The politics of the Beijing Olympics

By   |  August 13, 2008

Having visited Beijing last year for the first time since sixth grade, I was stunned at how quickly the city grew upwards. Skyscrapers competed with luxury hotels for the attention of businessmen and tourists alike, making Beijing feel less like the capital of a socialist superpower and more like a Chinese New York City where a new generation of young professionals were starting to take hold. Sure, they still can’t openly speak out against the government, but their new money speaks for itself. Judging by the expanding economic openness in the capital, democracy for China will be achieved more economically than politically.

And now more than ever China’s flagship city is being exposed to an international audience, giving China more television exposure than it could have ever wished for. China wants to look good in front of these new international friends because for the first time since the Silk Road the country is once again a superpower, and the Olympics are a perfect platform for China to confirm visually (eg: opening ceremony) and physically (eg: gymnastics, diving, among other sports) that it can throw down with the best of the international power players.

Despite the reputation of the Olympics as a sporting event, politics is bound to come with the hosting territory. Sometimes the politics can be limited to the decision process for the host country, othertimes it can bleed onto the athletes with tragic results — Munich 1972 comes to mind as 9 Israeli wrestlers perished under gunfire and explosions.

For China, the politics of the Olympics loom large with even larger payoffs. The events leading up to the Olympics have been anything but bloodless as the stain from the Tibet riots will never be completely erased — only ignored, as is the case right now as foreign investment still pours in and money speaks louder than ideology.

This time around, even the athletes who are supposed to be the most neutral part of the games are getting entangled in the mess. China’s female gymnasts are getting gold amidst claims of age fraud, and that is again reflective of how far the government is willing to go to ensure that China not only puts on a stunning show with the opening ceremony but delivers the goods with their athletes. For China, the Olympic spirit isn’t so much about camaraderie and competition as it is about winning at all costs on every front, be it the theatrics of the opening ceremony or any and all gold they can get.

Looking at the Olympics from a political point of view helps clarify what China really wants to accomplish with all the gold medals and acres of LCD screens: respect for a superpower that is slowly waking from dormancy. The sports battles are being waged on home turf, and China really wants to show people how far they’ve come in terms of society, economy, and sports.
China has already attracted businessmen from abroad — and with them, their heavy wallets — by modernizing Beijing’s appearance and infrastructure for the Olympics. It’s a political game, and China’s already convinced the minds, now all they’ve got to do is win hearts by tapping into the human experience associated with sports.

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