Points: A Sports Column
By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
If we didn’t learn anything about China from the just-finished Olympic Games, it’s because the games confirmed our pre-existing suspicions. China spared no expense or oppression to put on a dazzling show. We’re supposed to be impressed, but we’re more like irritated and bemused.
We were supposed to see the craft of a mighty nation, and if all you know about the Olympics came from NBC’s telecasts, that’s basically what you saw. NBC paid $900 million to broadcast the games, stuck to the games and made them widely available, even if it meant showing the entire two or three hours of comically dull walking races.
We can have political turmoil anytime, and the sources for learning about China’s misdeeds during the games were numerous. But the games only come along every four years, and that rare chance to see the world’s best in less popular sports justifies a small indulgence.
The Olympics are great television because the performances blow by so quickly. They’re like candy. The gymnastics routines only take a minute or two, the foot races might last fewer than ten seconds, and the dives are shorter than that. It’s Short Attention Span Theater for sports fans. Once attuned to the quick performances, the first quarter of a basketball game feels like a misuse of time.
Fortunately, the individual events ended before the American men’s basketball team hit the gold medal game against Spain for a spectacular first quarter. The Americans basically held even to that 38-31 lead after one quarter and showed not only that the USA basketball effort can win with a serious three-year commitment, but that USA basketball wouldn’t have won without it.
Michael Phelps wrapped up the most decorated Olympic performance of all time with eight swimming gold medals, bring himself up to 14 gold medals’ after two Olympics. But Phelps didn’t dominate his eight events the way Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt dominated the men’s 100- and 200-meter sprints, winning in world record times of 9.69 and 19.30 seconds. Bolt and three teammates also set the world record in the 4×100-meter relay at 37.10 seconds, making him the first sprinter to win all three at an Olympics since Carl Lewis in 1984 and the only man to set all three world records at an Olympics.
Judged competitions like gymnastics are always dicey, but during the course of about a week, an entire cast of international characters tells a story about itself and you’re dying to know how it ends. On the women’s side, especially, the duel between China and the United States made gripping drama, as did the subplot between two distinctly different American gymnasts – the lithe and elegant Nastia Liukin of Plano, TX, who was born to two gymnasts, and the adorable middle American Shawn Johnson, who lives the life of a normal kid in West Des Moines, IA, except that she happened into a gymnastics coach from Beijing.
Though the Chinese won the most gymnastics medals, and the most golds, the combination of judged results and Chinese secrecy is bound to leave the results murky. The games ended with the International Gymnastics Federation investigating the ages of three Chinese gymnasts, including uneven bars gold medalist He Kexin, to see if they’d really reached the required gymnastics age of 16.
The gymnastics controversy is of a piece with other reasons that China’s showcase to the world produced unintended consequences. China exerted such draconian measures to look perfect that the measures obscured the look, exposing the perils of a totalitarian society. As the two weeks went by, the list of suppressive Chinese outrages grew continuously. China managed to put on a spectacular Olympic and still came off badly.
It’s not so much that the central government cares more about its image than its people. More precisely, the central government’s unchecked prerogatives boggle even the cynical Westerner. China might be a great place to live if you’re in with the in crowd and really believe “harmony” matters more than freedom, which means completely acquiescing to the Communist Party. But any kind of dissent leads to brutal repercussions, and dissent could boil down to living in a house where the government wants to build an Olympic venue.
In Beijing, for example, it’s been reported that nearly a million residents were resettled in nasty conditions on the edge of town so the central government could tear down their houses to build Olympic facilities. A couple displaced women in their seventies applied to protest at one of the “protest parks” set aside 30 miles away, allegedly for that purpose. So, the government threatened to send them off for “re-education labor.”
The Chinese government imposed sweeping change on Beijing in just this manner, spending $40 billion with dispatch that could never be repeated in America. Here, the process could only take place piecemeal because it’s done by private enterprise. The government merely passes the enabling eminent domain legislation in exchange for campaign contributions. That’s why it takes so long to get anything done.
In China, the central government just digs into its own pockets for money and bully clubs. Concerned about the potential embarrassment of notoriously bad air quality, the government set up 6,700 cannons and 4,100 rocket launchers to shoot silver iodine into the clouds so the town could take a shower, according to the German magazine Der Spiegel, and several industrial plants were shut down for a month before the games so they’d stop belching smoke into the air.
To provide water for the big show, the central government ordered surrounding rural provinces to ship 80 billion gallons of water to Beijing, then ordered the farmers to grow corn, which takes less water than the more lucrative vegetable or rice crops. That’s a government that can get the job done.
But at what cost for a good show? China has no free elections, no religious freedom, no independent courts and no checks against officially supported torture and discrimination. Sounds too much like the country too many hardheaded social conservatives want to build in America.
NBC didn’t show much, if any, of the ugliness, including the imprisonment and detainment of protesters against China’s brutality in Tibet, its support of a genocide in Darfur and its suppression of its own people. But journalists on other platforms saw plenty to grist their mills, not to mention enough interference with their work to motivate dissent that the Chinese government could not stop.
China made a crucial mistake, hoping to show itself off to the world with no idea how to finesse a free press. The way to finesse a free press is to own it, and China only owns its own. China hoped to show itself off by controlling press it can’t control, and that enterprise was bound to fail. They were warned.