Friday, December 24, 2010

THE 2008 OLYMPICS: XXIX Olympiad in Beijing

Opening Ceremonies in the “Bird’s Nest”
As NBC commentator, Bob Costas, reminds us in his conciliatory (and therefore irritating) voice, this is China’s coming-out party.  And indeed, even in China, one would have to be the most naïve of ideologues to believe that forty billion dollars spent on the opening ceremony by the Chinese could not buy something spectacular.  Why do the Chinese want to make such a great impression?  In what promised to be the most controversial Olympiad held since 1972, the Chinese have been harshly criticized in other parts of the world for human rights violations, their continued occupation of Tibet, the censorship of internet communications coming out of their nation, ill-treatment of dissidents, the jailing of foreign journalists, the air quality throughout their country, and the relative isolation of the people and culture of China since 1949.  The torch relay leading up the Olympics proved to be particularly embarrassing since pro-Tibetan forces protested the carrying of the torch throughout every major city in the world.  President Hu Jintao, in essence “thumbing his nose” at the critics, seemed to be saying with such a lavish ceremony that China could be as economically advanced and modern as any free market nation while being repressive at the same time.  Yet even he wanted to be careful about one particular period in history.  The chronicling of Chinese history during the opening ceremonies skipped from the Ming Dynasty that ended in 1644 (leaving out the Qing Dynast that ended in 1911) all the way to1978 following the death of Mao Tse Tung and the demise of the infamous “Gang of Four” led by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing.  Even some thirty years later, the Chinese know that Mao would have disapproved of the ceremony.  More importantly, though his portrait continuously is displayed almost everywhere in the country, the Chinese leadership knows that Mao’s reputation in the west precedes him.  It’s a tad bit difficult to justify one’s own human rights record while at the same time revering a man who may have been responsible for more deaths than Stalin and Hitler combined.  So be it.
Now critics of Chinese human rights violations like President Nicolas Sarcozy of France and President Bush of the United States could easily have boycotted the opening ceremony.  For President Bush, such a boycott would have been fairly senseless since no President has ever before attended an opening ceremony in any place but the United States.  Such gestures would have been futile in any case since really the idea for having the Olympics in China is in hopes that the country will open up and maybe change some of its practices (such as exporting grain to other nations while letting its own people starve).  Probably, human rights violations will continue whether trade is opened up with China or not.  Boycotts often also have the reverse effect in that it provides unwarranted amount of attention on the Olympic games for other things than for which the modern games were ever intended.
The opening ceremonies were to symbolize the “three” great traditions in Chinese thought including I-Ching, Buddhism, and Taoism.  Confucianism was understandably not referenced since the Red Army has long considered the philosophy to be reactionary.  In any case, we had beatings of the drum and dancing in tangent to show-off the cooperative aspects of Chinese culture.  All this notwithstanding, it’s difficult to call the ceremonies an education about Chinese society since so much of what took place in front of our eyes was an illusion.  The fireworks display we now know was enhanced for television by computerization.  There was lip-syncing by a young Chinese girl to a song because the actual singer was considered too homely to appear on international television.  The children dancing with the soldiers came the closest to being a representation of propaganda.  The soldiers we are reminded are the protectors of the state and the Chinese children.
A Short History of the Modern Games
Baron Pierre de Coubertin is generally credited with reviving the Olympic games in Athens in 1896.  Coubertin held that the games should accord with five principles: (1) with few exceptions (notably, the period of World War II), the Olympic games have been held every four years since that time (recently, the practice of holding winter and summer games during the same year has been discontinued); (2) all sporting events would be modern and would not emulate the ancient Greek games (no mortal combat, etc.); (3) competition would be limited to adults; (4) only amateurs could compete (there should be no “dream” or “redeem” teams); and (5) the games would move from city to city every four years.
Some critics decry that the events are no longer limited to just amateurs.  It doesn’t seem fair that a basketball player such as Kobie Bryant, making in excess of $20 million annually, should be allowed to compete in his given sport.  Actually, though, I believe this leads to less hypocrisy.  When amateur status was “strictly” enforced, you had nations “sponsoring” athletes to compete.  The occupation of the players of the famed Soviet hockey teams was to do nothing but train for world competition.  Also, allowing professional athletes to compete opened the games up to all athletes and not just those whose families happened to be rich enough to allow their pampered children to train without engaging in any meaningful employment.
The fifth principle has been the one to create the most havoc.  As we are simple-mindedly reminded of again and again, politics and the Olympics often become entangled.  We had Berlin in 1936 where Hitler wanted to put on for display the superiority of the Nordic athletes (too bad Jesse Owens had to step up and win four gold medals).  We had Tommy Smith and John Carlos give the black power salute on the Olympic Medals stand in 1968 in Mexico City.  We had President Carter call for the boycott of the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  We had the Soviet Union retaliate against Carter’s decree four years later by boycotting the Olympics held in Los Angeles.  Most tragically, we had the killing of the Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972.  Possibly, if we held the Olympics every four years in the same location (say Athens), less likely would be the chances that political intrigue would interfere.
Pierre de Coubertin imagined a competition where nationalism would play no role and individual accomplishment would be honored for its own sake.  But if this was the imagined goal of the Olympic games, team competition would have to be eliminated and the only flags waved would be that with the Olympic insignia.  Nations love parading around how many gold medals their athletes have won and will even shop around and bid millions and even billions of dollars to recruit potential medal winners to their countries.  And there’s enough flag waving to appease even the most fanatical of nationalist for any nation.  When the United States won the gold medal in hockey during the 1980 winter games, it wasn’t the medal game but the defeat of the Soviet Union utmost in the memory of most American hockey fans.  After the Soviet Union went down, the winning of the gold medal became mostly a footnote.
I don’t want to degrade the accomplishments of the athletes, however.  Just getting to the Olympics is a great accomplishment in itself.  The three gold medals won by Johnny Weissmuller, the four won by Owens, and the seven won by Mark Spitz are a testament to the training and discipline of these athletes.  In 1972, Lasse Viren fell down in the 10,000 meter run, but he was able to get up and win the event.  That same year, Kip Keino won the 3,000-meter steeplechase without ever before competing in the event.  Abebe Bekilla of Ethiopia won back-to-back marathons, the first while running barefoot through the streets of Rome.  Women like Mildred “Babe” Didrickson, Florence Griffith-Joyner and Nadia Comenichi came into their own by competing in front of the world.
Yet I lost much of my fascination for the Olympics in general when Ben Johnson, after running the 100 meters in 9.72 seconds, was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids.  I honestly don’t know anymore if any Olympic record set since that time has legitimacy.  Naim Suleymanoglu of Turkey lifted twenty-five pounds more than three times his weight over his head in 1988.  Did drugs play a factor?  Jackie Joyner-Kersey won medals in 1988 and 1992.  Was this accomplished without the use of any banned substance?  Or what about Carl Lewis, the man awarded the gold medal after Ben Johnson was disqualified in the event?  Occasionally, a commentator will suggest that such substances do more harm than good for the athlete.  However, I remember 1972 Marathon winner, Frank Shorter, once stating that athletes are almost always ahead of the game when it comes to use of such substances.  Shorter stated that when 1/10th of a second can mean the difference between winning a gold medal and not being on the medal stand, athletes are acutely aware of what will give them that extra fraction of an advantage to defeat their adversaries and are willing to gamble on masking agents shielding them from testing positive on any drug test.  We no longer know if athletes are winning due to dedication or due to technology.
Let the Games Begin
Within one day of the opening ceremony, an American tourist was murdered on the streets of Beijing and the Russian military inflicted almost 2,000 casualties upon the former Soviet satellite and now sovereign nation of Georgia.  Vladimir Putin left Beijing to return to Russia immediately after the opening ceremonies.  With this as a backdrop, the first Olympic competition I was to witness on television was the historically significant sport of Beach Volleyball.  I should be careful not to complain about this too much, however.  If not for the showing of Beach Volleyball, the NBC coverage of the Olympics would mostly have been confined to gymnastics and swimming.  And so long as no American athlete is prominent among a particular sport, there is little chance it will ever be shown on television.
Without question, the highlight for most American viewers was the spectacle of Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals.  Granted, with so many different type of swimming events and with Phelps participation in various relays, an athlete could probably not have accomplished this in any other sport.  Still, what Phelps did was remarkable.  Phelps can now look forward to endorsing whatever product he chooses for much of the remainder of his life.  (Now there have already been complaints about his signing a contract with Kellogg’s to endorse Frosted Flakes because it does not seem conducive with what an Olympic athlete would actually consume and, so the health gurus say, he seems to be setting a bad example for our children.  At the same time, consuming 12,000 calories a day as a part of his training regimen is probably not something we would want most of our children emulating.)
But then what about Jamaica’s Usain “Lightning” Bolt?  He set world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash, and in the 4 x 100-meter relay race.  His performance may be in every respect as impressive as the one put in by Michael Phelps.  Should I say that he won the gold medals in a manner reminiscent of the disgraced Ben Johnson?  He ran the 100-meter dash in 9.69 seconds and spent the last ten meters or so beating his chest and looking over his shoulder.  He was criticized by the IOC President for showboating – the President trying to maintain the fiction that all great athletes should be gentlemen.  But we know with great athletes like Ty Cobb, Muhammad Ali or modern athletes like Barry Bonds that great performance is often much more complex than simple dedication combined with good manners.  We’d like all athletes to have that wonderful smile like a Shawn Johnson, the female gold medallist on the balance beam.  But surliness, an amount of gloating and a unique and grating personality may be required to motivate other athletes to one-upmanship.  Every champion wins their battles in their own way.
The Chinese won the most gold medals while the United States boasted of winning the most medals.  This was already pretty much predicted.  The controversies surrounding the actual competitions were relatively minor.  The United States dropped a couple of batons, a wrestler felt slighted during a match and tossed down his bronze medal after the flag raising, and an American gymnast whose score equaled that of her Chinese competitor lost her chance for a gold medal in the uneven parallel bars because of a tie-breaking technicality.  The one enduring controversy that will probably outlast the games was the insinuation that some of the female Chinese gymnasts were underage and thus would have been disallowed from competing in the Olympic games.  It’s a bit silly to complain about this too much because the Chinese girls otherwise defeated the American women head-to-head in competition.  The policy behind the rule was intended to protect young girls from the consequences of training at such an early age.  It wasn’t intended to prevent one nation from getting the edge in competition over another.  It’s also a policy that is almost impossible to enforce because I doubt the Chinese will be cooperative or bow in anyway to the wishes of the International Olympic Confederation (IOC).
The Closing Ceremonies
The Olympic ceremonies ended with the passing of the Olympic flag from the Mayor of Beijing to the Mayor of London.  Then we had Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame play a Whole Lot of Love followed by more fireworks (again, probably enhanced for television).  I suppose the Chinese did deliver a quality game in that the Chinese citizens were cordial hosts.  It must be said that the citizens had little choice since any dissent on the streets was immediately quashed by possibly the most expensive security methods ever employed in any Olympic game.
But in the end, it was not the Chinese that made these games worth viewing but instead the athletes themselves.  These were the world best athletes, and hopefully every medal winner won their medals while abiding by the rules of the Olympic games.  These athletes worked at their crafts in a way the rest of us can barely fathom, even the Beach Volleyball players Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh who won back-to-back gold medals.  Though sports like boxing, gymnastics and diving are subject to what sometimes seems like arbitrary judging standards, for the most part the results were something that we can truly quantify.  We can’t say that the man elected President is necessarily the most qualified politician, or that the richest businessman is the one with the best business sense.  We can at least with reason suggest that Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest runner and that Phelps is the fastest swimmer.

August 29, 2008 
© Robert S. Miller 2008

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