Olympics in a Larger Context

I love the Olympics. And since I have no job at the moment, I have plenty of time to watch them. I am unable, however, to avoid viewing the Games through a geopolitical context. To me, these are the modern version of the 1936 Olympics, which Hitler attempted to use as a propaganda tool to showcase his regime. From the intimidating Opening Ceremony (in which an apparently unattractive singer was sidelined and fireworks were faked), to the goon squads and bussed-in supporters that followed the torch relay, to underage gymnasts, China is trying to use these Games to show that they're the new world power.

The gymnast issue is a good example. Obviously underage girls (the limit is 16) are used because they are lighter and feel less pressure, apparently. They are allowed to compete because their Chinese passports say they are 16, but a country that will abet genocide in Darfur is not above forging a couple of passports. Gymnastics seems to be a sport well-suited to a totalitarian regime; take selected children from their homes at the age of 3 and drill the sport into them for 12 years or so (NBC stated this was the case). This NY Times story chronicles the coercion to which China subjects its athletes:
For many athletes, playing through injuries is standard practice. Most of China’s Olympic-caliber competitors are tightly controlled by a system that manages almost every aspect of their lives, often from early childhood. This includes housing, education, medical care and interactions with the public and the news media. In this system, decisions about training regimens and the risks of injuries do not get much of a public airing.
Whenever I see an Opening Ceremony performer, and athlete, or a cab driver from China on TV during these Olympics, I can't help but wonder what consequences they face should they fail or misspeak. I recognize that the Chinese also feel national pride due to the Olympics, but in such a closed society we don't know how much their actions and statements are motivated by pride as opposed to fear of retribution.

China would love nothing more than to beat the US in the total medal count, and they're helped by the fact that the home country usually gets a medal boost. That would be a huge propaganda victory for them. That's why I'm cheering hard in hopes that it does not happen.

Interestingly enough, the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in newly resurgent Russia. I'm sure they'll put on a good spectacle, although the status of things will be quite different by then. What with the IOC's predilection for giving the games to dictatorships, maybe Pyongyang should bid on the 2016 Games.


  1. Great post. I have a long lasting love/hate relationship with the Olympics and I don't see signs of that going away any time soon.

  2. agreed. I actually thought the opening ceremony was incredibly well done, but I bet all those people who made it happen on the floor show, were probably terrified if they messed up. The stand in singer sickened me. What kind of person would tell a 7 year old she's not pretty enough?