| ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece
ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece Awarding the 2008 Olympics to Beijing was the right decision, despite mounting criticism of its human rights record, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said on Monday.
"It was right to award the Games to China for two reason," Rogge told Reuters in an interview.
He said opening up a fifth of the world's population to the idea of Olympism, coupled with the media scrutiny China will be under in the run-up to the August Games, were reason enough.
"This will have a good effect for the evolution of China," Rogge said on the day of the Beijing Games torch-lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia.
"We believe that the Games are a great catalyst for change."
Human rights groups have urged the IOC to pressure Beijing to improve its human rights record, especially after violence in Tibet earlier this month.
In mid-March, Tibetan areas were rocked by anti-Chinese protests and riots, claiming the lives of 18 innocent civilians and a police officer in Tibet's regional capital, Lhasa, and four civilians in nearby Sichuan province, according to the Chinese government.
Exiled Tibetans say as many as 100 Tibetans died.
The unrest flared in Tibet when Buddhist monks started demonstrating in Lhasa on March 10, the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
China has accused the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, of plotting "terror" to wreck the country's Olympics. The Dalai Lama has rejected the claims, saying he does not oppose Beijing's Games.
"I have no message to give to China for what the sovereignty of China is concerned," Rogge said. "But the Games cannot be held in an atmosphere of violence. We are concerned about what is happening in Tibet."
Exiled activists for an independent Tibet have pledged to demonstrate in Olympia on Monday.
Rogge said while he respected the activists' cause, the IOC was neither a political organization nor an NGO.
"We know our limits," he said. "We will not enter into a political discussion," he said, adding that when the Games were awarded to Beijing, the IOC had carefully studied the country's human rights situation.
Human rights groups and other organizations have called for a tough stance against Beijing following the Tibet violence and even a Games boycott.
Following the interview, Rogge was approached by an exiled Tibetan activist who had urged him on Sunday to drop the Tibet leg of the Beijing Games torch relay.
"I respect your cause," Rogge told Tenzin Dorjee, the deputy director of the U.S.-based Students for a Free Tibet, who confronted him at the hotel lobby.
"I am not going to engage in a discussion now," he added.
Tenzin Dorjee, who has pledged to stage some form of protest in Olympia later in the day, said he was disappointed by the IOC chief's answers.
"He did not say anything new. Basically Mr. Rogge refused to address our concerns," he told Reuters. (Editing by Martin Petty)