Wednesday, August 6, 2008

China+Olympics=What Did You Expect?

With just a couple days until the opening ceremonies in Beijing of the 26th Olympiad, you can't help but get the feeling that the press really want to find something wrong with China´s "coming out party". The last few days have seen a slew of negative headlines: Olympic Sport: Blocking the Internet, Olympic Protests Over Beijing Evictions; Beijing pollution may force new crackdown for Olympics (I like that one, the writer must have got a bonus for getting the reader to link Tibet with pollution!); Olympics: The Violence Has Started Already in Beijing and on Borders. I have just one question for all these finger pointers: really what did you expect when you combine the IOC (International Olympic Committee) with China?

On July 13th, 2001, Beijing beat out rival bids from Osaka, Toronto, Istanbul and Paris in voting to become the host city for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. Controversy was assured from the get go, as the bids from Toronto and Paris were both considered superior, but as then IOC head Juan Antonio Samuranch was eager for the games to go to China, that's where they went. It was clear that China's human rights record was going to be carefully scrutinized as the EU immediately issued this resolution.

Maybe what was needed was a new Olympic motto, citius, altius, fortius- swifter, higher, stronger- just doesn't seem to fit anymore. Maybe something along the lines of politics, argentum, facinarose -politics, money, scandal. When was the turning point for this once pure sporting event? For years competition was limited to amateurs, but this era ended in 1971 when the IOC allowed athletes to receive compensation for time away from work while training. As well, athletes were permitted to receive sponsorship from national organizations, sports organizations, and private businesses. Of course this still didn't allow western athletes to compete with eastern bloc nations and by 1986 professionals were granted permission to compete, leading to the 1992 "Dream Team" in Barcelona. Or was it the jingoism of the 1936 Berlin games where Hitler wanted to show the world the dominance of the Aryan race only to be humiliated by the achievements of Jesse Owens. Strange to think, but these were also the games where the Olympic torch relay was introduced, Hitler's still causing problems today as the Chinese found out to their surprise.

Few will remember that the Seoul games of 1988 were awarded to an authoritarian regime in 1981. A regime that had killed 500, or as many as 2000, democracy protesters just the year before. South Korea was one of the little dragons economically, but it was still behind culturally and politically. They, like China today, hoped that the games would showcase the Korean economic miracle to the world and legitimize the regime. The crackdown spurred resistance from opposition parties and the sports world contemplated moving the Olympics to another venue as most major cities had been turned into war zones by June 1987. The IOC issued an ultimatum saying that if the riots weren't stopped, the games would be moved. In the end Chun Doo-hwan's government was forced into allowing free elections.

Politics have never been far away from the Olympics. From boycotts to terrorist attacks, nations and groups have tried using the games as a means of furthering their political agendas. The Melbourne games of '56 were boycotted by the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland in protest of the Soviets crushing the Hungarian democracy uprising. While Cambodia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon stayed home that same year too, protesting against the Suez crisis. Neither event had anything to do with Australia. Similarly, 20 African nations boycotted the Montreal games in 1976 because the IOC refused to ban New Zealand, something the African nations wanted because the All-Blacks had recently played in apartheid-sponsored South Africa. This was completely unrelated to either Montreal or the Olympics. So why hasn't anyone boycotted the Beijing games over human rights abuses or the Tibetan occupation, issues directly related to the Chinese government. Or how about their support of the government in Sudan and Zimbabwe? Hell, even Dubya will be making the first appearance of an American president at a games held outside the US. There can be only one answer, money.

Since the fall of the Berlin wall, there hasn't been a single Olympic boycott. The 80's saw tons in Moscow and Los Angeles. Those same Los Angeles games in 1984 also showed the world how much money was to be made, it even became the first Olympic games to make money, bringing in $215 million and earning organizing president Peter Ueberroth the Time Man of the Year award. The mayor of Montreal was infamously quoted as saying the Olympics "can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby". Montreal is still paying the debt left by those games. By the time the Beijing games begin, China will have spent $40 billion on new venues and infrastructure. GE's NBC paid $1.5 billion for the exclusive rights to broadcast the Turin and Beijing games and will more than make that back. The price tag just to become a global Olympic partner is around $70 million for a winter/summer package, then of course there are the actual advertising costs. I'm sure they all got a little worried a few months back when it looked like the torch relay protests were actually going to have an effect on the public.

Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin coined the modern Olympic Creed in 1908, displayed on the scoreboard at opening ceremonies: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." However, today the first thing we will learn each day from the Olympics will be the medal count. Will China win more gold medal than the US? On the days that this isn't the leading story, it will be that an athlete was caught using illegal substances. Of course athletes used alcohol, strychnine, cocaine and other substances to ease the pain and give them an edge in the past - the famously male, female athletes of the eastern bloc nations weren't natural - but it wasn't until Ben Johnson was caught in the '88 Seoul Olympics that it became clear that almost everyone was doping. One of my favourite SNL skits called for a separate "All Drug Olympics", not really such a bad idea. (By the way, can anybody tell me why I can't watch Hulu outside of the US, I can't see the skit?!)

Once it became clear to the world that the IOC was awarding games based on bribes, they tried to fix things with a few cosmetic changes to the awarding rules. China on the other hand is even bigger than the Olympics, so their change appears far more subtle . Take the Sudan. In 2004 Chinese president HuJintao referred to Chinese aid to Khartoum as "free of political conditionality". Yet since then China pressed for Sudan's acceptance of a UN-AU peacekeeping force and removed Sudan from Beijing's preferred trade-status list. While in Burma, following the violent crackdown against Buddhist monks, China cut arms sales and played a critical role in getting aid workers into the country after the typhoon. Perhaps we won't see voters lining up to elect the next government in Beijing, but it will be interesting to see whether or not the Beijing Olympics will prove to be the coming out party that many countries have enjoyed as hosts, from St. Louis in 1904, to 1964 in Tokyo and Seoul in 1988. For once I agree with Dubya, he should attend the games. There is one things for sure, he won't see any doves being released at these games.