August 26, 2008

Disillusioned With the Olympic Propaganda Machine

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Ever since I was in elementary school, the Olympics have been very special for me (cue the mandatory self-deprecating sports editor humor). Until I was painfully forced to recognize the reality of my physical limitations in high school, I was convinced that I would be representing my country in the 100-meter sprints some day. And, although that dream died along with my sprint speed, I never lost my love for the history and drama that is the Olympic games.
This summer I, along with viewers from all over the globe, tuned in to watch the jaw-dropping spectacle of Beijing’s Opening Ceremonies. I’ll admit, it was hard to ignore that fuzzy feeling creeping up from my throat and into my eyes as I watched a fairly unremarkable man run laps around the upper lip of Beijing National Stadium.
A former Olympic champion in gymnastics, Li Ning sent tingles down the spines of millions as he floated gracefully to the enormous Olympic cauldron and ignited one of the Games’ most enduring symbols. For a moment, surrounded by such grace and beauty, it was almost possible to believe in this flying gymnast, in the slogan of this Olympics: “One World, One Dream.”
Almost possible, but not quite. Even on my television’s small screen, it was readily apparent that Ning was being held up on his ethereal jog by special effects wires. Any lingering feelings of world peace dissipated the next day when the father-in-law of the U.S men’s volleyball team’s coach was stabbed to death at the top of a popular Chinese tourist attraction.
Believe me, I’m not trying to kill anyone’s Olympic buzz, but as I sat watching giant images of swimming blue whales projected along the top of National Stadium, I couldn’t help but pause. China? Caring about blue whales? China, whose capital city, Beijing, is so plagued by pollution that it makes Los Angeles’ air look pristine? Putting aside America’s own terrible greenhouse gas record, the sight of those preposterously supersized whales seemed to illustrate a larger point.
The Games immortalized in such cinematic classics as “Chariots of Fire” bear very little resemblance to the kind of spectacle put on display in Beijing. From its thousands of synchronized martial arts performers, dancers, singers and gymnasts, to its arsenals of pyrotechnics and state-of-the-art special effects, China changed the meaning of “ceremony.” And though it was impossible to not be impressed by the displays, I found myself wondering for what benefit, or should I say for whose benefit, was this performance put on?
In a country where millions and millions go hungry every day, the fortune — close to $40 billion overall and $300 million on the Opening Ceremonies alone — spent on two weeks of magnificence seems a little, well, ridiculous. While record numbers tuned in to watch the events on television, the fraction of Chinese citizens able to afford tickets is comparatively miniscule. Despite the Games’ unifying theme, China has made little effort to disguise its wish to assert its international dominance. Far from attempting to promote international cooperation and fraternity, China has continually attempted to push itself away from the international sporting community. The government’s clear desire to win more gold medals than the United States has gone way beyond the bounds of friendly, patriotic rivalry. Images of barely pubescent gymnasts and stories about archery prospects drafted into so-called “sports schools” at the age of 6 and 7 lent a dubious aftertaste to the Olympic tradition of amateur competition.
When the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the ’08 bid, the understanding, according to IOC officials, was that the attention would be good for the emerging superpower. Apparently, the IOC assumed that the international media would put pressure on the Chinese to become more open and less repressive.
Instead, Chinese officials have continued to crack down on everyone and anyone who disagreed with the party line, pumped out nationalistic propaganda and restricted the media’s access to Chinese athletes. Censorship, not typically an issue requiring attention at a modern Games, was widespread. Members of the press covering the Games on location were blocked from websites such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, organizations that have refused to muffle their criticism of China’s human rights abuses.
“The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses, leading to massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom, and increased political repression,” said Sophie Richardson. Richardson, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, adamantly refuted IOC President Jacques Roggue’s claim that the games would be a “force for good.”
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the Games for me was the spineless inaction of the leaders of the Western world. While most athletes have understandably refrained from offering personal opinions on China’s political policies, world leaders including our lame duck President Bush refused to call the Chinese out on their brazen abuses. It goes without saying that it is the responsibility of leaders like Bush to put pressure on foreign governments in just this situation. If we can go to war on principle, I would imagine we could stand up to Chinese officials on the basis of similar rationales.
I guess my imagination got away from me a little bit there. Dazzled by the grandeur and the fireworks, the international community and the IOC decided to sit back and turn a blind eye to what continued to go on behind the polished facades. Their inaction squandered an invaluable opportunity for open discussion and debate in a country determined to quash any such type of discourse.
I will remember Beijing for many things: the superhuman abilities of swimmers Dara Torres and Michael Phelps; the wide-eyed heroics of America’s young gymnasts; the jaw-dropping speed of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt; the mechanical dominance of China’s divers. But the host country’s brilliance in the smoke and mirrors competition was truly legendary. Visa aired a series of commercial during the Olympics on NBC featuring various star American Olympians along with the tagline, “Go World.” Cliché and syrupy as these commercials are, there was a time when I might still have bought into the Olympic hype. However, after witnessing the ease with which China was able to distract the international community with its precision choreography and circus artistry, such sentiments ring painfully, but undeniably, false.