Olympics-Sized Delusions A Look Back at Beijing 2008
The organizers of this year's Olympic Games in Beijing wanted us to believe that the event was purely about sports. Instead, the pundits were right. It was about politics, money and fraud.
Looking at the Olympic flame late last week, its reflection flickering in large puddles left by a heavy downpour, it was difficult to tell that the two-week sporting extravaganza was coming to an end. The day-to-day of the games still reigned: IOC President Jacques Rogge chided Jamaican sprinter and gold medalist Usain Bolt for his unsportsmanlike behavior; a Ukrainian athlete was asked to provide a urine sample after winning silver in the heptathlon; and the 110-meter hurdles took place in the evening without Chinese track star Liu Xiang, who was injured. Away from the competition, American protesters had been arrested and Chinese newspapers were reporting the death of party patriarch Hua Guofeng.
But with the games rapidly approaching their end, many had started to look back at Beijing 2008. A time of reckoning had begun.
The sports photographers working at the Beijing Olympic facilities, for their part, were ecstatic. Never before in the history of the games had their working conditions been so good, and never before have the organizers allowed so much, made so many things possible and turned a blind eye so often. They were permitted to climb onto roofs in Beijing and steel beams in the Bird's Nest -- they were allowed to slip into VIP seats and set up their cameras inside the swimming pool in the Water Cube. Even the water pit in the 3,000-meter steeplechase course wasn't off limits. For the photographers, the sky was the limit, and for both them and the organizers, it was a win-win situation. Beijing allowed them to shoot the kinds of images that presented the city at its very best.
In the final days of the Olympics, athletes, too, were delighted by the sports facilities China had prepared for them. Archers, hockey players, volleyball players and indoor cyclists all had nothing but praise for the complexes and arenas. Track & field athletes were pleasantly awed by the Bird's Nest stadium.
A Sharp Divide
For them, and for the many journalists at the games, the competitions inside stadium will remain unforgettable, the running and jumping in front of an audience of 90,000 people sitting in steeply pitched rows of seats. The setting created by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron was thoroughly grand -- they created what will likely become an enduring monument, even as it remains unclear what that monument will eventually come to represent. There were two worlds in Beijing, one on the inside of the stadium and the other sporting facilities. And one on the outside. And there was a sharp divide between the two.
But on the outside, in the city of Beijing and throughout China, the lives of ordinary people went on. A number of changes in those lives have taken place, to be sure, but they are still lives led under the watchful eyes of the government. In this China, those disagreeable to the government are simply removed, staging a protest remains a criminal offense, public celebrations are frowned upon and all roads make wide detours around restricted zones guarded by soldiers -- zones that include Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
With these record-breaking Olympics now behind us, it is a time of reckoning and a time to look forward. A new Olympiad has begun, as the four-year wait begins until the next global festival of sports in London. Those who are no longer interested in China can turn their attention to sports itself, or to the activities of the major sponsors, or the politics of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). What happens next after these 29th Summer Games, the most politicized since the 1980s?
Where is the Olympic movement -- what is the status of sports -- in these times of ongoing suspicions of doping, suspicions that were only heightened with every win by a Jamaican sprinter and each additional gold medal won by American swimmer Michael Phelps? How much more commercialized can sports become? And what happens to the athletes when the world becomes all but obsessed with keeping track of the medal count?
"There are two grand delusions in sports," says Thomas Bach, one of the four IOC vice presidents. He is a powerful man and a potential candidate to succeed Jacques Rogge as the organization's president. He wore a tracksuit to our meeting in the Olympic Family Lounge inside the Olympic Village. "The one delusion," said Bach, "is that sport has nothing to do with money. And the other one is that it has nothing to do with politics. Both lead to unnecessary and sometimes disastrous debates."
Bach is the sort of person who, when asked difficult questions, begins by saying: Let's not kid ourselves. When asked about the IOC's prediction that China would change for the better after the games, and that it would "open up" politically, he said: "Let's not kid ourselves. We, as the IOC, cannot change an entire society."
But, he conceded, at least, that the IOC must "recognize and express" its opportunities and limitations more sharply in the future. Bach said he believes that sport is an "icebreaker," and that it helps promote processes. "But to change China? Or look at the Russia-Georgia conflict. We have no mandate there. If we were to play the intermediary, we would be overstepping our bounds."
Bach's conclusions, given that they were also those of the IOC, were hardly unpredictable. About the games, he said, "all of that was done exceedingly well." The organization, the sports complexes, the village, the support, everything was outstanding, he said. "That, first of all, is the most important aspect."
Bach was not overly surprised that a true, nation-wide celebration never materialized. In Europe, both the World Cup and the European Championships have been accompanied by massive public viewing festivals across the continent. In China, nothing even close came to pass -- no fan festivals in city centers and no giant screens on Tiananmen Square. First of all, Bach said, the Olympic Games are not the World Cup and, second, we shouldn't kid ourselves. "No one expected," said Bach, "that a Chinese person would behave like an Italian football fan."
Difficult to Circumvent
Rain began drumming down onto the buildings in the Olympic Village. After 20 minutes, as Bach began feeling more comfortable in the lounge, he leaned back and switched from talking to chatting. He said that "first of all," it is because of globalization that in Beijing a Moroccan won a gold medal for Bahrain, an American played basketball for Germany and the Georgian women's beach volleyball team included Brazilians -- in a match against Russia, of all things.
Of course, Bach added, successful athletes are sometimes willing to change their nationality for a gold medal these days, and if good people can simply be purchased in the future, it would be a problem. And it would be difficult to circumvent.
"We are already imposing lockout periods on people if they have already competed for another country in the past," Bach explained. "But you wouldn't believe some of the stories the athletes come up with to explain the switch. What you can you say when they tell you it's because they fell in love, or found a new home and love their new country?"
When asked about the third grand delusion of sports -- that top athletes are all clean and that world records are simply the products of a healthy mind in a healthy body -- Bach said: Let's not kid ourselves. Of course there are doubts about some of the contests, he said, but the IOC and the national committees are doing everything within their power to break the pattern.
According to Bach, the network of monitoring is now tighter than it has ever before been. The scientists at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are convinced, Bach said, that there is currently no doping agent on the market "that we cannot detect. And besides," said Bach, "let's look at an example. We had 9,500 checks in Germany last year, and of those about 70 were positive. Even if you add an estimated number of unreported cases, there is really no reason for any blanket suspicion."
Some 4,500 doping tests were performed during the games in Beijing, and only a handful of athletes tested positive for banned substances. A Ukrainian heptathlete used a testosterone product, and a North Korean shooter, a Vietnamese gymnast and four horses in the Olympic equestrian team jumping competition in Hong Kong tested positive. But some of the other athletes competing in Beijing have been caught doping in the past, including Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli, who was stripped of his world championship a year ago for doping. "He shouldn't have been here in the first place" said Örjan Madsen, the technical director of the German Swimming Federation (DSV). "It's truly counterproductive."
Madsen, 62, arrived on bicycle from a far corner of the Olympic village. He is a tall, lean man wearing a T-shirt, sunglasses and sandals. He sat down in the stands of the amphitheater where the team welcoming ceremony took place almost three weeks previously. Madsen said that he doesn't know what to believe anymore.
- Part 1: A Look Back at Beijing 2008
- Part 2: Where the Impossible Happened