China sees Olympic gold in coverage

[8 August 2008]

By Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

NBC’s sports biggies held a satellite news conference from Beijing with TV critics last month, and Bob Costas talked about the complicated anticipation for the Olympic Games that open Aug. 8.

American viewers will immediately appreciate what the Games mean to the Chinese people, he said, “and the national pride that is being brought to bear here.”

Still, Costas said, “it remains to be seen how these Beijing Olympics might change the world.”

Then he promised that the opening ceremonies will be “off-the-charts spectacular” and detailed the huge home-field advantage for Chinese competitors and the drama of the once-in-a-lifetime chance for most Olympic athletes.

Costas is one of the best sportscasters on TV, and he’s a man who has always infused his reporting with a broader perspective than just the score. But there was something discordant and out of sync in his leap from the social and political complexities of the games to the handicapping of the sporting drama ahead.

This isn’t to pick on Costas. It’s these Olympic Games that have many of us out of sync.

NBC decided that those opening ceremonies will indeed be so spectacular that the network moved its start time 30 minutes earlier. And it’s planning more than 1,000 TV hours and an additional 2,600-plus online hours of Olympic broadcasting.

But dazzling ceremonies, striking stadiums, great athletes and wall-to-wall coverage aside, these Games come infused with complicated and unsettling feelings for many people, not just in America but around the globe.

When the International Olympic Committee in 2001 awarded the Olympics to Beijing, IOC leaders said their biggest reason was to take the world inside China and to persuade the planet’s most populous country to face up to its human rights obligations.

China, in turn, appears to see the Olympics as a chance to show the global community, and its own people, that it’s a modern country embracing the world and that it’s a nation to be respected.

The goals of the IOC and of the Chinese leaders have been tested by international protests about human rights and Tibetan freedom, by China’s stern reaction to the protests, by pollution problems and by efforts in Beijing to stage a pristine, showy Olympics.

Those efforts, according to news reports, include limiting access to some parts of the country, cracking down on restaurants and bars, restricting outdoor dining and even forcing singers in nightclubs to clear lyrics with the Chinese government.

There have also been restrictions on Internet use, including Web sites from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which were finally unblocked last week by Chinese officials under pressure from the world’s media. The McClatchy Co.‘s Beijing bureau reported that the site from Reporters Without Borders had been blocked in China since 2003, before it was opened last week.

But there is more to the story than the actions of an authoritarian government. As Costas and other reporters said, Chinese citizens are fiercely proud of these Games, and many have a sense they and their country have been victims of mistreatment bordering on persecution by Western powers.

So, while many Chinese citizens hope the Games and the assembled media will shine light on human rights abuses and an intolerance for dissent, others see this as a moment of pride not to be tarnished by Western criticism.

All of that makes NBC’s job of properly covering the Games almost impossibly hard and nuanced. So far, NBC has mostly been careful and noncritical of China, which is understandable on one level, since the network paid $894 million for the rights and has more than $1 billion in revenue on the line.

NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol has to tread carefully on issues of human rights and international politics, though he told critics during the news conference he “clearly sees change” that he believes would not have happened without the Olympics.

How much change is another issue. And mostly Ebersol and NBC have talked about sports.

That’s why it’s hard to know how to think about these games. Do we revel in a spectacular opening ceremony and stunning Olympic venues, or does that mean we’re closing our eyes to the abuses and suffering China is hiding?

Do we accept the notion that this foreign presence, these thousands of athletes, journalists and fans will better connect the Chinese to the larger world community and the notions of liberty? Or do we watch the pictures and see them as images manipulated by Chinese leaders to gain influence abroad?

Do we, just as viewers, embrace the cornerstone Olympic ideal of the innocence of sport and of the world’s youth gathering in friendship, or will that makes us complicit in overlooking all the issues of morality?

I don’t have answers to any of that. But I do know these Games are different. I know it will be hard to watch swimmer Michael Phelps, runner Bernard Lagat or gymnast Shawn Johnson without tinges of concern for the Chinese people and some guilt for simply going along.

And I know what I want from NBC through these 17 complicated days of the XXIXth Olympics, and it’s more than sports and travel features. I want some perspective on these messy Olympics, some recognition of the moral grays involved in the Games and some acknowledgment of the unease we may feel simply watching them.

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