An Olympic Fiasco

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It’s that time again: the Olympics are back. This August, Beijing will host the Summer Olympics, and the pressure is on China’s communist regime to ensure the Games run smoothly. After all, this is a long-awaited opportunity for China to prove that it is not just a rising power but already a major player on the world stage — an aspiring regional hegemon and perhaps even a budding superpower.

While many of the preparations have gone smoothly, like the opening of the gigantic new terminal at Beijing’s airport — now the world’s largest — there have also been indications aplenty that the 2008 Olympics will be troubled. The running of the Olympic torch ignited protests around the world, as activists decrying China’s human rights abuses confronted police in Paris and London; by the time the torch reached San Francisco, its path was rerouted to avoid still more unwelcoming protesters. These protests helped renew the international spotlight on the continuing Chinese repression of Tibet. Meanwhile, it has been reported that the Chinese government displaced 1.5 million residents to build facilities for the Olympics, and it plans to temporarily close factories and halt construction projects to reduce air pollution prior to the Games — good news for the athletes who will appreciate the slight reprieve from Beijing’s notoriously noxious air, but bad news for the many workers who will be unemployed for a month. Worse, a virulent form of hand, foot, and mouth disease has recently spread across the country, infecting thousands of children, killing dozens, and worrying public health officials.

Of course, if the Beijing Games face problems, they are hardly unique. As journalist Buzz Bissinger recently noted in the New York Times, it seems like all the recent Olympics have been riddled with problems. Student protests preceding Mexico’s 1968 Games ended in a massacre that left hundreds dead. Palestinian thugs murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games. Sixty nations, including the United States, boycotted the Moscow Games after the brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The list goes on and on: the East German women athletes on steroids, the Atlanta bombing in 1996, the bribery scandals of Salt Lake City, and more. Not to mention the absurd burdens on the host nations: In 1988, South Korea displaced 720,000 residents to build facilities. For the 2004 Games, Greece spent 5 percent of its national wealth on Olympics preparations; it was left with obsolete infrastructure and mountains of debt. Perhaps the only “way left to improve the Olympics,” Bissinger wrote, is “to permanently end them.”

That time may not yet have come. But when so much emphasis is on money, power, cheating, terror, and politics instead of athletic excellence, there is less and less to recommend this biennial global soap opera. As for China’s Games, perhaps Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda put it best. “The Olympics must succeed,” he recently said, explaining that the Games could boost China’s image abroad — as they did Japan’s in 1964. “The world is watching.”

The Editors of The New Atlantis, "An Olympic Fiasco," The New Atlantis, Number 20, Spring 2008, p. 154.

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