Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Free the Olympic spirit, detained in China

July 25, 2008

By Victor Mallet,
The Financial Times
July 23, 2008

We will not know until the end of next month whether the Beijing
Olympics -- the so-called "coming-out party" of modern China - have
been the organisational triumph and successful sporting extravaganza
that the Chinese and the world's athletes and sports fans are hoping for.

If the games do fall short, it will not be for want of money --
China's total investment is estimated to exceed $40bn (eu 25bn,
£20bn) -- or effort. Beijing's provision of the hard infrastructure
has been exemplary, in contrast to the last-minute chaos in Athens in
2004 and the characteristically British disputes over cost overruns
already dogging the London Olympics of 2012.

On Saturday, Beijing opened no fewer than three new underground
railway lines, including one to the airport, and thereby added at a
stroke an extra 58km to the metro system, at a cost of $3.3bn.
Beijing plans to place more than 40m potted plants, chosen for their
ability to resist the fierce summer heat, around the Olympic sites
and on the city's streets.

A force of 100,000 -- including police, paramilitaries and soldiers
-- is charged with enforcing security. Residents complain about the
intrusive checks that have already begun, but it is easy to imagine
how much more harshly China would be criticised if terrorists
succeeded in disrupting the Olympics.

Such organisational feats support the verdict of Hein Verbruggen of
the International Olympic Committee that "the quality of preparation,
the readiness of the venues and the attention to operational detail
for these games have set a gold standard for the future".

 From the "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium -- described by Edwin
Heathcote, the Financial Times architecture critic, as "possibly the
most inventive, beautiful and extraordinary stadium to have been
built since Rome's Colosseum" ­ to the metro lines, the concrete and
steel underpinnings of the Beijing Olympics are an undoubted achievement.

But on the "soft" side of preparing a successful event -- the Olympic
spirit, if you like -- China has so far been a disappointment.

Far from fulfilling its promises to the IOC that Beijing's hosting of
the games would be good for human rights and for China's opening up
to the world, and that the media would have "complete freedom", China
has detained dissidents or moved them out of the capital, forcibly
removed thousands of slum-dwellers and retained some restrictions on
the movement of journalists and on live broadcasting. Neurotic
Communist party officials have closed popular nightclubs and been
accused of presiding over the "no-fun games".

The truculent Chinese reaction to protests over Tibet that marred the
Olympic torch relay was typical of the sour mood in the run-up to the
opening ceremony on August 8. Qin Yizhi, senior Communist party
official in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, even cited the Olympic motto
of Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) as an
inspiration for efforts to "resolutely smash" the supposedly evil
schemes of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile.

In the sports arenas, the Olympic spirit may be equally lacking.
Chinese leaders pay lip-service to the advice of Pierre de Coubertin,
founder of the modern Olympics, that "the important thing is not to
win, but to take part". But China's ruthless approach to grooming and
training its athletes in the quest for medals puts them under as much
pressure as a Brazilian goalkeeper in a World Cup soccer final.
Depressing predictions have been made about the likely fury of
Chinese spectators if their champions are defeated, and the
government is now trying to damp popular expectations about the medal haul.

Perhaps the nature of China's authoritarian regime makes it
inevitable that the games will be marked by nationalist propaganda
reminiscent of Berlin in 1936 and sporting victories as sweeping as
those of the East German swimmers in the 1976 games in Montreal.

Beijing has certainly missed opportunities that might have been
grasped by a more open society. Take the promise to make these the
"green Olympics". Faced with athletes' fears about its notorious air
pollution, Beijing has adopted short-term solutions ­ closing
factories, banning construction and restricting traffic. But it has
also chosen obfuscation over transparency in talking about the
effects of these measures, just as it has manipulated statistics over
the longer term to make it look as if air quality has improved in
recent years when in fact it has deteriorated.

As with air, so with water. Beijing will be "green" for the Olympics
not because of any long-term conservation effort but because fresh
water is being diverted from needy farmers in the nearby province of
Hebei. The coastal waters for the sailing events off Qingdao will be
clear of algae not because the government has done anything about the
pollution that probably caused it to grow in such catastrophic,
keel-clogging quantities but because the state mobilised thousands of
soldiers and hundreds of fishing boats to clear the weed in time for
the Olympics.

In spite of the pollution and political repression that have preceded
the games it is not too late for China to host a competition that
acknowledges the Olympic spirit and allows athletes and spectators to
enjoy one of the world's great cities. "Smile" was the advice given
by one former IOC official to the Beijing organisers. After all,
there is no point in having a "coming-out party" if you are not going
to come out and enjoy yourself.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank