Saturday, August 16, 2008

Questioning the Olympic project, part 2

In a previous essay, I wrote that the Olympics makes us question the symbols and values of modernity by forcing us to ask whether the host country is “ready” to become modern. I used examples from the 1988 Seoul Olympics to show how commentators in 1988 looked at factors other than economic advancement to determine Korea’s progress.

The phenomenon of using the Olympics to judge a non-western country’s modern progress has been even more striking in China. At a press conference in Beijing with Giselle Davies, the IOC’s director of communications, the question of what exactly constitutes “progress” was on stark display:

Channel 4 reporter Alex Thomson: “I’m asking whether you’re embarrassed [about the Chinese government breaking its promises to expand human rights and press freedom before the games]. I’m not asking about how well the games have been run or how wonderful the venues are. Are you embarrassed?”

Giselle Davies: “We’re very pleased with how the organizers are putting on a good sporting event. That’s what this is [about]… the organizers have put on an operationally sound games for the athletes.”

The back-and-forth proceeded along these lines, with Davies focusing on operational success and Thomson focusing on human rights and press freedom. Similarly, when Wang Wei, a BOCOG official, said, “The whole world can see how China is progressing,” his emphasis was on what can be seen: infrastructure, operational aptitude, venues, the visible signs of economic progress.

China’s two bids to host the games have both generated this kind of tension about the meaning of progress. When China first bid to host the Olympics in 1993, there was an immediate uproar about the country’s human rights abuses. At the same time, some Chinese were concerned that China’s economic advancement wasn’t far enough along to successfully host the games:

"I don't think we're ready for it," said Wu Xiaoyong, a consultant for the World Bank in Beijing. "The infrastructure and general service level is not up to requirements. It would certainly be a great honor to host the Games, but it would be better if we waited until we were really ready." [1]

China’s failure to win the bid in 1993 left much bitterness among many Chinese, who believed they lost because of protests from the US government and unfair preferential treatment of Sydney.

Unsurprisingly, the language surrounding China’s 2001 bid focused on whether China was ready for the Olympics—but what was meant by “ready” varied widely. Tom Lantos, a Democratic politician in the US, said in a statement on July 8, 2001:

China's leaders have argued that politics should not taint the delegates' deliberations and that each finalist should be subject only to technical review to determine which city has the best sports facilities, transportation systems, hotels and other material resources needed to carry out a successful Olympics.

But turning a blind eye to the egregious human rights violations taking place every day in China does not remove politics from the Olympics—it permits an authoritarian regime to exploit the Games to prop up its faltering legitimacy by gaining an important symbol of acceptance from the international community. The I.O.C. should reject China's bid and protect the Olympic ideal.

China should earn the Games not because of its ability to build world-class sports sites and manage a massive event, but by virtue of its commitment to upholding the Olympic ideal.

In fact, Olympic officials sought to assure skeptics like Lantos that the Olympics are a positive force, and can even spur an authoritarian country to adopt democracy and improve its human rights. The memory of the Seoul games was important in this regard, as many observers argued that the 1988 games had pushed Korea’s democracy along. There were other promising factors: in China’s first bid for the games in 1993, it had released Wei Jingsheng, a well-known dissident, from jail six months before the end of his sentence in an act of goodwill.

Jacque Rogge, who in 2001 was a Belgium delegate to the IOC and is now the IOC president, has always supported China’s bid. When China won the bid in 2001, he and other IOC members believed the games would bring more human rights to China: ''I think the message was that the IOC wanted to open a country that represents one quarter of mankind and had never organized the games before,” said Rogge. Fran├žois Carrard, another IOC official, had a similar opinion:

Some people say, because of serious human rights issues, “We close the door and say no.” The other way is to bet on openness. Bet on the fact that in the coming seven years, openness, progress and development in many areas will be such that the situation will be improved. We are taking the bet that seven years from now we will see many changes.

For its part, China quite explicitly promised that its human rights record would improve. Yuan Weimin, China’s minister of sport at the time, said,

Like all countries, China has certain areas where something is left to be desired. [As China further opens to the world in preparation for the Olympics and for its expected entry into the World Trade Organization, economic progress] will bring along advances in culture, health, education, sport and, not least of all, corresponding progress in human rights causes. [2]

It is likely that Yuan was sincere in his hope that China would improve its human rights situation, and Rogge and Carrard probably really believed the Olympics would help in this regard. That they were wrong—due to shifting power structures within the Chinese government, an upsurge of Chinese nationalism, increasing defensiveness to Western criticism, and a variety of other factors—is the root of the frustration that Alex Thomson, the Channel 4 reporter, expressed in his harsh questions, as well as frustration elsewhere.

It remains to be seen what path China’s vision of modernity will take in the future, and whether the Olympics will have any real impact on that vision. The country’s current intense nationalism means things probably won’t change for a while, and the games have seriously undermined the credibility of the IOC and, of course, the Chinese government in the eyes of those of us who care about human rights.

What about Beijing impact on the Olympics itself? When IOC officials talk about “Olympic values,” what exactly do they mean? In 2001, human rights were clearly included in those values, and privately, some IOC officials now express regret that Beijing was awarded the games. Publicly, they have a different message: Giselle Davies’s comments above focus on infrastructure and the successful operation of the games, and link those factors to “Olympic values.” We must hope that the Beijing games haven’t changed those values for good.

[1] Michael Breen. “China’s ‘very confident’ on its bid for 2000 Olympics; but Asian giant’s rights record may harm its chances.” The Washington Times, 17 September 1993.

[2] Quotes from Rogge, Carrard, and Yuan are from: Jere Longman. “Beijing wins bid for 2008 Olympic Games.” The New York Times, 14 July 2001.

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