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Olympic-sized fall makes headlines for Guelph

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

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  • The Olympic Torch makes its way toward City Hall in Guelph. (Greg Beneteau)

    The Olympic Torch makes its way toward City Hall in Guelph. (Greg Beneteau)

  • Onlookers watch as the torch flame is passed in front of Guelph City Hall. (Greg Beneteau)

    Onlookers watch as the torch flame is passed in front of Guelph City Hall. (Greg Beneteau)

  • Protesters march down Carden St. prior to the flame’s arrival at City Hall. (Greg Beneteau)

    Protesters march down Carden St. prior to the flame’s arrival at City Hall. (Greg Beneteau)

  • Protesters march down Carden St. prior to the flame’s arrival at City Hall. (Greg Beneteau)

    Protesters march down Carden St. prior to the flame’s arrival at City Hall. (Greg Beneteau)

Written by Greg Beneteau

The Guelph leg of the Olympic Torch Relay made headlines across the country – though not for reasons organizers had hoped for.

Instead of celebrating the torch’s journey to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, police are trying to piece together what happened after a torchbearer was pushed to the ground when protesters clashed with the Olympic entourage.

The incident occurred just before 8 a.m. on Monday as the torch procession was travelling up Wyndham Street North to MacDonell Street, according to a media release from Guelph Police.

As the torchbearer and her RCMP security detail approached the corner, a group of protesters walked onto the street. A physical confrontation ensued and 28-year-old torchbearer Cortney Hansen of Milton, ON was “knocked to the ground,” the release said.

The flame stayed lit and Hansen got back up and finished her portion of the relay before being treated for minor injuries.

Guelph Police charged 19-year-old Brittney Simpson of Kitchener with assault.  She is scheduled to appear in court in February.

The incident marks the first time during the torch’s 61-day journey that a physical confrontation was reported.

The torch relay has been rerouted on at least three occasions - in Toronto, Montreal and at the Six Nations Reserve on the Grand River - due to protests.

In a press release, Guelph members of the Olympic Resistance Network- Ontario blamed organizers for the altercation, saying the procession took a different route than originally planned.

"The torch route was supposed to be along Carden Street, but instead they basically ran right into the protest one street to the north," the press release stated. "In the confusion, one of the torch bearers fell and protester Brittney Simpson was arrested."

Protester Leslie Smith claimed that security "over-reacted" to their presence.

"The whole thing escalated because the Torch security was ill-prepared and the police over-reacted," Smith said.

That account was disputed by Torch relay officials and Guelph Police.

“We did not veer from our published or planned route,” Vancouver 2010 media and public relations co-ordinator Chris Shauf told The Guelph Mercury.

Guelph Police Chief Rob Davis said that while the investigation was still ongoing, investigators believe it was the protesters who initiated the confrontation.

“My understanding is when the group charged forward, the security forces, the torchbearer and relay staff were pushed,” Davis told The Mercury.

Pictures of Hansen’s tumble appeared in newspapers across the country, including the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.

“It’s certainly discouraging, particularly in Guelph,” Davis said. “It’s not what you want to be known across Canada for.”

The incident has also raised questions about whether there was sufficient security for torch bearers.

Constable Mandy Edwards, spokeswoman for the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit, toldthe media they would be assessing security protocols to see if any changes were necessary for the remainder of the 105-day, 45,000 kilometre relay.

Sergeant Doug Pflug, a spokesperson for Guelph Police, said local police officers were responsible for securing the torch route but not protecting the flame itself.

“We assist the security detail that’s already in place for the torch run,” Sgt. Pflug said.

He urged witnesses to come forward, particularly those who might have filmed the procession at the time of the altercation.

Before the arrest, protesters marched down Carden Street prior to the flame’s arrival at City Hall, chanting “No Olympics on stolen native land!” and “Homes, not games!”

They handed out pamphlets to onlookers but did not disrupt the torch route.

Spokesperson Drew Garvie later said he was upset at the “hostility” protesters faced during their demonstration.

"We're not an anti-fun protest," Garvie said.

Rather, he said the group was attempting to draw attention to social issues surrounding the Vancouver Olympics including gentrification, the erosion of civil liberties and the use of unceded native land in British Columbia to host events.

"The price of the Olympics is paid for by people who can't afford it and makes money for people who don't need it," Garvie claimed.

The argument didn't sit well with Susan Gordon, who came out with her two daughters and mother to see the Olmypic Torch.

Gordon, who is in Guelph's Sports Hall of Fame as a softball player, said she believes the Games would end up being a "positive thing" for Vancouver and dismissed the protest as "nonsense."

"The Olympics are supposed to be about Canadian pride and an opportunity for everyone to come to gether to enjoy sport," Gordon said.

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