State and money triumph over true athletic spirit

SCMP August 13 2008

The Olympics may be just into its stride but, already, several lessons for future Games are clear. The first is to reduce the role of the opening ceremony, stop using presidential attendance as proof of political correctness and focus on the athletes. It's said London will have a hard time equalling the Beijing opening show. Let's hope it does not try to reproduce this monument to showy nationalism but focuses on the internationalism of individual competition.

Great spectacle that it was, Beijing's opener was a mix of hi-tech wizardry and Pyongyang's visually stunning mass games - particularly those in 2005, the Korean Communist Party's 50th anniversary. Anyone who has seen the latter in the flesh not only knows how much was borrowed from the North Koreans but what sort of triumph of the state over the individual it represents.

The Olympics is supposed to be about individual prowess, the search for perfection regardless of nationality. But mass-rally triumphalism prevailed, impressing the local population and some foreigners but leaving many others - particularly those with civilisations as ancient and distinguished as China - disconcerted.

For many, it is a relief to see that Russia and Germany now win far fewer medals than in the bad old days of their communist regimes, which would use almost any methods to prove the superiority of their state-controlled systems. And well done India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Brazil and Mexico, which, combined, have roughly double China's population, for winning - it can be confidently predicted - only a handful of medals between them.

But if communists have abused the Games, so too have capitalists. The focus of Jacques Rogge and his unaccountable colleagues who run the International Olympic Committee has been one thing only - money. Pity China that the Games are being held in August rather than in late September when the climate would have been far more suitable.

The US network NBC and a few major sponsors in effect control the IOC. Likewise, the timing of many events has been geared to the demands of US audiences, to the great inconvenience of many athletes and the vast majority of the world.

Nor can one blame China for searching out obscure sports, such as women's weightlifting and pistol shooting, to win medals when there is a cascade of medals available in swimming, a sport which generally favours Caucasian physiques. Michael Phelps is undoubtedly a great athlete but that he can even consider the possibility of winning eight golds at a single Games is proof of the devaluation of medals in some sports, swimming in particular.

Clearly, no country in future will want to spend the money or be able to repeat Beijing's quasi-Maoist mass organisation. Thus these Games, however successful, are a signal for reform of the whole system. That will include the removal of many if not all team sports, which mostly have bigger international venues elsewhere.

Beijing's over-the-top nationalism and security obsessions have set off a foreign media reaction that may have exaggerated negatives such as pollution and created much hypocritical grandstanding about Darfur. BBC World TV, which defiles a famous brand with increasingly tabloid instincts, chose the first day of the Games to air a biased, inaccurate piece of 'investigative' journalism attacking China's links with the Darfur wars. So, let's outlaw nationalist sentiments from Games openings.

And - an even more difficult task - let's reform the IOC. This self-important, self-perpetuating body, many of whose members are in reality political appointees, demands that the Games be apolitical then makes decisions which are purely political - like banning most of the Iraqi team - and allows hosts to use them for overtly political purposes. And its obsession with making money from TV rights and sponsorships further distort both the spirit of the Games and the capacity of countries to host them.




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