Inglorious Olympics

I really enjoy the Olympics, especially the summer Olympics. This year, though, more than any before, I’m pretty disillusioned with the whole three-ring circus.

Let’s talk about China. You can be a human-rights-abusing, quasi-third-world, anti-religious communist nation, and the U.S. will embargo you so fast your head will spin – if you are a poor country with no market or export opportunity to offer us. (Hello, Cuba!) But if you’re a huge country with the potential to become an economic superpower someday, even if it is on the broken backs of your abused citizens, then our high-minded democratic principles fly right out the window and we will extend foreign aid, provide tax relief for international business and encourage travel and joint ventures. I realize I’m oversimplifying – but I do firmly believe that US business ethics are entirely situational.

I understand that part of the ideal of the Olympic games is that the participating nations set aside any international and political issues and come together in peace to participate in athletic competition. Various games have been boycotted since the 1950s for political reasons, however, no nations have withdrawn from these Chinese games. This surprises me. Should nations have boycotted the Chinese games for political and human rights reasons, at the expense of their athletes? I can’t answer that – but I do think that the US should be consistent in its application of human rights and foreign aid censure.

These games have seemed to turn sour this summer, for many reasons:

IOC’s suspension of Iraq’s Olympic participation, based upon dissatisfaction with the selection criteria for the country’s Olympic committee. As a project manager, I understand the importance of governance, still, what in the heck does that have to do with whether the athletes who have trained their entire lives have qualified cleanly and are allowed to enter?

Forced relocation of Beijing residents to support Olympic venue, related construction, and general urban change. While China insists this was voluntary and compensated, many residents indicate otherwise – that eviction was forced, families were required to leave town, losing jobs and homes, and compensation was for a fraction of value, if available at all. This is the subject of citizen protest at this time – brave folks, given Chinese history!

Internet and press censorship for foreign journalists and visitors. The Chinese government had pledged to provide journalists unrestricted access to the Internet and other media, but journalists onsite found that they were subject to censorship restrictions similar to those of the Chinese population. Under fire, the Chinese government has reversed this and made an effort to make full access available to foreign journalists; the results have been inconsistent.

Draconian visa restrictions and denial-of-entry decisions. It appears that China’s plan for a safe and secure Olympics appears to be that if no one shows up, there can be no trouble. As of the end of July, hotels and airports were half empty. Some of the new visa rules require frequent and complicated applications, including proof of a hotel booking, round-trip airline tickets, and in some cases, a letter of invitation.

Gold-medal athlete and Team Darfur activist Joey Cheek was denied entry; he warns that current Olympic competitors that are politically active in pro-human rights causes like Team Darfur may be subject to treatment as suspect individuals in China, subject to extra security procedures and scrutiny when they arrive in Beijing. Naturalized American citizen and African refugee camp survivor Lopez Lomong, a middle distance runner and Team Darfur member, was chosen to carry the American flag at the opening ceremonies. I am very proud.

Doping is becoming epidemic in elite competition. Recent headlines revealing doping and stripping past heroes of their medals are disillusioning – as a spectator and a fan, I hope that my heroes have prepared honestly and compete cleanly, and it’s becoming harder and harder to suspend that disbelief. In track and field, swimming, cycling, weightlifting, wrestling, athletes are being suspended, admitting fault, losing their slots and even having past medals removed. How can we cheer the winner on the stand today, knowing that he or she may be making a painful “my cheating heart” confession sometime in the future?

Air quality and the US Olympic Team breathing mask debacle. The US Olympic team issued breathing masks to its athletes to help combat Beijing’s notorious and well publicized smog problem. A few bicyclists wore them in the airport upon arrival, thus “insulting” their host nation and requiring an apology. This infuriates me. Call a spade a spade. If the air is polluted, then wear a mask and don’t apologize. Pretending everything is shiny to save the host nation’s face is not going to help our endurance athletes conserve their lung capacity. And if wearing them in public, i.e. out-of-doors, is inopportune – then precisely when were the athletes supposed to wear them? In the shower?

The murder of US volleyball coach’s family members. In spite of the 100,000 armed troops and police lining the streets of Beijing to maintain order and security during the games, an attacker murdered a visitor and critically injured his wife in an act of random violence. The victims turned out to be the family of US volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon. To add to the tragedy, it appears that Chinese authorities may be reinstating censorship measures related to coverage of this murder, wanting to sanitize any appearance of relationship of the murder to the Olympics.

Traditional Chinese squat toilets at many of the new and renovated venues drew frequent complaints. Limited renovation to serve athletes, journalists & VIPs was undertaken at the three most striking venues for the Olympics, the 91,000-seat national stadium, the water cube swimming and diving stadium, and the National Indoor Stadium. Spectators and athletes at less prominently placed events will still encounter the squat facilities.

I’m sure that other Olympic games have had their share of adverse advance press and sad stories during the games – today’s world of instant electronic media makes this kind of news more accessible and easier to find. Still, I don’t feel particularly charitable toward surly, dictatorial host nation China, nor toward the IOC that awarded them the games.

I wish the athletes, press and spectators, though, nothing but the best.

Note: I was going to write about tv coverage and web streaming but I never got there. Next time!

9 Responses to “Inglorious Olympics”

  1. Vince Says:

    For the most part, I agree. Especially how we (I mean the government) give China favored-nation status despite repression, cyber-attacks, and so on, but Cuba, oh my goodness, they are teh evil and dangerous and wicked and we must run away, run away.

    A couple of things, however. First, the modern Olympics have always been politicized and always will be. Second, what else do you expect from the Chinese government. Of course, our government’s record ain’t spotless, either. One blog made recommendations about security of laptops, cell phones, and other information if you were going to China for the Olympics. Some people called the author racists – me, I called him realistic.

    Finally, while doping is a serious problem, many of the methods used to catch dopers is no better than polygraphs trying to catch liars. Much better tests (and by that I mean ones that have far less false positives) need to be developed.

    Anyway, that’s my humble opinion.

  2. Anne Says:

    This is the subject of citizen protest at this time – brave folks, given Chinese history!

    I love seeing Chinese protestors, whether it be human rights, environmental concerns, or like you cite here, governmental injustice. They always make me very proud.

  3. John the Scientist Says:

    I’m not so inclined to fault the Chinese for the squat toilets, but then I’ve lived in Asia and traveled there a lot. If you want everything to be like home, stay there, is my attitude – that goes for the good and the bad. That being said, I’m not jumping up and down to go back to Thailand, seeing as they can’t even properly chlorinate their drinking water in the freaking capital city.

    As for the masks – that was a deliberate slight. The airport is far away from downtown Beijing, and it’s air conditioned, for Pete’s sake. They knew cameras were going to be on them deplaning, so they donned the masks as a protest. Now, putting them on as soon as they got out of the taxi and onto the street in Downtown Beijing – just fine. Wearing them inside an air conditioned building, be it hotel or airport – insulting.

    However, I’d like to see all the athletes wearing them on the street, and actually on the field when not competing, to protest the obvious bribery of the IOC by the Chinese, and their blatant lying about future air quality when they were awarded the games.

    All the rest I agree with.

  4. Bryan Says:

    Whatever we think of the Chinese – shot through the prism of our own cultural perceptions – we can’t just refuse to deal with them. Certainly, we can try to do so on our own terms, but like any give-and-take, we’re not always going to get what we want. One major problem is the totally different perception of the value of human life that culture has vs. that of the West, that is, not nearly as much value is placed on the life of the common man. I suspect that in spite of the censorship and supression, the Chinese culture will continue to change and moderate (from our perspective) into something less repressive. Communism is a dismal failure, but dictatorship, whatever the guise of the system (fascist to communist, the end result is the same, really) does at times work, depending on the will of the people to live with it. As the people there decide not to, and the system breaks down, then things will change.

    Me, I just enjoy seeing Michael Phelps kick the French’s butts.

  5. Eric Says:

    Well, I wish we were engaging Cuba. The past fifty years of our Cuban policy has been a ridiculous waste of time, money and opportunity.

    As much as I would like for our foreign policy to consistently reflect our ideals, there has to be pragmatism, and China is too big and too vital for us to treat like a pariah state. I’d like to think, too, that engagement might eventually pull China into liberalism; that hasn’t worked especially well unless you count the slow shift China has made from being a totalitarian state to merely being an authoritarian one, but that’s probably another debate.

    I have to admit: I am not and have never been an Olympics fan, and it always surprises me a little when people appear shocked at the latest round of politicization, corruption, scandal, or whatever. At the risk of invoking Godwin, have the 2008 Summer Olympics been that different from the 1936 Summer Olympics? It seems to me, indeed, that the major difference is that the authoritarian state of 2008 has been less successful in using the Olympics as a ministry than the authoritarians of ’36: notwithstanding China’s attempts to sanitize the coverage, there have still been protests, some world leaders have declined to attend, and there’s unlikely to be a Triumph Of The Will to excite and inspire nationalists at home and sympathizers abroad.

    At any rate, it remains a marvel to me that the Olympics have any reputation or regard left to lose. The whole thing has always been a political sideshow and nationalist project, has always been rife with corruption and cheating, has never lived up to its ideals as an institution regardless of all those small moments when an individual athlete shone and sparkled amidst the rubbish with a personal and hard-won moment of achievement. But obviously, I’m in a small minority–perhaps I’m just too focused on the whole forest and should be spending more time on those few spectacular trees that dot the terrain.

  6. Jeri Says:

    Hmmm… I guess where my cultural lens sees the Chinese as surly, ungracious, tyrannical hosts – their culture dictates otherwise. Still, I think the IOC has an obligation to award the Olympics to a host country where oppression and human rights abuses are not the norm, where it’s not such a downright uncomfortable, if not fearful, place to be a guest if you want to play the game.

    Vince, I do agree on the politicization of the modern Olympics – from the award to the nations participating to the unfolding international backdrop during the games. It must be particularly painful for Russian and Georgian athletes right about now!

    On the “our government isn’t spotless” note – can you imagine the TSA complaints that would be generated by a USA-hosted Olympics right about now? Oh. My. Goodness. It would be pretty brutal. We’d probably be denying entrance to teams’ javelins, strip-searching paralympians, and pissing off giant weightlifters.

  7. Jeri Says:

    John, I realize the Chinese toilets are normal for that culture, and are considered to be more hygienic, but for the host not to consider the guest’s requirements is a little rude. As a multi-knee surgery patient, my knee would be in a world of hurt after 3 weeks on the ground in China – I’d need another surgery to clean up the damage, if I could even get up and down any more. (I realize that puts me firmly in the camp of aged and infirm… yikes!)

    Eric, you’re right, there are many similarities with 1936 – although I certainly hope there’s no impending world war on the horizon. There are certainly enough regional wars. :( China’s posture, need to present a proud face, and determination to impose their version of reality on the world in the media and to a live audience is definitely reminiscent — good call.

  8. Lance Weber Says:

    What I find curious is the relative lack of coverage (and/or actual sources) of dissent from the Chinese-American community. Especially when compared to the Cuban-American community for example.
    I’m also of the mind that China put itself in a no-win position in pursuing this bid given the current state of their society, economy and infrastructure. Whatever small gains they have won with the rest of the world have been more than offset by their blunders.

  9. John the Scientist Says:

    “What I find curious is the relative lack of coverage (and/or actual sources) of dissent from the Chinese-American community.”

    There’s no coverage because the Chinese-American community is keeping their dissent in-house. There is quite a split in the San Francisco Chinatown between the newcomers who toe the PRC party line, and the old-timers, who hail mostly from Hong Kong or elsewhere in Canton. This plays out elsewhere in the Chinese-American community, but gets little press play.

    The Taiwanese faction has been laughing up their sleeves at every Mainland gaffe, but have not said anything much in our press for a couple of reasons. One is expressed in the saying: 一事無成 yishiwucheng – roughly, “it will accomplish nothing”. The other is that they do feel some pride in a Chinese venue, and they feel that stepping out of line at this point fuels racist nonsense like the crap pulled by Spanish basketball team.