Archives

Beijing’s Olympic bid stops traffic

Daily Telegraph

May 10, 2001

IN FEBRUARY, when the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation commission visited Beijing to make a technical inspection of the city’s facilities for staging the 2008 Olympic Games, a curious thing happened. The streets, once full of bicycles, are now full of cars, but whenever the commission’s motorcade came to a light it was always green, so while other motorists sat in traffic, as they most often do, the commission members sailed past. According to one resident, the Beijing authorities had made sure the lights would always turn green as the commission’s motorcade approached them.

This minor, but telling incident illustrates the meticulous preparations Beijing are making to ensure that they get the Games when the decision is made in Moscow on July 13. Seven years after they lost to Sydney by two votes — Sydney having secured those two votes by offering `sports scholarships’ to two African members of the IOC — Beijing are leaving nothing to chance in their attempt to bring the 2008 Games to China. But, like the tampering with traffic lights, it is being done with a certain subtlety which mirrors the slogan of their bid: New Beijing, Great Olympics.

As Jim Riordan, professor emeritus in communist studies at the University of Surrey and author of books on sport in the communist world, puts it: “When they made their first bid in 1990 they were fairly new to the Olympic spirit — they only started taking part in the Games in 1984 — and they made a number of mistakes. They had inherited the Soviet attitude to the Olympics. A lot has changed in Chinese sport: they have cut down the sports ministry, they privatised a great deal of sport and they are also able to keep out of the drugs scandal by masking its use, like we do in the West. They are just as keen but it is not linked so obviously to the communist propaganda.”

And when the propaganda comes you feel the velvet touch but not the fist within it. Within minutes of getting to my hotel in the centre of Beijing I was in Tiananmen Square, the notorious site of the bloody 1989 crushing of the pro-democracy student demonstrators and around which Beijing plan to stage the marathon, triathlon and cycling competitions.

It could not have appeared more normal in the evening sunshine with children and adults flying kites and parents taking their families for a stroll. However, I noticed a number of young men wandering about rather aimlessly holding what looked like handbags. Later I learnt that these concealed radios and should a sudden pro-democracy demonstration have erupted these men would immediately have called up reinforcements, swooped on the protesters, snatched cameras from the tourists and confiscated their film. For foreign correspondents in Beijing this is not an unusual story.

Yet little more than five minutes away was a pedestrianised street, so intensely commercial that it was more like a Middle Eastern bazaar. Not only did it have some excellent goods available at a very cheap price but in the large bookshop I found the latest Western books at a fraction of what they cost here. These ranged from Jeffrey Archer and Michael Crichton to books quite critical of China.

The regime is undoubtedly authoritarian but it now has a certain confidence. I was allowed to visit the main streets of Beijing although bid officials were embarrassed when we encountered beggars outside the Summer Palace. Oh, said one, some of them like to beg. And in one bar when I asked a group of drinkers — described to me as hi-tech office workers drinking after work — what they thought of the bid they all said they supported it. However, within minutes of my asking the question they all got up en masse and left. Just going home, said my guide, although I got the impression they were uncomfortable talking to a foreigner.

However, defenders of the regime will discuss China’s human rights record and even accept that it could be improved. Liu Jingming, vice-executive president of the bid, said: “I would like to mention that Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics will do good. Every country has their own human rights problem and China will certainly pay more attention to human rights.

“I don’t say China has no human rights problem but we should see the development of human rights in China, the improvement in the living standards of the people. And I would like to talk about the rights and the wishes of the 1.3 billion Chinese people. The majority of them support the bid. They are workers, farmers, students — being part of the Olympics is one of their rights and their rights should be respected.”

This is the sophisticated official reason why Beijing should get the Games. In essence, supporters of the £20 million bid argue that by giving the Games to Beijing things can only get better, not only in terms of human rights but also in improving the city’s pollution problems and its infrastructure, including the building of a fourth ring road to complement the two completed recently to cope with the increasing traffic.

And although Chinese dissidents claim that Beijing 2008 would be an action replay of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, others, including Prof Riordan, argue that it could be like South Korea in 1988, where the staging of the Olympics helped to modify an authoritarian society.

Others are also doing their bit for the bid. The boys and girls at the Beijing Shi Shahai sports school. Started in 1958 and run by a People’s Army soldier, children as young as six are taken from their homes to be trained in table tennis, badminton, gymnastics, volleyball, tennis, in a style reminiscent of the old Soviet regime. A similar hot-housing takes place not far away in the diving gym. Here on walls decorated with slogans, men and women are aiming to maintain China’s remarkable Olympic record in the sport.

Bid officials present their finely honed faces of Beijing in accomplished style. They will admit that some of the facilities are old. The 47-year-old national stadium has been tarted up, and unlike some of its competitors — Paris or Osaka for example — many of the facilities have yet to be built, indeed only 13 of the 37 competition venues in Beijing are already in existence. From a high hotel window I was shown an extensive plot of land that would have to be bulldozed before building began on the Olympic stadium and village. Other sports, including sailing, will be in Qingdao City, an hour’s flying time away.

For the IOC, it is such technical considerations that are more relevant than human rights. Hein Verbruggen, the Dutch chairman of the evaluation commission, has made it clear that it is not the commission’s role to take in politics. Dissidents have criticised the body for being more worried about the size of swimming pools than human rights but he did persuade the Chinese to relocate beach volleyball from Tiananmen Square to a park some miles away.

China are sufficiently worried about their image to have hired American and British public relations firms to attempt to ensure success in Moscow when the IOC will decide between Beijing, Osaka, Paris, Toronto and Istanbul.

Beijing are confident that they can win. But for all China’s careful planning, what they cannot predict is an incident like the spy-plane affair with America in April. A repeat, just before July 13, accompanied by renewed American complaints about human rights, could still scupper their hopes.

© Mihir Bose

      

Share |
Categories: Olympics | No Comments »

Comments

 

Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact

MihirBose.com | Website development by Pedalo