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The Olympics in a Lower Key: The Torch Relay as Dress Rehearsal

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Ok, it's adjustment mode for the world-weary Torch -- and maybe for the Olympics as well.

In India, this week, the relay route was cut to a quarter of its intended length. Security guards were more in evidence than Bollywood stars. In Japan, according to Tokyo's Daily Yomiuri, one of the most famous temples in Japan, the Zenkoji Temple in Nagasaki, has bowed out of its role as starting point for the relay there. Kunihiko Shinohara, head of the executive torch relay committee, said: "I was extremely shocked when I heard the news. We need to decide on a new starting point this week to ensure the torch relay is ready. We'll try to make as little change to the course as possible."

Australia is cautious: The co-chair of the Canberra torch relay task force, Ted Quinlan, has recognized continuing security concerns remain about the relay's Australian leg, which starts next Thursday, April 24. But Quinlan was optimistic, according to Australia's ABC: "intelligence now transpires that the bulk of the London torch relay went off well, but none of that was reported, so we think that we do stand a reasonable chance of running a full relay that people can actually enjoy." The glass in Australia is more than half full.

What's interesting here is Torch Relay as Dress Rehearsal. If, as appears to be the case, the Torch proceedings are truncated and adjusted, perhaps we will see a lower-key, more somber Opening Ceremony. A Spielberg-less event may be less celebratory than one in which E.T. would meet Saving Private Ryan. But the Organizing Committee and the IOC might contemplate what message they now want the proceedings to send.

Not having Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy will reduce the glamour quotient, but maybe glamour should not be the signal in light of current debates.

Should the Beijing Organizing Committee search for ways to retool or find a lower-key for the Games themselves? Today, an "arms relay" is added to the drumroll of global issues because of a controversy over an alleged shipment of military supplies to Mugabe's Zimbabwe: (blogged here)

The columnist Roger Cohen has written in the International Herald Tribune of the likely consequences of business as usual:

Until the Beijing Olympics open, the world is going to get a crash course in China's various ethnic and religious minority groups and their resentments. Violent stirrings in Tibet are just the beginning. With the world as stage, the Uighur Muslims of the northwestern Xinjiang region, the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement, Mongols and Kazakhs and whoever else wants his moment in the sun will have a dream opportunity to rail.

Since the beginning, 2008 was announced as the Humanist Olympics, the High Tech Olympics and the Environmental Olympics, among other things. Perhaps the powers-that-be should add to the array: something like the "Shifting Geopolitical Scene" Olympics, or the "Emphasis on Quiet Diplomacy" Olympics or the "Responsibilities of Power" Olympics.

It's not likely that we'll see the Dalai Lama at the Opening Ceremony, though stranger things have happened. At any rate, there is room for new symbolism. And maybe even symbolism that reflects the emerging realities. Suggestions should be welcome.

Among those who remain positive and blog thoughtfully about Beijing, count Susan Brownell, the anthropologist and Olympics scholar recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal online.

According to the excellent WSJ piece, Brownell , thinks the current uproar can help push a rethink in China about its policy toward Tibet and other minorities.

Brownell recently published a book on 2008 called Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China. She blogs for The China Beat: How the East is Read. At her blogsite, she poses FAQs about the Olympics and proceeds to answer them. She also contributed ideas and participated in a Beijing workshop for my recent book, edited with Daniel Dayan, Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China.