Tuesday, August 05, 2008

On second thought, what was the IOC thinking?

I go way back with these Beijing Olympic games. See on July 13, 2001 — the date Beijing was awarded the Olympics by the IOC (International Olympic Committee for non-sports types) — I was a precocious 15-year-old in Florence, Italy for my uncle's 50th birthday celebration.

The hatred of all things museum and tourist-related meant I spent a decent amount of time watching television (I know, lame considering I was abroad), and the only two English-only channels available in a hotel in Florence happen to be Eurosport and CNN. Well, since it was the middle of July, Eurosport was showing the Tour de France over and over again, so much so that I had watched it enough to point out each time Lance Armstrong was going to take a sip out of his water bottle.


So with Eurosport out of the question due to continuous bicycle coverage, my attention turned to CNN, which happened to be in the midst of showing the IOC vote on who would host the 2008 games. Even then, analysts were saying the bids of other places, specifically Toronto and Paris, were stronger than Beijing's but the IOC really, really wanted to see a Chinese Olympics. Once Beijing was officially awarded the proceedings, the streets of the city filled with jubilation and I'm sure all the great figures of Chinese history like Mao Zedong, Sun Yat Sen, General Tso, and Chef Jan (Ann Arbor joke) were posthumously ecstatic.

Now, eight years later, and on the dawn of what has turned into the most controversial Olympics since the 1936 Berlin games, Beijing is under an even brighter microscope than on that day. A ton of coverage has been paid to China not living up to the promises it made to the IOC in 2001, but I wanted to focus more on what Americans could be doing to better this situation. If it isn't obvious from the past few decades, I'll say this clearly for you: China doesn't change quickly. Notice how a majority of the country still has bowl haircuts, which I think we all know are out of fashion once you hit the age of five.

Right off the bat, I think it's obvious that our athletes need to clean up on the medals to show just how awesome democracy is (For the record, any athlete that goes up to a random person and just shouts "We're American" in a fake southern accent will suffice instead of medals).

But more importantly, once our athletes are on the podium, they need to speak out about just how bad some of the things going on in China (indifference to genocide in Darfur, mistreatment of Tibet, air quality, various other human rights issues) are, and show publicly that people of great stature are concerned with what's going on there. The first person I know who mentioned this was Ian Robinson at the Daily, when he said Michael Phelps should say something.

Phelps has since followed Olympic protocol and not said anything political. Actually, the IOC forbids anything political to be said at its events, even though they almost disallowed Iran from competing a week ago for political reasons. Seems kind of hypocritical to me. And now, I've gotten this thanks to True Hoop about the one and only LeBron James. Charles Pierce of Slate writes:

In April, Ira Newble, a teammate of James' on the Cavaliers, drafted an angry open letter to the Chinese government, excoriating it for its heavy investment in Sudan and, therefore, its involvement in the genocidal atrocities in Darfur. Every member of the Cavaliers save two signed the letter. One was Damon Jones. The other was LeBron James

I'm sure LeBron cares just a little about the tragedies befalling Darfur right now. I mean, even though he didn't go to college, he seems pretty well-rounded in his interests and has to at least pay someone to read the news and keep up on current affairs. But his refusal to support this Darfur initiative from a trusted teammate had nothing to do with personal feelings. Obviously, like most things in this world, it had to do with money. And Michael Jordan, according to Pierce:

Of course, Jordan wrote the book on how to become a wildly popular and successful athlete without demonstrating even the sliver of a public conscience. More to the point, he created a new template for risk-free stardom, whereby involvement in the unruly hurly-burly of the real world is something that a star is not expected to do. Do the public-service ads for the safe issues, but go no deeper into the forces that create those issues in the first place.

See, LeBron's corporate sponsors like Nike, Microsoft, and Coke would not have been too pleased if their poster boy with the stated desire of becoming one of sport's only billionaires had ruined his image within what is becoming the friendlier confines of China. It's a huge market that all of corporate America is trying to cultivate, especially with America's economy hitting the fan right now.

But as much as I want blame LeBron (images of him doing the I can't see my face to DeShawn have already returned), you really can't. If you had a $100 million+ deal with a corporate giant, would you really have the moxie to stand up for genocide. I know I would privately, but would you do it to millions and millions of people around the world and subsequently jeopardize your non-playing related revenues? I don't think I could, so I don't think it's fair to hold LeBron or Phelps accountable for their silence. Now, if some obscure American athlete wins a gold, like my man, Taraje Williams-Murray, then I might hold them accountable.

The beautiful Beijing smog.

See, it's the whole structure of the Olympics that are holding all of this social rhetoric from emerging out of the minds of people who can actually make a difference. Frankly, I'm curious to see what our President, George W. Bush, says now that he's in Beijing, as signs point to him being much softer on China while he's there. When it comes down to it, the Olympics aren't controlled by this notion of sports bringing the country together. Anyone that thinks it's a coincidence that the 2008 games were awarded to Beijing back in 2001 because people thought the country was progressing is being seriously, seriously naive. I think Sally Jenkins gets to the root of this
problem in today's Washington Post.

So what is this Olympics really about? It's about 12 major corporations and their panting ambitions to tap into China's 1.3 billion consumers, the world's third-largest economy. Understand this: The International Olympic Committee is nothing more than a puppet for its corporate "partners," without whom there would be no Games. These major sponsors pay the IOC's bills for staging the Olympics to the tune of $7 billion per cycle. Without them, and their designs on the China market, Beijing probably would not have won the right to host the Summer Games.

Obviously, this isn't really news to most, as big corporations have ruled the land for years and years. But these Olympics have put a microscope on just how far their reach can go. I look back on my 15-year-old self sitting in a hotel room in Florence seven years ago, and just shake my head. To think, I was rooting for Istanbul to get the 2008 games because they could have used the slogan: "It's no bull: Istanbul 2008". I think it would have caught on.

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