I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped on a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece.
- Richard Eberhart, The Groundhog
Now that the Olympic games have begun, it is time to compare promise with performance.
China’s first attempt in recent memory to host the Olympic summer games was in 1993. At that time its efforts to be selected were Herculean.
The visit by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to evaluate Beijing’s bid took place in March 1993 when smog hangs heavily over the city. The authorities knew that if the committee got wind of the smog it would never select Beijing as a site for the summer games. To reduce coal smoke in the atmosphere the government cut off all heat to large areas of Beijing. Taxi drivers and peddlers with cars were advised to take a vacation so that the IOC members would not be slowed by traffic or offended by seeing people munching on food purchased from street vendors. Three hundred thirty thousand school children were enlisted to clean traffic signs. All buses and 30,000 taxicabs were required to post window-stickers supporting the city’s Olympic bid. The government reduced its surveillance of foreign reporters.
That was not all. It modeled itself after the state of Utah which two years earlier had lost out to Nagano, Japan for the 1998 winter games, Saddened by its loss to Nagano, but determined to do better when bidding for the 2002 games, Utah began wooing African IOC members by offering them and members of their families tuition and athletic training assistance in what some perceived as an attempt to get their votes when the venue for the 2002 games was determined. The effort was enhanced when 5 years later the Salt Lake City bidding committee paid some individuals $500,000 in scholarships, 6 of the recipients being relatives of IOC members. Recognizing what a good idea Utah had struck, the Chinese followed suit. They presented the IOC committee with a pair of cloisonné vases estimated to have a value of about $40,000. In addition, they gave the new Olympic museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, a terra cotta soldier from Xian for which China had earlier reportedly declined a $100 million offer.
China’s bid for the games did not succeed in 1993, but the IOC has a long memory and that may explain in part why Beijing is hosting the 2008 games.
When Beijing was awarded the games some, but not all, thought it would enhance human rights in China. In an interview with Ray Suarez on PBS’s News Hour shortly after the games were awarded, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for the Washington Post, was asked whether awarding the games would affect China’s human rights policy. She said there was no evidence to support that. She was right. Smog, traffic and press freedom have fared no better than human rights.
Two weeks before the games were to start, Liu Shaokun was sentenced to serve a year of “re-education through labor” because he posted pictures on the web of schools that had collapsed during the recent earthquake. He was charged with “disseminating rumours and destroying social order.” Ye Guozhu was convicted in 2004 of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” for trying to organize a group against forced evictions without just compensation in order to make way for construction in preparation for the games. His sentence served, his release was delayed until after the Olymics thus preventing him from being interviewed by visiting reporters.
Smog covered the Beijing during much of July and early August. In 2007 authorities said driving restrictions would not be needed to solve the pollution and congestion problems. July 21 marked the first workday in which car restrictions were imposed on Beijing’s residents.
The press, like driving, were restricted, contrary to earlier assurances that all would be able to operate freely. In 2001, Wang Wei, Secretary General of the Beijing Olympic Games Committee, told the IOC that the international press would have “complete freedom to report when they come to China.” Echoing those comments last month, Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president and, er, Cheer Leader-In-Chief told Agence France-Presse: “For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China.”
But on July 31 it was reported that the IOC had failed to insist on unfettered press access to the Internet. On August 2 Kevan Gosper, press commission chief of the IOC said somewhat enigmatically: “We believe we are moving to a point where you will be moving toward a point where you can report in an unfettered way.”
The games have begun, the smog’s in the heavens, the cars clog the roads, activists and the Internet are imprisoned. But in the eyes of the IOC all’s right with the world. As Mr. Rogge said on August 2: “Come the 9th of August the magic of the games and the flawless organization will take over.”