Beijing 2008: The Not Quite Ready for Primetime Olympics
[Note to readers: this column was written a number of weeks ago, but was in holding as I wrote columns about some more immediate travel related subjects. With the turmoil in Tibet this past week, it is clearly a topic in the news. I have updated the prior column to include the recent upheavals.]
When countries or cities submit bids for hosting the Olympics it is usually done with a great sense of pride and boosterism. The governments and economic vested interests all look to hosting the Olympics as a way to showcase their â€œworld class cityâ€. In the case of the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, it is clearly the goal of the Chinese government to make clear to the world that the formerly communist country is now a major player on the world stage. The world has recognized and accepted the growing economic might of the country. The Chinese government wants to make a further impression on the world that they are culturally and architecturally a world class nation.
I have written here about what has occurred in China over the last 20 years. Basically they have collapsed the 200 year timeline of the U.S. to move from an agricultural economy to an information economy to a period one tenth in length. This has never been done on such a magnitude, and as a result there have been many problems, as written here. I think that this will be the reason that the 2008 Beijing Olympics may turn out to be a disaster that the Chinese government is blinded by its own insular world view to see.
The Olympics are the showcase for the best that humanity can be in the world of sport. It is also a celebration of the fact that though we compete as individuals and for our countries we are all one. The Olympic rings have come to represent the highest and best aspiration of humanity. This is the part that the Chinese government probably does not fully understand.
The air pollution is so bad in Beijing that many of the competing countries have suggested to their athletes that wearing face masks prior to their actual outdoor competition may be advisable. Many of the U.S. Olympic teams have suggested bypassing the opening ceremonies and having athletes show up only a day or two prior to their events to avoid the air pollution. When was the last time that athletes marched in celebration during the opening ceremonies wearing protective face masks?
What about all the human rights violations in China? What about the relationship between China and Darfur? The Beijing Olympics lost Steven Spielberg over that one. What might happen if a head of state invites the Dalai Lama to attend as their guest? Would any country but China bar him from attending? I think not. This is where China has yet to fully understand that economic might alone does not qualify a country to be considered â€œworld classâ€ and a nation to be respected. This all comes from the fact that the country has come so far so fast, yet still has strong governmental footing in the communist age of control and suppression. A major conflict that I predict will unfold on the world Olympic stage.
The recent demonstrations in Tibet and brutal crackdown of them by the Chinese government make it clear that the Olympics will either be a force to change the governmentâ€™s policies or will become a PR disaster for the government that will far exceed the poisoning of animals and children in the columns linked to above. The fact that the Chinese government has blamed the Dalai Lama for instigating the demonstrations has as much credibility as blaming the Easter Bunny for the countriesâ€™ dental problems. Speaking of rabbits, it makes me think that the Chinese government is, to some degree, living in Aliceâ€™s Wonderland.
[Disclaimer to readers: I have met the Dalai Lama and felt the power of his transcendent serenity. I have written about him. I think he is one of the great leaders for peace in our time. I have owned and displayed â€œFree Tibetâ€ stickers and believe that the preservation of the Tibetan Buddhist culture and religion is important to humanity. As much as I admire the incredible and amazing economic transformation of China in the past 20 years, I have always held the occupation of Tibet against them.]
The Chinese government has now banned foreign press from reporting from Tibet, while at the same time putting out what seems to be staged and managed video and interviews. This brings the names Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Mao and Chou to mind. As I have often written in this column, the disintermediation age we live in, driven by the Internet is about openness and universal access to information. China, because its leadership grew up and came to power in a closed, controlled society, does not fully grasp this.
It will be interesting to see if China comes to a quick realization that they must change or whether they hold onto their current position and project a controlled police state. It will be interesting to see how the heads of state around the world will act. Will they let the economic might of China club them into submission? If the Bush Administration and other western governments who champion human rights do not stand up firmly for that cause, they will clearly be perceived as caving to the economics of the situation. Further, will the media and the networks that have paid dearly for coverage rights report on Tibet, air pollution and Darfur, or will they cower to dictated vested economic interests? I cannot imagine that major advertisers will want their incredibly valuable brands to be tied to the slaughter of priests.
I hope all athletes will be able to compete and will be able to protect their health. They have trained for years for this opportunity and it should not be taken away from them. I do think though that the Beijing Olympics of 2008 will be remembered not for athletic excellence but rather as a watershed event in the ongoing globalization of humanity and the openness and unity that inevitably goes with it.