The Beijing Olympics: the last award

Li Datong
28 August 2008

Against a background of fireworks and celebrating athletes, the Beijing Olympics of 8-24 August 2008 drew to a successful close with another spectacular ceremony in the Bird's Nest stadium.

But what of the controversy, criticism and media attention that accompanied the games? This too must have set new records; the surrounding atmosphere was so highly politicised as to make some forget that this was at heart a sporting competition, an international celebration of both body and soul.
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)

"The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008)

"The Olympics: was China ready?" (22 August 2008)
In this, the Beijing Olympics was indeed an unprecedented success. From the magnificent opening ceremony to the venues and facilities, from event organisation to back-end logistics, neither athletes nor journalists found reason to complain. Even the air quality in China's capital - cause of more concern than any other single factor - was, thankfully, up to standard. The attentiveness and enthusiasm of the volunteers stationed throughout the venues and streets were applauded by both athletes and tourists.

In track and field, pool and gallery, on mat and arena, an astonishing thirty-eight world records and eighty-five Olympic records were set. American swimmer Michael Phelps won eight gold medals and broke seven world records, while Jamaica's Usain Bolt went home with three golds and three world records - achievements that may never be matched or exceeded. The men's basketball showdown between the United States and Spain ranked alongside an NBA final for edge-of-the-seat thrills.

The United States's synchronised-swimming team unfolded a bilingual banner reading "Thank You China" in both English and Chinese - presumably not under Chinese government instruction, but as a genuine message from the athletes. In many countries new viewing records were set as fans tuned in to watch the Olympics. The international media was unanimous: in almost every aspect Beijing had given a performance that future host cities will be hard pressed to beat.

There is no doubt then that China has left its mark on the Olympic games. But the point can be turned round, to ask whether the Olympics can and will change China. Indeed, the west's pressing wish to see political change in China was reflected in the number of reporters posing just that question. But have the Olympics ever changed a host nation? I don't think so. Even the Seoul Olympics in 1988, often held up as an example of the power of the Olympics to promote reform, did not change anything. South Korea's democratic movement was already strong and the military government close to collapse. at most the Olympics gave the final push. So what basis is there for suggesting that they could change China: how, after all, can sixteen days of sporting contests change such a huge nation with a 3,000-year tradition of autocratic rule? There should be no surprise or dismay if no immediate effect is visible.

The new normal

At the same time it should be possible to see that Beijing's effort to host the Olympics of itself reveals a change: for it shows that the rulers of modern China wish to join international society and gain its respect. To this end they were willing to compromise politically and spend massively. The Olympics, moreover, reinforced this shift. The games left China closer to the world, not further away; and they removed some of the mystery surrounding the nation (see Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment", 10 July 2008).
Among openDemocracy's articles on China's Olympic year:

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's Olympics: after the storm" (6 May 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "The Olympics countdown: Beijing to Shanghai" (6 August 2008)

Martin Vielajus, "China, NGOs and accountability" (4 August 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China changes itself: an Olympics report" (20 August 2008)
It is natural that the process was not without elements of reluctance and embarrassment, and that actions did not always match words. Designated "demonstration zones" were opened for the first time in accordance with "international practice"; yet despite over seventy applications to demonstrate being made, not one was granted. But this is still a step towards international norms. After police prevented an international reporter from covering a protest the authorities ordered that there should be no repeat occurrence - and there wasn't. Long-blocked websites became accessible during the games. A reporter from a well-known American newspaper told me that after the attack on police in Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities asked if he needed assistance to visit the scene - in the past, this would have been unthinkable.

Overall, the Olympics have been part of a desensitisation process for the Chinese government. Faced with new events and unfamiliar scenes, a certain amount of nervousness - even panic - is understandable. This was China's first Olympics, with over 10,000 athletes from 200 different countries, over eighty heads of state, 30,000 reporters and tens of thousands of foreign tourists in attendance. China did not know what would happen, but was convinced that something would; as one senior official put it in a speech: "It is impossible that nothing will go wrong."

This fear gave rise to bizarre precautions such as positioning surface-to-air missiles by the Bird's Nest stadium. But apart from two or three demonstrations by a dozen or so foreign protesters and one isolated attack on an American tourist, nothing actually happened. China's government will not be so nervous about holding other international events on this scale in the future, and will find that having demonstrations in the designated demonstration zone is entirely normal (see Kerry Brown, "China changes itself: an Olympics report", 20 August 2008).

The last contest

But the response to the Olympics not just of China's government but of China's people themselves that is notable. Many foreign commentators were once concerned that the games would strengthen nationalist sentiment, but this now seems unfounded. Indeed it seems to me that the public showed much more tolerance than the government during the games and treated the whole event as entertainment. They enjoyed the competitions and applauded the athletes regardless of nationality (see Yang Gengshen, "China's welcome change of heart earns respect", Shanghai Daily, 29 August 2008).

When Usain Bolt smashed the 100-metre record on his birthday, the entire Bird's Nest - 90,000 people - sang "Happy Birthday". Has that ever happened anywhere else? American basketball star Kobe Bryant said that playing in China felt like playing at home, and that he had been treated like the domestic basketball superstar Yao Ming. An internet poll to select the most admired "non-winners" placed foreign athletes in the top three places. Lang Ping, the Chinese-national coach who led the US women's volleyball team to victory against its Chinese opponents would a decade ago have been vilified as a traitor - but not a single criticism was heard. Tourists from around the world witnessed the friendliness of the Chinese people for themselves.

Most gratifyingly, despite China finishing with fifty-one gold medals (beating the US by a significant margin) and 100 medals overall (close to the US tally), the Chinese people did not, as they may have done a decade ago, conclude that the nation had risen up to become a sporting superpower. Instead the media emphasised that being the nation with the most gold medals is not the same as being the best at sport. There has been pointed criticism online of the implementation of a "gold-medal strategy" when public sporting infrastructure is inadequate and fitness levels are dropping. These are signs of the Chinese people starting to mature.

Overall, the government did keep an over-tight grip on the games. But the richest immediate legacy of the Beijing Olympics is the sheer thrill of sporting excellence. In the end, sport defeated politics.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData