China must free the Olympic spirit

ft.com
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 $US40 billion – 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 $3.3 billion. 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.

More from Victor Mallet, Financial Times

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