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 Various games have been boycotted since the 1950s for political reasons, however, no nations have withdrawn from these Chinese games.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!