Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Beijing 2008 Report

Greg Groggel (IPE '06 and former Watson Fellow) is back from covering the Beijing Olympics for NBC. We asked Greg to reflect on his experiences there. Here is his report. Watch this space for an announcement of a talk that Greg will give on campus later this month.

For nearly three and a half weeks in August, Beijing welcomed the world, but only partly, and through the lens of tightly scripted television. Impromptu Olympic Games these were not. They seemed to lack the internationally roisterous flair that I so enjoyed in Athens. And while the general news media routinely used the occasion to proclaim China's "arrival" and the Olympics their "coming out party," I'll spare you the general boilerplate as even the dead horse has cried uncle.

When I visited Beijing a year ago as part of my Watson Fellowship project, I predicted that China would implode. I thought that there was no way they would be able to cover all their bases by the time the wily foreign press rolled into town. The international airport was a joke, public transportation was near non-existent, one couldn't find English language assistance and there was an army of migrant laborers that would surely be an issue. It didn't look good, and I wanted to be there to see it burn.

This past spring, however, Beijing started to tie together the city's loose ends. Construction wrapped on the stadiums, subway lines and massive airport terminal. Similarly, visas were not renewed for many of the foreign businessmen, freelancers, students and artists (or, as fellow logger Nicole Shanahan told me, all the "cool people"). I should have known that China's leaders and general public were going to let nothing get in the way of the long-awaited spectacle.

Looking back, a telling sign came when I was visiting the Three Gorges Damn. While waiting for a bus I was chatting with a young Chinese lady about the one-year countdown. In perfect English, she told me that she applied to be an Olympic volunteer, but was rejected. Admittedly crushed, she now was focused on another task, getting in to University of Wisconsin to study Marketing. And this is someone they turned down.

But China's Olympic honchos made a crucial mistake in thinking the rest of the world held the Beijing Games with the same reverence. When the riots in Tibet happened, the glaring spotlight that comes with hosting the spectacle illuminated not just China's brute force there, but in other spheres as well. And suddenly, frustrations over China's role in the world manifested into a single object, the Olympic flame. Those with concerns over the growing power then found that the flame was passing through their very city. It was all too perfect, really.

Back to the Games themselves, as I know that's what Professor Veseth wanted to hear about in the first place. In my opinion, the 2008 Olympics proved to be intended much more for China than for the rest of the world. In other words, it was a domestic demonstration that while surely meant to impress foreigners, was designed to change how the Chinese thought about themselves. I knew this could play a large role in their Olympic experience after what I learned from my two months in Seoul, South Korea.

While reading in a park, I started talking with an elderly man about the 1988 Games. Their meaning, he explained, was that they proved to the world that they belonged. But even more important was that it proved to the people that they belonged to the world. At the Olympic Green and throughout Beijing, the scene was one of proud Chinese families. People that had traveled for days to witness the visual power of the Bird's Nest in person and soak in the aura of accomplishment. Michael Phelps? Phelps who? I've never seen such an apathetic response to such an historic performance. Yes, the top story in Beijing was of the sheer dominance of Chinese athletes. If Liu Xiang had done much to alter the perception of China as the "Sick man of Asia" with his win in the 110m hurdles in Athens, then the 51 gold medals obliterated that fallacy in Beijing.

Unrelated, I think the foreign press generally let the rest of us down, lobbing up softballs when there was much to be covered (I know, I threw out some particular juicy ones). The journalists seemed less likely to venture out into the masses than they had in Athens or Torino. In particular, the fate of the migrant workers is one that pains me to see go undocumented. Tough to be fair the general Chinese population wasn't eager to air grievances they saw as a sacrifice for the whole (or could get them in trouble with the ever-watching eye). But perhaps more important, I believe foreign diplomats and heads of state proved their cowardice by hiding behind the "Olympics is about sport" excuse.

President Bush, decked in cargo shorts and a visor, looking ever the fraternity chum playing beach volleyball with Misty and Kerri, did little to advance the political concerns of the world over. And yet we criticize IOC President Jacques Rogge for not bringing full-scale change? Please.

I think in the end the 2008 Olympic Games will have a rather remarkable legacy. In what form exactly, it's too early to tell. While it's true the Olympics didn't bring the type of massive social and political change many had hoped, I think you'll ultimately find it in smaller ways. Things like copyright protection, cultural and artistic respect, and even things like the introduction of seeing-eye dogs to the world's largest nation. Still, much work has yet to be done, particularly in the post-Olympic utility of their many venues, to ensure a positive legacy. But something tells me not to bet against them.

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