By JFK Miller
China Daily columnist Kang Bing thinks Beijing is being unfairly criticized by overseas media in the lead-up to the Games:
“… some overseas media are demonizing Beijing’s air pollution and traffic problems…”
“… the Chinese capital would be lucky if criticism against it ended just there. Beijing has kept its promise to the IOC on press freedom, but some media seem to be asking the host to adopt freedom and democracy according to their understanding and explanation. When not satisfied, they threaten to call for a boycott of the Games.”
He also thinks that:
“Beijing seems to have received more criticism than other hosts.”
As Kang notes, all host cities are attacked for different reasons, but it simply isn’t accurate to claim that Beijing has come in for more criticism than the rest. For one, Beijing hasn’t copped it nearly as much as Athens, which set a new Olympic record when it comes to being criticized. Athens also suffered the ignominy of the IOC warning that a new host country could be chosen if the construction of Olympic sports facilities couldn’t be completed in time. Some of the Athens organizers’ harshest critics were among the local Greek media. This, from daily Athens newspaper Eleftherotypia (as reported by Xinhua in October 2000):
“The head of the organizing committee now looks like a high jumper going for her third try to clear the bar, knowing it’s her last chance.”
Kang also says sport and politics shouldn’t be mixed:
“Trying to politicize a sports event only does harm to the healthy development of the Olympic movement.”
That’s a lovely ideal (perhaps that’s why they call it the “Olympic ideal”), but not a very realistic one. Many modern Games in living memory have had a political element to them: African nations boycotted Montreal in ‘76 over New Zealand’s sporting links with South Africa; America boycotted Moscow in ‘80 over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to a counter-boycott by the Russians of Los Angeles in ‘84 (Iran, bless it, was the only country to boycott both Moscow and Los Angeles); North Korea boycotted Seoul in ‘88. Things got back to normal with Barcelona in ‘92 (although a reunified Germany — politics again — pipped China for third place in the medal tally).
China itself has mixed politics with sport, boycotting the Melbourne Games in ‘56 after the IOC recognized Taiwan. The Taiwanese team carried the “China” banner in 1956, and China didn’t return to the Olympic community until the 1980 Winter Games.
Mao famously used ping pong diplomacy in 1971 by inviting the American table tennis team to China, thereby laying the groundwork for the visit by Nixon the following year. It was the first time China had proposed a clear offer of friendship to the United States since Liberation. As Zhou Enlai put it: “A small ball shakes a big ball.” (From The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Zhisui Li, pp 558).
Politics and sport have always mixed, sometimes magnanimously (Mao/Nixon); sometimes pettily (Moscow/Los Angeles), and to pretend otherwise is just wishful thinking (and a nice, warm, cuddly thought at that.)
Going forward, a recent Economist article says China’s leaders are “nervous” about the Games because the tournament will be a magnet for the country’s critics:
“China’s critics in the West will not be sated. In the build-up to the games on August 8th they will step up their attacks on issues ranging from China’s human-rights record to the status of Tibet and Taiwan. It will be the most politically contentious Olympics since Moscow staged the games in 1980, not long after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Foreign activists and Chinese citizens overseas with axes to grind will flock to Beijing to try to stage public protests. If mishandled by the Chinese police (who have been instructed to stop demonstrations as politely as possible), these incidents could seriously embarrass the hosts, multinational companies sponsoring the games and foreign dignitaries… Some of Beijing’s political dissidents will take advantage of the spotlight on China to highlight their grievances.”
Dr. Kerry Brown, associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, as quoted in London’s Independent agrees:
“There are good reasons to feel pretty uncomfortable about 2008 for China. The world will be rightly watching China in August for the Olympics. But it will only take one truncheon blow to turn it away from a story about sport to one about repression.”