The golden question: Was sending Olympics to China the right thing?

[24 August 2008]

By Jack Chang

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

BEIJING—The venues were great, the competition was exciting and no major international incident stained the Olympic Games that concluded here Sunday.

Yet was that enough to call these games a success?

That question hung over the Olympics as hundreds of thousands of athletes, journalists and other visitors said goodbye to Beijing, concluding what was the most watched and most competitive Olympics ever.

Everyone agreed that the games were a technical success, but debate continued about whether the International Olympic Committee had honored the Olympic spirit by awarding the games to a country led by an authoritarian government with little taste for dissent or transparency.

Since the 2001 decision by the IOC to bring the games to Beijing, the committee’s President Jacques Rogge has repeatedly said the Olympics would open up China and usher in a new era of respect for human rights and press freedoms.

Journalists, human rights activists and even some sporting officials had called such hopes misguided. On Sunday, Rogge confronted those concerns right off the bat at a closing-day IOC session.

“It has been a long journey since our decision in July 2001 to bring the Olympic Games to China,” Rogge said, according to an IOC transcript. “But there can now be no doubt that we made the right choice.

“The IOC and the Olympic Games cannot force changes on sovereign nations or solve all the ills of the world. But we can—and we do—contribute to positive change through sport.”

Not everyone, however, was repeating that upbeat message this weekend, especially in the wake of what some said was the Chinese government’s failure to honor promises made to win the games to allow more freedoms.

In a lead Saturday editorial titled “Beijing’s Bad Faith Olympics,” The New York Times slammed increased Chinese government repression of political dissent in the run-up to the Olympics and criticized China’s refusal to allow protests even in three designated protest zones in Beijing.

The editorial cited the cases of two elderly Chinese women who were sentenced to a year each of re-education through labor last week for applying for a permit to use the protest zones.

“Beijing got what it wanted out of this globally televised spectacular,” the editorial read. “It reaped a huge prestige bonanza that it will surely use to promote its international influence and, we fear, further tighten its grip at home.”

David Wallechinsky, vice-president of the International Society of Olympic Historians and a frequent television commentator, said the Beijing games had not lived up to the Olympic charter, which condemns “discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise.”

“What was the goal of bringing the games to Beijing?” Wallechinsky asked. “If they wanted to bring the games to the most populous nation in the world, they succeeded.

“If they wanted to help the Communist Party issue propaganda to its own people, they succeeded. If it was to improve human rights, they failed miserably.”

Chinese officials have bristled at such talk and insisted they’ve allowed more freedoms, to the extent possible, in the run-up to the games.

In January 2007, the government issued new press rules allowing foreign reporters to travel anywhere in China and to talk to anybody who consented.

Practice, however, has strayed from theory, as the government restricted reporters from entering the western region of Tibet in March after violent anti-government protests broke out there.

Thousands of reporters covering the Olympics in Beijing also haven’t been able to access Web sites dealing with Tibet, the spiritual practice Falun Gong and other sensitive topics.

Nonetheless, Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, said the games revealed to the world a modern, harmonious picture of the country. The Chinese spent some $40 billion on venues and infrastructure for the games.

Chinese officials were congratulating themselves Sunday not just for a good job pulling off the massive event but also for the stellar performances of the country’s athletes, who earned a first-place finish in total gold medals.

“The Olympic Games staged in China provide a good window and a good showcasing for the real China,” Wang told reporters. “History will show what China is really like and how China is on the right path. And history will show how correct the decision the IOC took in 2001 was to award the games to China.”

Several athletes interviewed by McClatchy agreed, saying they thought the IOC had done right by bringing the Olympics to Beijing. Political concerns took a back seat, they said, to athletic competition, and many were not aware of the controversies over protest zones and press freedoms.

The athletes praised the 31 new, temporary and existing venues used in the games and said concerns about air pollution largely evaporated as rains cleared the city’s notoriously smoggy skies.

Hosting hundreds of thousands of foreigners for more than two weeks was sure to bring benefits, said triathlete Bevan Docherty, who won the bronze medal for New Zealand.

“I think it was a fantastic decision to bring the games here,” Docherty said. “It brought the world to China, made the rest of the world understand China and China has understood a little more about the rest of the world.”

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