Monday, August 18, 2008
Olympic Notes 2
China's Cheng ended this vault on her knees and still outpointed
Sacramone. And try to find a photo of Cheng's landing anywhere.
WE LOVE'EM. Now that the Michael Phelps story has been completed and everyone in the U.S. will stop watching the Olympics, it's time to call NBC to account for a few things.
Does it bother anyone else that facts like these -- reported in the London Times -- don't receive NBC airtime equivalent to all the lovely cinematography of Chinese countryside and dynastic architecture?
Security has been heavy-handed from the start. As the film director Zhang Yimou’s extravaganza kicked off with a boom, I watched on a giant screen in a park, one of the few venues where ordinary Chinese people were allowed to gather...
Yet even these loyal citizens could not be trusted. We were surrounded by dozens of police who locked the gates to keep us in and others out.
Chao Chanqing, an exiled journalist widely read on web-sites accessible in China, has accused Zhang, the director, of playing the same role as Leni Riefenstahl, who filmed an epic documentary for Hitler at the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
The director scorns the comparison but he admitted that a Chinese leader ordered him to make changes to the ceremony. “I had no chance to reject his opinion,” he told the Nanfang Weekend newspaper. Analysts said he was referring to vice-president Xi Jinping, heir apparent to the top job.
Government officials swept thousands of migrant workers out of Beijing – the very people who built the stadium, at least 10 of them paying with their lives. Police arrested hundreds of provincial petitioners who sought justice in the capital and sent at least 58 to labour camps for “reeducation”.
The sick were told that routine surgery was cancelled in every hospital and officials shut some psychiatric patients inside their wards.
Even as the nation is supposed to be keeping a keen tally of the gold medal count, dissenters are daring to raise the issue of how much the Games have cost the people of China.
For all its export might, China is still a poor, largely agrarian country with perhaps 700m farmers and 150m migrant workers. The size of its economy is huge but, measured by wealth per head, it ranks 109th in the world, comparable with Swaziland or Morocco.
It faces an acute crisis as its people live longer but fewer are born; the old lack pensions and healthcare must be paid for. Half the population does not have clean drinking water and 16 cities are among the most polluted on earth.
So why, asked the mainland Chinese writers in a Hong Kong magazine named Kaifang (Opening Up), did China blow more than £20 billion on the Games?
They calculate that the total costs may exceed £30 billion, more than the Chinese government will spend this year on education or public health or relief for the Sichuan earthquake. These are questions that would make any ruler nervous.
Chinese leaders prided themselves on the splendid reception for dignitaries and 10,500 athletes. They rejected criticism of their policies on Darfur, Burma and Zimbabwe, brushing aside foreign demonstrators complaining about Tibet.
However, they remain worried about political undercurrents among their people. These can be unexpected. Despite pervasive internet control, censors could not stop nationalist criticism about the diplomatic price China has paid for mounting the Games.
Yes, I understand the argument that the Olympics is a sporting event and shouldn't be ruined with a lot of unpleasant politics and news that's embarrassing to the host country. I don't happen to agree, but I do understand the argument. Nonetheless, the fact that these games are being conducted in a semi-totalitarian state as opposed to an open democracy is relevant, even with regard to the coverage of sports. NBC has been notably if not maliciously disingenuous in this respect.
Yes, despite some lapses -- its odd characterization of the USA women's gymnastics team and Chris Collinsworth's bizarre exchange with Kobe Bryant -- NBC has done its requisite home-team rooting for Phelps, Torres, and other high-profile American athletes. On the other hand, anchorman Jim Lampley (oh how we miss Jim McKay) and his counterparts at MSNBC and USA Network seem to regard all the various Chinese teams and athletes as a kind of secondary home team we're obviously rooting for. If there's nothing big and American underway, the automatic broadcast default is to China (including damned ping-pong and badminton), where the announcers and color commentary experts never seem to run out of admiring superlatives, even though they're fearlessly critical of American performances. And just when you start to think there isn't a sport so insignificant that the Chinese haven't produced an overnight world class sensation in it, NBC finally confirms it by reporting enthusiastically on the "119 Program," which was chartered to do exactly that -- win medals in every possible Olympic sport, regardless of what may be any native tradition or interest in it.
It's as if we're really supposed to feel unabashedly good about this. As if such a top-down, state-driven, quasi-military effort is somehow equivalent to the kind of financial sponsorship advertised during the nonstop commercial breaks by Home Depot, Coca Cola, and other U.S. companies (which, incidentally are paying for NBC's unending commercial endorsement of the Peoples' Republic of China). It isn't. And this Olympics is replete with abundant evidence that it isn't.
Other news and wire services contain stories indicating that China cheats on the Olympic rules (here), may be intimidating or manipulating the International Olympic Committee (here), and may be exploiting (here) if not actually abusing (here) thousands of the nation's athletes -- all for the purpose of winning Olympic medals. Even some of the judging within events is highly suspect. (if you can muscle the IOC, who can't you influence?) Last night's absurd vault competition in women's gymnastics awarded two medals to communist athletes who simply failed to land their jumps as we've been led to expect, for a generation, that medal winners must; the X-Games have higher standards for form than this. NBC's expert commentator seemed disappointed but not outraged that Sacramone, the lone American in the finals, who landed both her vaults with small hops that he tutted over, ultimately lost the bronze medal to a Chinese girl who finished her second vault on her knees. He explained that the differential had been made up by degree of difficulty. (Let's see: if I promise a vault that will take me over the Snake River Canyon and I land instead in the Snake River Canyon, it must count as a success, right? Uh, not at the X-Games anyway.) The worst moment of the night was Bob Costas's subsequent interview with Bela Karolyi, who decried the judging as an unspeakable corruption of the sport. Costas was actually jolly in his dimissal of Karolyi as a partisan.
In my first notes on these Olympics, I suggested NBC might have some kind of subconscious hidden agenda. I no longer have any doubts about it. All those ads for MSNBC election coverage pretty much tell the tale. They're working to ensure the election of World Citizen Obama, and that's a title which sounds pretty empty if there really are ruthless, scheming, unprincipled, genuinely evil governments in the world -- Look at the pretty pictures and faces instead.
I still hope they'll try to make up for it in the remaining coverage, though the truth is, it's too late. No one's going to be tuning in to the long track and field gauntlet in which American defeat and humiliation is apparently inevitable. Although -- if anyone tries to steal the gold from our two basketball teams, even NBC might finally get pissed off.
P.S. And what's up with the Nike "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier" campaign. Yes, athletes frequently have courage. Is it a better kind of courage than a soldier has? Is that the message? If so, I strenuously disagree. Putting your life on the line on behalf of your fellow citizens is several orders of magnitude above risking injury for trophies, gold medals, and seven-figure endorsement contracts. Sorry. That's just the peculiar way I think..
I think it's insulting to our troops, and Nike marketers should be ashamed of themselves. Surely there are ways to celebrate athletes without making implied value judgments such as this.
P.P.S. In honor of our illustrious commenters, Brizoni has designed a new InstaPunk graphic, which you can see at the About InstaPunk posting in the lefthand column of the website. The text has also been revised to give you a better idea of who we are -- more info, I guarantee than you'll find at any other blogsite -- and just how much freedom you have as commenters. Which is also, I gurarantee, much more than at other websites.