The Western Media Respond to the Beijing Olympics
As I suggested over the weekend now that the Games are over and the correspondents happily back from their sojourns in China covering the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Western media are singing a somewhat different tune than they were while the games were in progress. L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.
Yesterday a story in the Times of London reported on how water projects for the Olympics overruled the needs of the Chinese people:
THOUSANDS of Chinese farmers face ruin because their water has been cut off to guarantee supplies to the Olympics in Beijing, and officials are now trying to cover up a grotesque scandal of blunders, lies and repression.
In the capital, foreign dignitaries have admired millions of flowers in bloom and lush, well-watered greens around its famous sights. But just 90 minutes south by train, peasants are hacking at the dry earth as their crops wilt, their money runs out and the work of generations gives way to despair, debt and, in a few cases, suicide.
In between these two Chinas stands a cordon of roadblocks and hundreds of security agents deployed to make sure that the one never sees the other.
The water scandal is a parable of what can happen when a demanding global event is awarded to a poor agricultural nation run by a dictatorship; and the irony is that none of it has turned out to be necessary.
The combination of authoritarian iron fist, corruption, and incompetence portrayed in the story is somewhat different from the false front the Chinese leadership put on the Games but all too reminiscent of the actual story behind the story.
Today Der Spiegel Online takes note of the contrasts in these Games:
On the inside, in the so-called Accredited Zones, these Olympic Games were perfect. The images of these perfect games circled the globe, accompanied by postcard pictures of pagodas, terracotta warriors and graceful Chinese girls. Against the story told by this picture book, criticism of the games seemed like little more than sour grapes.
But on the outside, in the city of Beijing and throughout China, the lives of ordinary people went on. A number of changes in those lives have taken place, to be sure, but they are still lives led under the watchful eyes of the government. In this China, those disagreeable to the government are simply removed, staging a protest remains a criminal offense, public celebrations are frowned upon and all roads make wide detours around restricted zones guarded by soldiers — zones that include Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Gentle chiding, indeed. In fact Spiegel’s harshest criticism is for the IOC:
Where is the Olympic movement — what is the status of sports — in these times of ongoing suspicions of doping, suspicions that were only heightened with every win by Jamaican sprinter and each additional gold medal won by American swimmer Michael Phelps? How much more commercialized can sports become? And what happens to the athletes when the world becomes all but obsessed with keeping track of the medal count?
“There are two grand delusions in sports,” says Thomas Bach, one of the four IOC vice presidents. He is a powerful man and a potential candidate to succeed Jacques Rogge as the organization’s president. He wore a tracksuit to our meeting in the Olympic Family Lounge inside the Olympic Village. “The one delusion,” said Bach, “is that sport has nothing to do with money. And the other one is that it has nothing to do with politics. Both lead to unnecessary and sometimes disastrous debates.”
Bach is the sort of person who, when asked difficult questions, begins by saying: Let’s not kid ourselves. When asked about the IOC’s prediction that China would change for the better after the games, and that it would “open up” politically, he said: “Let’s not kid ourselves. We, as the IOC, cannot change an entire society.”
Rather different than the tune they were singing when they awarded China the Games. Frankly, that strikes me as somewhat patronizing.
In a generally glowing op-ed on the Games, former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin notes that same nexus between politics and sports—that the Games have reinforced China’s national cohesion:
La mobilisation de la population chinoise, avec les succÃ¨s du patriotisme sportif, a naturellement renforcé la cohésion nationale du pays, ce qui était un objectif évident des dirigeants chinois, notamment au lendemain du terrible séisme du Sichuan. La cohésion, troisiÃ¨me succÃ¨s.
Clearly, it’s impossible to remove the nationalism from the world’s premier international athletic event. But should the IOC be in the business of bolstering autocratic regimes as allowing China to host the Games clearly has done?
I’ll make the futile pitch I make every four years: it’s long past time to give the Olympics a permanent home, preferably in Greece near the place where the original Games were held more than 2,000 years ago. It will never happen, of course. All those IOC officials being wined and dined by countries eager to host the Games.