Join our Mailing List

"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

IOC would be big loser in a Beijing fiasco

August 4, 2008

Gwen Knapp, Chronicle Staff Writer
The San Francisco Chronicle
August 2, 2008

When journalists couldn't reach certain Web sites from the Beijing
press center earlier this week, the Olympic organizers made a huge
mistake. They admitted to censorship. They should have toyed with the
complaining Westerners, telling them that the technology for these
Summer Games had been modeled after the data system employed at the
Atlanta Olympics. Info '96 was so slow and inaccurate that reporters
used it for little but comic relief, nicknaming it Info '97.

If Chinese nationalists feel besieged over the next few weeks by
critiques of Beijing as an Olympic host, they should bear in mind
that American reporters weren't shy about pointing out the crassness
and incompetence that tarnished their own country's last Summer
Games. But the criticism didn't really stick.

The International Olympic Committee had to respond with some reforms,
but the Olympic brand sustained minimal long-term damage because a)
it never does and b) NBC's audience was fed a lavish buffet of
soft-focus features and American medalists.

At some point, though, the IOC's sense of invincibility may prove as
hazardous as the blithe overconfidence that led Atlanta's organizers
to botch so many of their responsibilities. If the Beijing Games go
badly, the Olympic movement will take a harder hit than the Chinese
government. Realpolitik protects China; the country is too big to
fail, too powerful to snub. The Olympics, however, depend on a
certain idealism to keep the flame alive.

Last week's revelation of online censorship and the Chinese
organizers' sense of entitlement about it suggested a spectacular
breakdown. Within days, the IOC said it had persuaded the organizers
to back down and insisted that, contrary to reports, no one in its
leadership had given China a pass on free-speech promises it made
when the Games were awarded seven years ago.

But whether that's true really doesn't matter anymore.

Beijing must have assumed that it had implicit permission to block
the Web sites of Amnesty International, Falun Gong practitioners,
activists for Tibetan independence and an array of news
organizations. Why do it otherwise? The blackouts weren't about to go
unnoticed.

The IOC may have steered its hosts back on course, but for how long?
The principle of free speech, or at least the ability to fake respect
for the concept, should have been ingrained in the organizers years
ago. The hard line about where TV cameras can go should have blurred
by now. But the IOC has failed. It has been neutered in its
relationship with China.

Throughout the turmoil in Tibet this spring and the resulting
torch-relay protests, President Jacques Rogge made conflicting
statements - refusing to speak up, then talking tough, then pleading
with the Chinese to end the lockdown in Tibet. Circuitous diplomacy
has its merits, but for the most part, Rogge's attempts at
communication made the IOC seem desperate, adrift, impotent.

China has engaged in galling repression, but most of it will
ultimately be ignored or rationalized away. Beijing won the 2008
Games just two months before 9/11, when the United States became more
inclined to sacrifice liberty for order and safety. After that, the
long-standing superpower wasn't in much of a position to be a role
model for the rising one. As a result, a U.S. government that rails
about persecution against Christians has no moral authority to defend
a small sect in China.

"I would remind you that Falun Gong is an evil, fake religion which
has been banned by the Chinese government," Beijing Olympic spokesman
Sun Weide said when explaining the blank screens that surfaced
whenever visitors tried to call up information about the faith.

The statement could not be more of a parody, and the joke is on the
leaders of the Olympic movement. They're about to open the world's
grandest sporting event in a country that outlaws an exercise-based religion.

The prestige of the Olympics has survived the Nazi Games, where
countless Germans delivered the "Heil Hitler" salute on the medals
stand; the 1972 terrorist attack on the Israeli delegation; crippling
cost overruns in Montreal; two giant boycotts; a bribery scandal, and
a couple waves of doping revelations. So the IOC smugly assumed that
it could keep China in check.

The ancient Greeks might not approve, but they would understand. They
invented the Olympics, but they also coined the term "hubris" and
knew that it was destructive.

E-mail Gwen Knapp at gknapp@sfchronicle.com.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank