Olympics in Beijing blur the line between sport, politics | AspenTimes.com

Olympics in Beijing blur the line between sport, politics

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Beijing as host city for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the goal was to showcase a new, improved China to the world.

That hope has amounted to little more than wishful thinking, according to a distinguished and eclectic panel who led a discussion Saturday at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center. Among them was a four-time gold medalist, a sports economist and one of the minds behind ESPN’s expansion.

In reality, they contend, the assurances China made to secure these Games ” primarily that it would re-evaluate its stance on human rights and liberalization plus its long-standing relationship with Darfur ” have rang hollow. Consequently, the country remains a lightning rod for controversy. And, as the world descends on Beijing in little more than five weeks, the fine line separating sport from politics ” and even business ” has been blurred once again.

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan referred to the Olympics as the “greatest peacetime gathering in the world.” She did, however, point to recent torch relay protests in London and Britain as proof of the dissension and wide-ranging social ramifications these Games already are generating.

“That torch was a magnet for the entire world,” she told an audience filling the McNulty Room. “[The public outcry] was them saying, ‘You haven’t done it. You’ve blown it.'”

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Andrew Zimbalist, acclaimed sports economist and professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, believes the motivation to influence new consumers and markets was the driving force behind the IOC’s 2001 selection of a country with the world’s largest population as a host. Consequently, officials overlooked China’s polarizing image worldwide.

“They opened up the world to 1.3 billion Coca-Cola drinkers and 1.3 [billion] McDonald’s eaters ” that’s why they gave it to China,” he added.

Harrison Dillard, who won a total of four track and field gold medals in two Olympic appearances ” 1948 in London and 1952 in Helsinki, Finland ” labeled the decision “ill-advised,” given China’s track record pertaining to its contentious relationship with Tibet and its general stance on human rights.

Brennan also pointed the blame at the IOC. She referenced 2004, when the committee was very vocal when it came to pressuring Athens to expedite its construction plans. But, when it came to broaching more sensitive topics this time around, the IOC was conspicuously absent from the conversation.

“When it came to structures and concrete, they spoke out,” she said. “When it comes to far more serious issues like human rights, they’ve been silent. They deserve to be criticized.”

Such a politically-charged Olympic climate is hardly a new development. John Walsh, senior vice president and executive editor of ESPN, Inc. and the ESPN Internet Group, pointed to September 1972, when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes in Munich, West Germany.

Dillard talked about the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when then-President Jimmy Carter called for a U.S. boycott of the Games because of the Soviet Union’s reluctance to leave Afghanistan. Soviets followed suit in 1984, refusing to attend the Olympics in Los Angeles.

The panel agreed that a boycott in Beijing is unlikely. Walsh said he would not be surprised if somebody spoke out ” perhaps a member of Team Darfur, a coalition of elite athletes committed to educating the public about conditions in the Sudan.

Dillard hopes it is President Bush who makes a stand. By not attending the Games as planned, Dillard said Bush would be making a much stronger statement than any athlete ever could.

What transpires in August ultimately is anyone’s guess, the panel said.

“Organized athletics are tough because there are rules,” said Brennan, who will be covering her 13th Olympics. “There’s freedom of speech, but there’s a time when you can do it and where you can do it.”

Athletes will not be the only ones under pressure, Walsh said. Advertisers will be challenged to defend their stances on human rights. Media outlets will have to rely on sound news judgment if they are to accurately portray all that transpires.

NBC, which has been given the exclusive and prized right to broadcast the Games, is also in an difficult position, Brennan said.

“NBC is a partner with the Olympics ” they’re in cahoots,” she added. “What does NBC do if something absolutely blows up?” She then referenced a scenario in which swimmer Michael Phelps was competing and a protest began in Tiananmen Square. She questioned how coverage could potentially be skewed given the network’s relationship with the IOC.

“They’re going to keep things as pretty as possible,” Zimbalist said.

Brennan said she is a journalist first and sports journalist second. As such, she is committed to covering both the politics and the medal counts. In these Games, it seems, there won’t be one without the other.

There should be no shortage of story lines on and off the playing fields come August, when all eyes will be on Beijing. Whether the world sees a new-and-improved China remains to be seen.

“This was intended as a coming-out party in 2001,” Zimbalist said. “Whether it actually functions like that is an entirely different matter.”

“I’m really looking forward to this,” Walsh said. “This is going to be the most interesting Olympics in my lifetime.”


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