in Munich, and the Berlin games organized by Adolf Hitler. But Hoberman has been monitoring the news this week about demonstrations in Tibet.

(Soundbite of Protesters)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

BERKES: This crowd in the Amdo region of Tibet demanded independence and freedom from Chinese rule. The protest was posted on the Web site of Radio Free Asia. The demonstrations spread, and the shouting elsewhere included direct references to the Olympics.

(Soundbite of Protesters)

Unidentified Group: Boycott China now.

Unidentified Man #2: Boycott China now.

Unidentified Group: Boycott China now.

BERKES: About 50 Tibetans marched in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington on Friday, including a woman called Fayong(ph) who just uses one name.

FAYONG (Protestor): China has gone far away beyond the value and the dignity of the Olympic Games. And they should stop killing people; otherwise the war will boycott the ceremony of the Olympic Games.

BERKES: Despite such talk of Olympic boycotts, the nations with the biggest Olympic teams say they will still send athletes to Beijing. That includes Australia, the countries of the European Union, and the United States. The White House and State Department try to tread a fine line, calling on China to respect human rights, but insisting politics is not an Olympic sport.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Mr. SEAN MCCORMACK (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): We view this as a significant international sporting event. We're going to treat it as such. And we would also encourage China to make use of the fact that the world is watching the Olympics, to put its best face forward.

BERKES: This notion that the Olympics can transform host countries is part of what prompted the International Olympic Committee to put the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. But it doesn't work, says Olympic historian John Hoberman.

Dr. HOBERMAN: Pre-Olympic repression is more the rule, as opposed to the Olympics promoting liberalization. So in this case, the bet on the Chinese as potential liberalizers staging the games is not looking very good.

BERKES: The State Department underscored that point this week when it warned Americans attending the Olympics. Michele Bernier-Toth is with the agency's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Ms. MICHELE BERNIER-TOTH (Bureau of Consular Affairs): Americans can expect that their conversations, for example, could be monitored in their hotels, their telephones are going to be monitored, and their rooms could be searched without their knowledge or consent.

BERKES: But tomorrow, the feel-good Olympic flame begins its five-month trek from Greece to Beijing. Human-rights activists promise to make it the most politicized torch relay ever.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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