You had to see this one coming. Following Monday's embarrassing debacle in Ancient Olympia, the much touted 85,000-mile round the world relay of the Olympic torch -- dubbed the "Journey of Harmony" -- is reportedly being scaled back, most notably in San Francisco and Paris. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome confirmed yesterday that the planned events in the City by the Bay, the torch's only stop in North America, are already being altered.
Elsewhere, Chinese authorities are requesting that the "harmony" of the journey be imposed by force. They have requested, for instance, that the Australian military accompany the torch through Canberra next month. An Aussie government official characterized Beijing's level of anxiety over the possibility of protests at torch events this way: "They're absolutely wetting their pants...."
Australia denied China's request, according to reports, and doesn't plan to scale back events. San Francisco, Paris, and other major cities along the relay route should do the same. The concept of the Olympic torch relay was first conceived for the 1936 games held in Nazi Germany. It would be a sad irony if Beijing and the International Olympic Committee are allowed to continue their pathetic charade of denial. Where is Tom Lantos when we need him?
NBC Sports Universal Chairman Dick Ebersol says viewers of the network's coverage of the XXIX Olympiad shouldn't expect a lot of superfluous reports on political protests and whatnot. NBC is planning 3,600 hours of television and Internet coverage of the Games, but Ebersol says NBC Sports will cut to news about unrest "only if it interferes with the competition or hinders athletes from getting to the competition." It's a policy that is not dissimilar from that of the Chinese state media, which spent all of yesterday pretending that the protests in Athens never happened.
As Anne Applebaum points out in today's Washington Post, we always expected this kind of "see no evil" behavior from the Olympics' corporate sponsors. But the media? There was always the danger that, with the Games being covered primarily by sports reporters ill-equipped to handle the complexities of modern day China, the political angle would be under-covered or simply ignored. Which is why this comment by Ebersol is concerning:
I believed in July of 2001 and believe today that the I.O.C. gave the Games to Beijing because it was really important for them to take place for the first time in the largest nation in the world. As it relates to the mysteries of China, including human rights, I believe giving the Games to China shines a light on a part of the world that wouldn't otherwise exist.”
China's human rights record is hardly a "mystery." Check out the U.S. State Department's country report on the subject, which lays out Beijing's dismal record in no uncertain terms.
All of this talk of shining a light on China reminds me of the way corporations -- automakers, banks, oil -- talked about doing business in apartheid South Africa back in the 1970s. Their pretense was the same one that NBC and the Beijing Games' corporate sponsors are employing today: that engagement encourages change from within. A quarter of a century later, in 2002, the victims of apartheid filed multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuits against IBM, Ford, Citigroup, British Petroleum, and other multinationals for collaborating in a crime against humanity. At least some firms, such as BP, defended their South African operations by arguing that they demonstrated to white South Africans that integration and profits can go hand-in-hand.
In the face of Beijing's quashing of political dissent, what will NBC and the other corporations that have gotten into bed with Beijing be able to say in defense of themselves? NBC paid nearly $900 million for the right to broadcast the Olypmics and China is already censoring its coverage. If that isn't enough to dispel any "mysteries" of authoritarianism, what is?
A U.S. State Department issued "fact sheet" for Americans traveling to this summer's Olympic Games contains this little gem:
All visitors should be aware that they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public or private locations. All hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times."
The warning was issued last week. Chinese officials today said visitors have nothing to worry about, and that their surveillance efforts are "in accordance with international norms." Personally, if I were going to China for the Olympics, I wouldn't worry too much about the hotel rooms. I'd just be sure to leave my BlackBerry at home.
This morning's Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Greece was disrupted by protesters from the Paris-based media rights groups Reporters Without Borders. The bad publicity was exactly the kind of thing that Beijing was hoping (unrealistically) to avoid in the run-up to this summer's games, but also highlights a growing debate in France over whether the country should take action to voice its disapproval of China's human rights record.
RSF (the organization's French acronym) has proposed that France boycott the Games' opening ceremony. A poll published in today's Libération newspaper and sponsored by RSF found that 53 percent of respondents liked the idea of President Nicolas Sarkozy skipping the event. A separate poll in the sports magazine L'Equipe had nearly identical results. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he found the idea "interesting" last Tuesday but then quickly backtracked several hours later:
There are a lot of good ideas that can't be put into practice [...] When you're dealing in international relations with countries as important as China, obviously when you make economic decisions it's sometimes at the expense of human rights," he added. "That's elementary realism."
Sounds like somebody got a talking to. This isn't the first time that Kouchner's idealism has taken a back seat to his boss's more pragmatic priorities, and it raises some questions over whether the left-wing, former head of Doctors Without Borders is only in Sarkozy's government as liberal-internationalist window dressing. Sarkozy, for his part, has offered to make France a facilitator for negotiations between China and the Dalai Lama. It's a start, but as the protests inevitably grow throughout this spring, it's going to get harder to stick to the middle ground.
Update: Speaking on Tuesday, Sarkozy would not rule out the possibility of boycotting the ceremony, saying, "All options are open and I appeal to the Chinese leaders' sense of responsibility." Perhaps he's keeping an eye on the polls.
Climbers hoping to reach the top of the world are unlikely to have the opportunity in 2008, at least from the north side of the mountain in Tibet. China has banned climbers from attempting the mountain before May 10. Given the difficulties of weather, acclimatization, and logistics, the Chinese decision will make any attempt to summit the mountain this year "short of impossible," according to Everest veterans. The news comes as many climbing teams are already en route to the mountain to begin their expeditions.
A notice from the Tibet Mountaineering Association cites "concern of heavy climbing activities, crowded climbing routes, and increasing environmental pressures" for the decision. But the the more likely explanation for the ban is the Olympic torch, which China hopes to take to the top of the world's highest peak.
Reports say that climbers have also been banned until May 10 from attempting Cho Oyo, a nearby peak. Chinese officials reportedly tried to convince their Nepalese counterparts to also ban climbers from attempting the mountain from the southern side until May 10, although Nepal appears to have ignored those requests.
If this is a barometer of how it's gonna go down at the Beijing Oympics, China is in store for one heck of an embarrassing show.
(Hat tip: China Rises)
Here's a tip for Olympic organizers in Beijing: Double-check which national anthem you play at each medal ceremony.
Last Sunday, Chinese track star Liu Xiang, whom FP listed as one of the "Four to Watch in 2008," won a gold medal in the 60-meter hurdles at the world indoor athletic championships in Valencia, Spain. At the medal ceremony, though, organizers accidentally played Chile's national anthem, not China's! (It's hard to tell apart those five-letter countries beginning with "Chi," isn't it?) Liu displayed good sportsmanship during the ceremony, however, and afterward told organizers about the mix-up. Ten minutes later, they redid the ceremony, this time with the correct song.
It reminds me of when a color guard from the U.S. Marines accidentally displayed the Canadian flag upside down before Game 2 of the 1992 World Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves. So add another tip for Olympic organizers: Double-check flag orientation.
Asked about the highly anticipated opening ceremonies that he is planning for the Beijing Olympics, Chinese director Zhang Yimou had this to say:
All the actresses are good looking."
I'm glad we cleared that up.
Major international events often impose enormous burdens on poor and minority communities. Roughly 1.5 million people, for instance, will be displaced by the Beijing Olympics. For the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea forcibly evicted 720,000 people while the homeless population was detained in the city's outskirts. The 1996 Atlanta Games uprooted about 30,000 poor residents, and Sydney, Athens, and other Olympic cities witnessed similar social dislocations. But New Delhi has taken its "preparations" for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, kind of a mini-Olympics involving current and former British colonies, a step further: by arresting and imprisoning beggars.
Delhi's Social Welfare Department is organizing "cleanup operations," the Christian Science Monitor reports:
Every morning, it dispatches nine vans from its Beggar Raid Team. Each carries three plainclothes men, who scan the crowded streets of bullock carts, cows, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, newspaper hawkers, and stray dogs for ragged people pleading for money.
"Since the end of last year, we've been told to increase the numbers we arrest," says Anand Pandey, a civil servant known as a "raid officer" ...
Warrants are not necessary for arresting beggars. Once picked up, they are tried in the city's Beggars' Court. Those whom Mr. Pandey calls "first-time offenders" often go free with a warning. Others are incarcerated until friends or family scrape together the money to pay their bail of about 3,000 rupees (about $75). Many are locked up in "beggars' homes" – dedicated jails – for a minimum of one year and a maximum of 10, the latter being the same penalty given for violent robberies. If they are "blind, a cripple or otherwise incurably helpless," according to the law, beggars can be locked up for life.
The city is also creating a "beggar database" to hold the photographs and fingerprints of offending beggars, so that "habitual" panhandlers can be convicted more easily. Already, during the past year, 2,537 beggars have been arrested and 1,133 convicted. Many of the city's beggars are elderly, ill, or amputees, and have little chance of finding regular work.
Let's face it, the city is arresting and locking up these beggars for no reason other than that they are poor. "Many of these people have no option but to beg. To arrest them without even providing the infrastructure that guarantees them the most basic needs is appalling," Anand Kumar, a human rights lawyer in New Delhi, told the Monitor. With such cruel and regressive attitudes toward the poor, New Delhi's efforts to portray itself as a modern "world-class city" for the Commonwealth Games are doomed to fail -- at least in the eyes of human-rights campaigners around the world.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently reached a shocking conclusion: Blogging is a "legitimate form of personal expression."
In the run-up to the Olympic Games, we've all heard about the Chinese government's restrictions on bloggers' freedom of expression, but not as many people seem to be aware of the blogging bans the IOC itself has imposed on Olympic athletes. In 2004, for the Athens games, athletes and coaches were not permitted to write firsthand accounts or maintain online diaries (a.k.a blogs). Posting personal videos and photos online was banned, too, unless permission was obtained first.
The IOC's brilliant rationale for gagging the athletes then: Protecting the interests of companies holding broadcasting rights comes first. (As if an athlete's blog is a direct competitor to an NBC sports commentator.)
This year, though, the IOC seems to have finally seen the light. Sort of. In Beijing, athletes can blog, as long as they follow some simple rules:
My hunch is that as the Internet evolves and people become more tech savvy, some of these rules will prove tough to enforce. People will find ingenious ways to evade them; even at earlier Olympics, athletes are reported to have blogged "illegally." The IOC will learn sooner or later that trying to control people's online activities is a task of Olympic proportions.
Maybe it's not such a hip-hop world after all. China's growing community of rappers, DJs, and B-Boys might be evidence of the globalization of hip-hop that Jeff Chang explored in FP's November/December issue, but it may not be quite ready for prime time. As part of an Olympics-related cultural exchange, Bejing-based rappers Dragon Tongue Squad took the stage at London's Royal Opera House last night. The British press, to put it mildly, was not feeling it:
Mostly, they sang in Mandarin, although even they have admitted the language doesn't lend itself well to flowing rhymes. Handily, translated lyrics were circulated, so we knew that Dragon Tongue-ism contained the couplet "Learn how to be good at learning skills/ Learn how to communicate smoothly". Only once did they shine, and for all the wrong reasons. Chinese Food was a comic masterpiece - "Thai, Thai! Why, why?" went the chorus, possibly, while the verses listed authentic takeaway dishes.
It does sound pretty weak, but the Times' reviewer may have gone a bit far in her blanket indictment of Chinese hip-hop:
Rather than lift the lid on Chinese youth culture, a preposterous performance proved why most hip-hop consumed in that country is - and probably always will be - American.
The reviewer admits that a seated theater designed for opera may not be the best venue for a hip-hop show. It's also possible that Dragon Tongue Squad, who apparently mainly rap about food, are not representative of Chinese hip-hop as a whole. It wouldn't speak very well of American MC skillz if Soulja Boy was sent abroad to represent the entire genre, for instance. Plus, as FP's online readers already know, while Beijing's rappers may not impress the Brits, they totally own those punks from Shanghai.
Houston center Yao Ming will miss the rest of the National Basketball Association season because of a stress fracture in his left foot, placing the Rockets' postseason chances and their 12-game winning streak in jeopardy.
It's too early to tell, but he could miss the Olympics as well.
Although a full member of the International Table Tennis Federation, Kosovo is unlikely to be Olympic ready by August. In order to participate in Beijing, Kosovo would need full U.N. recognition as an independent state –- something
In a wide-ranging interview with the BBC yesterday, President Bush reiterated that he's going to Beijing this summer for the handball and hurdles. Politics (read: human rights, Tibet, Darfur) won't be on his agenda:
I'm going to the Olympics. I view the Olympics as a sporting event.[...] There's a lot of issues that I suspect people are gonna, you know, opine, about during the Olympics. I mean, you got the Dali Lama crowd. You've got global warming folks. You've got, you know, Darfur and... I am not gonna you know, go and use the Olympics as an opportunity to express my opinions to the Chinese people in a public way 'cause I do it all the time with the president.
But using the Olympics as an opportunity to press the Chinese government and speak publicly to the Chinese people is exactly what Bush should be doing. Yang Jianli, a Chinese democracy activist who was imprisoned and tortured for five years on trumped-up charges, recently wrote in FP that keeping mum or flip-flopping on human rights when economic issues are raised only convinces the Chinese people that American friendship can be bought and sold. Chinese leaders want to make this year's Olympic Games the party of the century, Yang argues, and they are desperate to have world leaders and top-tier celebrities attend. That gives these attendees leverage:
So my proposal is conditional participation. The idea is that when the Chinese authorities extend the invitation to you to go there, you bring up human rights. Then press the Chinese authorities to do something to facilitate your participation. For example, when President Bush accepted [President] Hu Jintao’s invitation, he said, “I will go to Beijing as a sports fan. I will not make any political statements.”
He accepted the invitation too easily, but I don’t think it’s too late. There is still time for him to say something like, “I would love to go to China to participate at the Olympic Games, but I want to see the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” or “I won’t go unless a dozen political prisoners directly related to the [Tiananmen] massacre are released.”
[The party leaders] want President Bush to be there. They want all the renowned athletes to be there to the help them showcase their achievements. They need them to be there. So, why don’t we do something?
It was already a bad PR week for the Beijing Olympics after director Steven Spielberg quit as artistic consultant in protest of China's role in the Darfur genocide. Now, in a further embarassment, the British Olympic Association has decided to allow British athletes to wear masks while competing to minimize the effect of air pollution. The masks have already been designed and tested, apparently, but details and images have been kept under wraps.
Regardless of what they look like, Chinese officials can't be thrilled about the prospect of millions of viewers watching masked marathoners running through Beijing's smog-choked streets. The U.S. Olympic Committee has decided not to allow masks in order to avoid offending the hosts. China's international coming-out party seems increasingly likely to turn into a complete fiasco for the country's image. And the worst is yet to come.
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