From Berlin 1936 to Beijing 2008
May 21, 2001
China´s efforts to paper over fundamental problems in its bid to become the host of the 2008 Olympics border on the surreal. The Chinese regime is promising beach volleyball in none other than Tiananmen Square. Also, it has pledged $5.4 billion to clean the polluted air in Beijing something it has been unwilling to do for the sake of its own citizens. And quite symbolically, Beijing has painted winter grass green and lined key roads with plastic flowers to impress evaluators from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
All the while, evaluation commission leader Hein Verbruggen said the IOC "must maintain unity in the Olympic movement ... cannot take positions on political matters." What can Mr. Verbruggen be thinking. The Olympic organizers probably thought exactly the same thing when they organized the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany, a huge public relation´s victory for Adolf Hitler and friends, which need not be repeated. If Mr. Verbruggen needs to refresh his memory, he can rent Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl´s documentary of the Berlin games, one of the most effective pieces of propaganda ever produced.
Watching a sports event in the very square where tanks crushed the bodies of young dissidents is not exactly a "political" issue. The July 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square Massacre of hundreds of students wasn´t a "political" event, it was an atrocity. So while the IOC evaluates logistics and other issues, it may also consider how off-putting it would be for many to cheer on athletes on the site of such brutality. And it may consider how far such an event would go towards plastering over the images of what happened in the square in 1989.
The IOC and international community should see through Beijing´s fresh paint job. Beijing´s Olympic bid committee pledged the capital would spend $20 billion on highways, subway lines and the Olympic Park -- money that would be much better invested in helping China´s hard pressed rural population. This has impressed the tunnel-visioned IOC, which placed Beijing among the three finalists to host the Olympics.
And while some China experts have argued that a 2008 Beijing Olympics could lead to democratic reform, the regime´s past cynicism indicates otherwise. During its efforts in 1993 to win the rights to host the 2000 Games, China released at least 20 prominent dissidents, including Wei Jingsheng, Xu Wenli and Wang Dan, only to rearrest them all after Beijing failed to win its bid.
Also highlighting the complications with having Beijing host the games is Taiwan´s request to hold some events in its territory, to which Beijing replied Thursday it would be happy to oblige, at a price Taiwan would first have to pledge allegiance to the one-China principle, which in the mainland´s definition makes the island nation a renegade province of the communist state. Leaders in Taiwan wisely considered the price much too steep.
Beijing´s Olympic bid is a stab at international legitimacy. But this legitimacy must be earned, not paid for. Chronic human rights abusers violate the spirit of the Olympics, no matter how many plastic flowers decorate the streets.