In the June 2 issue of National Review, I had a piece called “The Road to Beijing: The perils and possibilities of holding the Olympic Games in a police state.” For the next five days, we’ll have an expansion of this piece in Impromptus.
As you know, the Beijing Games are upon us — they begin on Friday. They were scheduled to begin earlier, on July 25 — but the government’s meteorologists counseled delay, so as to increase the chances of fair weather. Everything must be perfect for the Beijing Olympics: They are China’s “coming-out party,” as everyone says.
The Olympics are, indeed, a pivotal moment for China, and its Communist government (if the two can be separated). Other countries are facing an important moment too, where their China policies are concerned. These Olympics have raised the questions “What is China?” and “How is the world to treat it?”
‐Before they secured the 2008 Games, the Chinese government tried very, very hard to secure the 2000. They lost out by a hair to Sydney. They had poured billions of dollars into “Olympic construction.” And they had done a great deal more.
They launched a campaign for public hygiene, using the slogan “Mobilize the Masses for a Fly-Free City!” They made citizens cease burning coal, for the sky had to be blue. Blue for whom? For members of the International Olympic Committee, who would decide on the Games’ locale. Said a Beijing official at the time, “We look upon the International Olympic Committee as God. Their wish is our command.”
Among the inducements for IOC members: a pledge to build a monument on the Great Wall bearing the names of all 90 of them.
In their effort to win the 2000 Games, the ruling Communists even relaxed their chokehold over people in their domain. They stopped monitoring foreign journalists so closely, allowing them a little breathing space. And they released a political prisoner or two. Put another way, they instituted an “Olympic Pause” — the name given to the Nazis’ temporary loosening in the mid-1930s, when the Games were held in Berlin.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution against holding the Games in Beijing, and so did the European Parliament. This did not please the IOC at all. Its then boss, Juan Antonio Samaranch, grumbled that people were happy to trade with China but not give them the Games — a good point. Another IOC official said, “If we always picked a city wearing a halo, we wouldn’t be celebrating our hundredth anniversary.”
But do you need to pick capitals of police states? Of all the cities in the world, do you have to pick Nazi Berlin, Communist Moscow, or Communist Beijing? (The IOC never picked Nazi Berlin — more about that in a moment.)
I posed this question at the World Economic Forum in Davos, about five years ago. This was during a session on sports, and I was acting as moderator. In attendance were star athletes, the heads of major sports organizations, and so on. I asked, “Does anyone in the room think that the Olympic Games should not be held in police states?” A single person raised her hand — the wife of one of the main participants. I believe — though I do not know — that she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, or a survivor herself.
In any case, after their failure to secure the 2000 Games, the Chinese put in another bid, for 2008 — and, of course, won. Their argument was that the Games were their due; that they could no longer be denied. This was especially true because of their immense population, they said. One official lectured, “The Olympic Games belong to the whole world. The fact that the Games have not yet been held in China is a failure of the Olympic movement.” Pressed on human rights, he huffed, “There is no excuse for denying the dreams of 1.3 billion people to hold the Olympics in Beijing.”
By the way, for the piece I wrote in October 2000, about Beijing’s bid to host the Games of this year, go here.
‐Understandably, the rulers in Beijing hate any comparison of their Games to the 1936 Games in Berlin. But such comparisons are inevitable, for anyone taking an honest look. Germany was awarded the Games in 1931, two years before the Nazis rose to power — two years before they were elected, I might say. Germany got the Winter Games as well as the Summer. (The Winter Games took place in two towns joined for the purpose: Garmisch and Partenkirchen. The story of the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games, Berlin aside, is highly interesting.)
With Hitler in charge, the U.S. Olympic committees voted to stay away from the Games, unless Jewish athletes could participate on German teams. The Nazis found two token Jews, both living in exile. And no boycott took place.
Traditionally, Americans are taught that the Berlin Olympics were a great failure for the Nazis, given the fabulous performance by Jesse Owens: The black American trackster won four gold medals. And that was supposed to have refuted Nazi race theories.
This is a very nice story, but the 1936 Games were a great boon to the Nazis, giving them legitimacy and cementing their power. Years later, the journalist William Shirer wrote, “Hitler, we who covered the Games had to concede, turned the Olympics into a dazzling propaganda success for his barbarian regime.” And Duff Hart-Davis, in his book Hitler’s Games, tells us that Berlin was turned out prettily and benignly — creating the illusion that Nazi Germany was “a perfectly normal place, in which life went on as pleasantly as in any other European country.”
Of course, Beijing is engaged in this same Potemkinization. And it was perfectly, tiresomely predictable. A. M. Rosenthal, who died two years ago, was always hot on the ChiComs’ tail. In a 2001 column, written after Beijing had been awarded the ’08 Games, he said, “The Politburo counts on the Olympics to show how happy, safe, and free the Chinese are . . .” But of course.
‐The International Olympic Committee has long engaged in world politics. Within about 25 years of the end of World War II, the Games had been awarded to Rome, Tokyo, and Munich — thus had the Axis powers been rewarded for taking a democratic road, and welcomed back into the family of nations, so to speak. (The ’72 Olympics didn’t work out so well for Germany, given the murder of Israeli athletes.)
The IOC gave the Olympics to the Soviet Union in 1980 — because one of the world’s two superpowers simply could not be denied. One and all were ready to participate, but then Moscow invaded Afghanistan, and the U.S. and others stayed away. I’ll never forget Richard Nixon saying on television, “You can’t just go high-jump with them,” after the invasion. In 1984, the Soviets returned the favor, boycotting the L.A. Games.
Nineteen eighty-eight makes a most interesting case. In that year, the Olympics were held in Seoul, capital of the autocratically ruled South Korea. The success of the Games was extremely important to the autocrats — and they were willing to liberalize to achieve that success. The United States, under Reagan, applied significant pressure to its South Korean ally, and most people agree that the Olympics were a spur to reform.
In the past, the People’s Republic of China would not participate in the Olympics at all. That’s because Taiwan participated, and the PRC is loath to participate in anything that involves Taiwan. (That includes the U.N. and other international bodies, from which Taiwan must be excluded, to appease the Chinese Communists.) There is now an Olympic understanding, however: Taiwan is allowed to compete under the silly name “Chinese Taipei.”
For a while, last spring, the Taiwanese made noise that they might boycott the Beijing Games, in solidarity with Tibet. But, as of now, they are competing.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes Part I of these notes. See you tomorrow for Part II.