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Olympic Torch Touches Off Global Wave of Protests

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Olympic Torch Touches Off Global Wave of Protests

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Olympic Torch Touches Off Global Wave of Protests

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

After sparking major protests from London to San Francisco, the Olympic torch got a very different reception in Buenos Aires today. Enthusiastic crowds lined the streets as 80 torchbearers carried the symbolic flame through the Argentine capital. A huge security presence patrolled the eight-and-half-mile route. Some human rights activists, opposed to China's hosting of the Olympics, threw water balloons at the passing relay. But the protest were minor compared to those that marred the torch's appearance earlier this week.

NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Buenos Aires and joins us on the phone. Julie, first describe the scene for us today in Buenos Aires.

JULIE McCARTHY: Well, as you pointed out, Robert, I suspected the day will be something of a reprieve for the Chinese authorities and the Olympic organizers, breathing a bit of a sigh of relief. The public was very engaged in the ceremony. People were proud that Buenos Aires had been selected as the only city in Latin America to run this relay. They were hanging out of office buildings that line the wide boulevards of Buenos Aires, throwing confetti, it was streaming through the air. They ran alongside the torchbearers.

And we managed to get within 15 feet of them, which is rather remarkable. There was something of a controlled chaos to the security operation here. But it was more excitement than opposition, I'd say.

Now, that's a - there were groups out, and they promised, you know, to take a more peaceful approach.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

McCARTHY: They had their own torch procession through the streets under police escort.

SIEGEL: Well, in San Francisco, the organizers actually changed the route of the torch relay at the last minute to throw protestors off. Was there anything like that in Argentina today?

McCARTHY: Well, you know, apart from the very secretive arrival of the flame that was stashed in a secret location after it arrived last night from San Francisco, everything really was public and planned. The relay was not changed, the torchbearers, including former tennis star Gabriela Sabatini, and a whole assortment of Argentine soccer greats minus Diego Maradona who was caught in Mexico - was the political statement that wasn't here - they basically followed the route that had been published all week long.

But this journey of harmony, as this worldwide tour of the torch is known, took place under the watchful eye of thousands of police. The security detail here numbered about 5,000 people, many of them were volunteers. The uniformed police sort of locked arms by the hundreds to keep the public at a distance from the torch.

You know, all of this super security comes at a super cost, and it's raised the possibility inside the International Olympic Committee that this could very well be the last time that an Olympic torch makes this kind of world journey. You know, it's become a logistical nightmare, and the running of it for the IOC is something that - they're showing a real distaste for.

SIEGEL: And some of that security is provided by the Chinese, there's a Chinese security detail following the torch.

McCARTHY: Yes. And there's been - they've been written - there's been much written about them and they have been commented upon to a large extent. There are the phalanx of Chinese security guards. And they are strapping and they are athletic and there's various theories and various statements about where they come from. Some say they're volunteer firemen who just happen to be particularly athletic. Others say they're part of the people's army.

At any rate, I saw them up close today. They are a highly disciplined force. They run in unison. They are equipped with microphones and they chatter throughout the entire relay to each other, telling people where they should move, how they should move, should they go, should they stop. But I haven't, again, there was a sense of controlled chaos, but these Chinese security detail were very much front and center in guarding that thing as closely as it could possibly be guarded.

SIEGEL: Julie, where does the torch go next?

McCARTHY: Well, it's off to Africa and then, organizers will be bracing as it enters the subcontinent in New Delhi. India is home to a huge Tibetan population and, of course, much of the protest regarding the Beijing games comes on the heels of the military repression that has taken place inside Tibet. And many of the protesters here said, you know, we're not calling for boycott of the games, but we're certainly calling for this torch not to pass through Tibet.

The Chinese actually have a plan to take this torch to the top of Mt. Everest, which lies in both Nepal and Tibet. So, there is a sense here that there are many more obstacles to come, but a sense of relief that today really came off without a hitch.

SIEGEL: Well, NPR's Julie McCarthy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Thank you very much.

McCARTHY: Thank you, Robert.

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