Not since Marco Polo has anyone traveled so far up China’s Silk Roadwith such amoral élan. But there was Jacques Rogge, president of theIOC, knight of the court of King Leopold’s Belgium, three-timeOlympian in the grand sport of yachting, standing astride Beijing atthe close of the 2008 Olympic games. In front of 90,000 at the Games’he said, "Tonight, we come to the end of sixteen glorious days which we will cherish forever. Through these games, the world learned more about China, and China learned more about the world."
But what did the world really learn? From NBC’s coverage we learnedthat China is totally awesome, Michael Phelps can really swim andUsain Bolt is way fast. Oh, and there are pandas there. some of whom diedin the Sichuan earthquake. We can’t forget about the pandas.
As the Washington Post‘s veteran columnist Thomas Boswell wrote in his last missive from Beijing:
In all my decades at The Post, this is thefirst event I’ve covered at which I was certain that the main point ofthe exercise was to co-opt the Western media, including NBC, with asplendidly pretty, sparsely attended, completely controlled sportsevent inside a quasi-military compound. We had little alternative butto be a conduit for happy-Olympics, progressive-China propaganda. Isuspect it worked.
I applaud Boswell for his honesty, but it is hard to not have contempt for the aside that "we had little alternative" but to dance theinfomercial shuffle.
Boswell and the press made a choice the moment they stepped on China’s soil.
They chose not to seek out the near two million people evictedfrom their homes to make way for Olympic facilities.
They chose not to report on the Chinese citizens who tried toregister to enter the cordoned off "protest zones" only to findthemselves in police custody.
They chose not to report on the Tibetan citizens removed fromtheir service jobs by state law for the duration of the games.
They chose to not point out the bizarre hypocrisy of seeingMichael Phelps–with full media fanfare–taking a group of Chinesechildren to their first meal at McDonalds. (Even though Phelps famously eats12,000 calories a day during training, I can’t imagine much of itcomes from Mickey D’s.)
They chose not to report on the foreign nationals who as of thiswriting, are still being held in Chinese prisons for daring toprotest. (According to the Associated Press, the US Embassy todayurged China to free those jailed for protesting at the games. Theembassy gently suggested, that China could stand to show "greatertolerance and openness.")
They chose not to ask why George W. Bush was the first USpresident to attend the Olympics on foreign soil, and why the StateDepartment last April took China off its list of nations that commithuman rights violations.
They chose not to ask whether it was a conflict of interest forGeneral Electric to both own NBC and be one of the primary sponsors ofthe games as well as the supplier of much of the games’ electronic securityapparatus, including 300,000 close circuit cameras, which will mostlikely remain in place once the world has turned its attentionelsewhere.
They chose not to ask and re-ask the question of why the gameswere in Beijing in the first place, when Rogge and Beijing organizingcommittee head Liu Qi both promised that the Olympics would comealongside significant improvements in human rights.
As Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said:
The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the games has been a catalyst for abuses, leading to massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom, and increased political repression. Not a single world leader who attended the games or members of the IOC seized the opportunity to challenge the Chinese government’s behavior in any meaningful way.
The legacy of these games will be in no short order: China’sdominance, in winning more gold medals than the US; the brilliantperformances of Phelps; Bolt and the dominance of the Jamaicansprinters. But we should also remember the ravaging of a country,sacrificed at the altar of commercialism and "market penetration." Andwe should recall a mainstream press, derelict in its duty, telling usthey had "little alternative" but to turn this shandeh into aglobalization informerical.
Liu Qi called the Olympics "a grand celebration of sport, of peace andfriendship." Instead it was a powerful demonstration of the way theelephants of the east and west can link trunks and happily trample thesuffering grass.
England, you’re next. And you thought the blitzkrieg was rough.