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.

On the inside, in the so-called Accredited Zones, these Olympic Games were perfect. The images of these perfect games circled the globe, accompanied by postcard pictures of pagodas, terracotta warriors and graceful Chinese girls. Against the story told by this picture book, criticism of the games seemed like little more than sour grapes.

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?

'Disastrous Debates'

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.

Where the Impossible Happened

In swimming alone, 25 world records were set at the Beijing games, and since the beginning of the year swimmers have set 77 new records. "It's a performance explosion," said Madsen, "the likes of which have never even remotely happened before in history."

He waved his right hand flatly through the air and then pulled it sharply upward. "The increases here are so great that it blows open all standards. Statistically speaking, what we have seen here isn't even possible -- and yet it happened nonetheless."

Madsen, a native of Norway and a former Olympic swimmer himself, went on to earn a doctorate at the German Sport University in Cologne. He has followed the developments in his sport for years. He knows that fraud isn't the only explanation -- that there have also been advances in materials and in the athletes themselves.

Total body suits, for example, have reduced drag and increased buoyancy. And, of course, Madsen said, world-class athletes nowadays behave like professionals who dedicate their entire lives to success, eating and training accordingly. But 25 world records in Beijing alone? At a single sports competition?

The Genetic Makeup of Athletes

"I don't want to speculate," Madsen said, "but I can't help but wonder whether everything here was above-board." When his contract with the German Swimming Federation expires at the end of October, he plans to spend four months vacationing at his condo in the US Virgin Islands, and he expects to spend some of that time thinking long and hard over whether he even wants to remain a part of swimming. "There is a great risk that, when it comes to doping, we will get ourselves into a development that can no longer be controlled," he said.

Madsen is deeply concerned that hormone injections and stimulants could soon become a thing of the past, making way for the truly horrific practice of genetic doping, or manipulating the genetic makeup of athletes. Scientists in laboratories are already studying ways to modify genes in the bodies of future athletes so that their endurance, speed and reaction capacity could be artificially enhanced. The genies are still being kept in the bottle, but only because scientists have yet to figure out how to put a stop to this genetic enhancement once it is underway. Swimming coach Madsen doesn't want to be there when the genies are released.

One lesson of the Beijing games, though, was already clear on the day after the closing ceremony. The future of the Olympic Games, if not of elite sports in general, will depend upon the outcome of the race between cheaters and investigators. That, at least, is how Jürgen Mallow, head coach of the German Track & Field Association (DLV), sees things. Mallow, 63, wears a neatly trimmed goatee and looks like a friendly teacher on the verge of retirement. He chose his words carefully, hoping to sound levelheaded, but in the end he painted two all-or-nothing scenarios.

Either everything goes well, as research becomes more intensive, tests are improved and penalties become harsher. Or everything goes drastically wrong. "But in that case the idea of the Olympic Games of the modern age will be dead," he said. And manipulation will lead to the demise of sports.

In Beijing, it became clear that audiences had begun splitting into new groups. There are still those who naively believe in the goodness, the beauty and the purity of sports, even if it goes against their better judgment. On the other end of the spectrum are those who have given into despair and turned away from sports entirely because they no longer trust it. A third group blindly worships the winners, no matter how their victories came about -- perhaps even admiring them for their clever, underhanded methods.

Doping Does Not Affect Sales

It doesn't help that doping has yet to affect the bottom lines of corporations that make money from sports. Sports as an industry remains in an extended phase of seemingly limitless marketability. It continues to generate money like a well-oiled machine, and the consumer has not yet begun punishing companies or brands, even if their spokesmen are victorious athletes who owe their success to doping.

Jan Runau, a former triathlete and now a corporate spokesman for Adidas, spoke carefully of the "ambivalent behavior" of sports fans. According to Runau, while doping may be generally frowned upon, it does not affect sales. "All the sprinters who were caught," Runau said, "Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, have not affected Nike's success."

It is as if nothing, and no one, could destroy the public's fascination with the Olympics. "The fact is," said Runau, "that a billion people watch the 100-meter race." And this fact is so momentous that at the moment when the starting gun is fired, all qualms are forgotten and the world becomes enthralled with that single moment of competition.

This notion is borne out by the fact that since the end of the week before last, when the track & field competition began at the Bird's Nest stadium, the talk of human and other rights, of Tibet and the Uighurs, had largely subsided. Sports overshadowed everything else, benefiting everyone involved: viewers, sponsors, athletes, the IOC, China's Communist Party and its government. It was the ultimate win-win situation.

Everyone behaved as if nothing were the matter. McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner was in Beijing, and so were some of his counterparts, including Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, as well as the Chinese and Indian corporate executives whose names the world has yet to learn, and whose factories are about to produce the next economic miracle. They too are part of the Olympic family. They are the ones who make this festival of sports possible. They pay for it, no matter what the cost.

Can London Compete?

Beijing cost the major sponsors almost 10 times what they paid for the summer and winter games in Seoul and Calgary 20 years ago. Twelve corporations generated $866 million (€559 million) in the period between 2005 and 2008, and sponsors are apparently already lining up to be a part, somehow, of the London games in 2012: with a logo, a licensed product, advertising rights, or at least with the title of "official supplier" to the games.

It remains to be seen whether London will be like Beijing, where the sponsors' pavilions were lined up next to the Water Cube, the gymnastics building and the fencing arena. Whether the big, ambitious showcase pavilions effectively conveyed the spirit of the brands, of Coca-Cola and Kodak, McDonald's and Lenovo, is equally questionable.

In Volkswagen's "Showcase," a futuristic hybrid, part fantasy and part auto dealership, artists flew through the air on wire cables 10 times a day, drawing figures in front of giant video screens. At the dedication ceremony for the VW pavilion, CEO Winterkorn told the audience that it is clear to anyone witnessing the enthusiasm of the Chinese people "that the Olympic idea is alive and well."

That, of course, is one point of view. But there are others. On the northern outskirts of Beijing, in a district that is part commercial zone and part exclusive residential neighborhood, Ai WeiWei greeted his visitors looking exhausted. The artist, who played a decisive role in the design of the Bird's Nest stadium, seemed unhappy -- and he was.

Unable to Decipher

He lives and works in an enormous stone house, an oasis of levelheaded style in the colorful, post-urban cacophony of Beijing. Cats stroll through the garden and employees walk silently so as not to disturb the master of the house, talking in whispers and serving green tea in beautiful glasses.

Ai WeiWei calls the Bird's Nest a "showcase of propaganda." It is a good building, he said, but one that was utilized by the wrong people. In the West, said Ai WeiWei, everyone was excited about the opening ceremony and China in general, and yet every second of these games was poisoned by ideology, and by hidden messages to the Chinese that foreigners were unable to decipher.

"On the day after the opening ceremony, it said in the paper here that good Chinese watch the games on television," said Ai WeiWei. "It was an unconcealed warning not to go out into the streets."

He said that he didn't really watch the opening ceremony. He was in a café with a friend on that evening and happened to see a few images from the event on a wall-mounted TV. But those images, he said, were nothing but the empty productions of an anxious, extremely nervous government. "The state has no vision of what China should be," said Ai WeiWei, "and the games only helped postpone the problems that are now coming."

He contradicted himself several times in the course of a half-hour conversation. He spoke of hidden messages to the Chinese people, but he also said that the games were not meant for the domestic public at all. He argued that China wanted to demonstrate its strength to the rest of the world, but then he claimed that the Beijing leadership couldn't care less about what the world thought of it.

Europe's Gradual Demise

The contradictions were not just limited to the conversation with Ai WeiWei. At the same time, elsewhere in the city, Chinese women wearing bikinis in the pouring rain were fighting for the bronze medal in beach volleyball -- a thoroughly Western event -- accompanied by American rock music from the 1980s. In the main press center, officials from the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) were walking around, looking confused. They were asking themselves how their 2012 Olympic Games can possibly live up to the spectacle of Beijing. So far, none of them has come up with any bright ideas.

The London games will certainly be different, and it is already clear that there will be no landmark buildings of the sort built for the Beijing games. There will be no fake fireworks shown on television or lip-synching little girls placed in front of microphones. The Londoners will emphasize tradition over modernity, volleyball in Earls Court and riding in Greenwich Park, tennis at Wimbledon, football in Wembley Stadium and a triathlon in Hyde Park. It all sounds very charming, but whether it will work remains to be seen.

The games in London will also need a theme, but simply invoking a greener environment and general world improvement will not do the trick. Big issues were part of the mix in Beijing -- human rights and globalization, freedom of the press and dictatorship -- and it was all very exciting. There were other important concerns at stake, too: the future and strength of a state-sponsored athletic system, doping, the age of child gymnasts -- and China's rise and Europe's gradual demise.

LOCOG Chairman Sebastian Coe characterized the Olympic Games as an "invisible social worker." In Great Britain, Coe said, there are fewer and fewer children who take part in sports at all. London's 2012 games, he hopes will perhaps reverse this trend. It didn't sound very exciting. In fact, it sounded as if the Beijing games would remain unsurpassable.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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