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China Still Has Some Tarnish on Its Image

March 26, 2008

By RICHARD SANDOMIR
The New York Times
March 25, 2008
Sports Business

China’s violent suppression of protests in Tibet does not present the
optimal image of an Olympic host, any more than barring live TV shots
from Tiananmen Square during the Summer Games in Beijing this August
burnishes the government’s reputation.

The International Herald Tribune reported Monday something that will not
be included in Beijing’s Olympic media kits: a Chinese land-rights
activist received a five-year prison sentence and was shocked with
electric batons during a scuffle between his family and the police.

So goes the risk of permitting a capitalist dictatorship to play host to
the Olympics in the hope that it will change its repressive ways once
the whole world is watching.

The whole world includes NBC’s multiple-network and Internet coverage.
“I believed in July of 2001 and believe today,” Dick Ebersol, the
chairman of NBC Universal Sports, said in an interview Monday, “that the
I.O.C. gave the Games to Beijing because it was really important for
them to take place for the first time in the largest nation in the
world. As it relates to the mysteries of China, including human rights,
I believe giving the Games to China shines a light on a part of the
world that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Now the government is censoring NBC and other global networks that will
broadcast the Games, telling them where they can use their cameras.

Ebersol declined to criticize the Chinese government. He is in regular
contact with Chinese officials. He did not criticize the International
Olympic Committee. He is in business with it; NBC is its single largest
television benefactor.

On behalf of NBC, he bid $894 million for the 2008 Summer Games in late
1995 — nearly six years before the International Olympic Committee voted
to make Beijing the host city.

But in his 19 years at NBC, Ebersol has overseen the network’s Olympic
efforts in friendly confines like Barcelona, Spain; Atlanta; Sydney,
Australia; Salt Lake City; Athens; and Turin, Italy. He was not running
NBC Sports when it televised the 1988 Summer Games from Seoul, South
Korea, which endured a violent transition to democracy.

“In 1987 and ’88, a hard-line government cracked down in South Korea but
realized its ability was limited by the coming Olympics,” Jamie Metzl,
the executive vice president of the Asia Society, said in an interview.
“They used the Olympics, as China is, as a coming-out event, but I don’t
think the same political change will result in China.”

He added: “China has the ability to withstand a lot of pressure. But
right now, perceptions of China have been harmed, like product-safety
issues harmed it.”

Protest groups seem emboldened to challenge the Chinese government,
maybe right through the closing ceremony in late August; but Tibetan
activists will have to go somewhere other than Tiananmen Square to be
seen. Meanwhile, the government has not fully adopted the peaceful
lessons of the I.O.C.’s “Olympism” philosophy.

Ebersol said that in the division of television labor at NBC, the news
division will cover the political issues and the sports side will tend
to its 3,600 hours of televised and Internet-streamed coverage. He said
sports would cut to news about unrest “only if it interferes with the
competition or hinders athletes from getting to the competition.”

He would not comment on what the I.O.C. president, Jacques Rogge, could
do to persuade the Chinese to become a better citizen of the Olympic
movement.

Rogge, who became the I.O.C. president three days after Beijing won its
bid in July 2001, is relying on what he calls “silent diplomacy,” which
probably means quiet talks with the Chinese because he certainly should
not be silent.

The news from China raises questions about its avowed commitment to
human rights and other issues that helped make Beijing a host city.

In 2001, François Carrard, the I.O.C.’s executive director at the time,
offered an insight that is as pertinent now as it was then. “Some people
say, because of serious human rights issues, ‘We close the door and say
no,’ ” he said. “The other way is to bet on openness.”

That still looks like a good wager to Rogge, but a bad one to the Dalai
Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, who has called China’s
actions “cultural genocide.”

Rogge said in a statement Sunday that events in Tibet were of “great
concern” but he remained optimistic. “We believe that China will change
by opening the country to the scrutiny of the world through the 25,000
media who will attend the Games,” he said.

Rogge then told The Associated Press on Monday that the human rights
situation in China was improving, if not perfect, and that the Tibetan
crisis would “not be on the front page if the Games were not being
organized in China.”

That sounds like a cynical bet on China’s ceasing its misbehavior only
when the press corps swells to 25,000.

“All parties involved, particularly the I.O.C.,” Metzl said, “should
hold China to the standard it set when it made its case for hosting the
Olympics.”

If China falls short of the standard, then NBC’s investment might be
damaged.

E-mail: sportsbiz@nytimes.com
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