BREAKING OUT THE GOOD CHINA FOR THE OLYMPICS
China’s drive to put its best face forward makes it easy to forget its iron-fisted leaders
Spare a kind thought for China’s Zhu Qinan. The defending Olympic 10-m air rifle champion won an Olympic silver medal on day four of the Beijing Summer Games. Had he been Canadian, the feat would have earned him instant celebrity, no matter how obscure the sport. In China, he became an object of pity. He wept after failing to catch India’s Abhinav Bindra for gold. And he was a sodden, sobbing mess at a post-event news conference; such is the weight of China’s expectations. “For a long time I got very depressed,” he said, “with anxious and complex feelings.” By the end of day five, with Canada yet to reach the podium, the People’s Republic was atop the standings with 13 all-important gold to seven
for the U.S. There is no patience for silver here; one does not aspire to finish second in war.
If sport is the new Art of War, then with these Games, China is adding a brilliant chapter to Sun Tzu’s classic treatise on military strategy. His work—written in the sixth century BCE, and as relevant as today’s headlines—remains a staple in military colleges around the world, in business schools and, yes, among hard-driving sports coaches. Implementing the first of Sun Tzu’s 13 chapters, “Laying Plans,” began more than a decade ago, when China mounted an audacious and unlikely campaign to host the 2004 Summer Games, which eventually went to Athens. Plans moved into overdrive seven years ago when the International Olympic Committee relented and awarded 2008 to Beijing.
The hostile response to the international torch run—which became a focus for China’s human rights failings and its hold on Tibet instead of the intended coming of age party for an emergent superpower—clearly caught organizers off guard. Or perhaps not; the resulting outbreak of Chinese nationalism may have served to stiffen athletic resolve. As Sun Tzu advised: “Now in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger.” Since the chaos of the torch run, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games (BOCOG) has barely put a step wrong. They have proved in the opening days to be meticulous organizers, artistic geniuses and congenial hosts, with only the occasional slip of the happy face to reveal the iron men behind the mask.
It took all of two hours for China to capture its first gold of the Games. Flyweight lifter Chen Xexia hefted a combined 212 kg, and the hopes of 1.3 billion Chinese, to become a new national hero. In China’s new hybrid
Communism, where Beijing’s streets are clogged with Mercedes, Jaguars and Audis, this is more than a victory for the collective. The gold is expected to earn her the equivalent of $1.5 million, not so much different than the lavish rewards for Olympic achievement in archrival the United States.
Any doubts that China was ready for its close-up were dispelled at the auspicious hour of 8 p.m. on the eighth day of August 2008. In a dizzying mix of light and sound, 2008 drummers counted down the final seconds to the Games’ start, chanting and beating fous—an ancient percussion instrument—with glowing red batons and military precision. Dancers transformed themselves into human paintbrushes, drawing a landscape on a stagesized piece of paper with elegant strokes of their limbs. Thousands of oarsmen moved their paddles in sync to recreate the Silk Road. Acrobats dangled from all points of a giant globe while pop stars Sarah Brightman and Liu Huan warbled an ode to peace and harmony atop the North Pole. And breathtaking fireworks displays momentarily coloured Beijing’s persistent gray haze.
“I could go through every adjective I know: amazing, incredible, exciting, awesome—it still doesn’t do it justice,” says Canadian flagbearer and world champion kayaker Adam van Koeverden, who led a rollicking Canadian contingent into the National Stadium. “The best part about it was walking along and looking up in the stands and seeing maple
leaves. Canadians in red standing up and then Chinese in red standing up and waving Canadian flags. So many maple leaves.”
The show’s estimated $300-million cost—in a country of grinding rural poverty—not to mention the $40 billion spent on infrastructure and venues and another $17 billion in not entirely successful environmental measures, left some gasping at the monster the Olympics have become.
At the least, the gala must have provoked indigestion amongst members of the organizing committees for London 2012, and Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games. In China last week, John Furlong, CEO of VANOC, set about dampening expectations. “Will we have a show like that? No,” he said. “Will we have a show that’s wholly Canadian? Of course we will, and it will inspire the world.”
In what is becoming an Olympic tradition, Canada started slowly in Beijing. In tennis, Daniel Nestor, a gold medal winner in Sydney and recent Wimbledon champion, and his partner Frederic Niemeyer, bowed out in the first round. And Kyle Shewfelt, who won gymnastics gold in the floor exercise in Athens, capped his courageous return from two broken legs to deliver a strong performance on the mat and in the vaults. While he didn’t get the marks needed to advance to the finals, “It was a huge victory on many levels,” he told reporters, his eyes wet with emotion. His teammate, Brandon O’Neill, struggled through the meet on a severely sprained ankle, the tendons and ligaments so damaged that he should have been in a cast. His pain on landings was rated at “nine out of 10” by the team physiotherapist. In the end, Canada finished ninth in the team event, missing the finals by one spot, and prompting allegations of
corrupt judging from head coach Edouard Iarov. “It’s not so good for sport, not so good for gymnastics to have judges give results not by sport, but by some sort of game.”
Canada has one of the largest teams in Beijing—332 athletes—but its size has more to do with unexpectedly strong showings that qualified several team sports, including men’s water polo and field hockey and women’s synchronized swimming. The team has few medal favourites, and after the disappointment of Athens—just a dozen medals, along with notable flame-outs in the pool and on the rowing course—expectations are being kept deliberately low. Mike Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, says the goal is a top 16 placing, meaning a medal count “somewhere in the teens.”
Still, the future is brighter, contends Chambers. The federal government injected $8 million this year into the new Road to Excellence program for the Summer Games. The amount rises to $16 million next year and $24 million annually thereafter. The funding arrived too late for Beijing, Chambers says, but it should help for London in 2012. “These Games are the old funding model but a new approach,” says Chambers. “The next Games will be a new approach, new funding model, so this is a transition. We’ve got half of it here, we’ll have all of it in London, so we’ll see what we can do.”
But China is already setting a new measure of excellence. The country’s massive investment in the run-up to these Olympics includes its so-called Project 119, named after the number of gold medals available at the time the Games were awarded in track and field, swimming, rowing, sailing and canoe/kayak—all areas where China was traditionally weak. To ensure success, China imported top level coaches from around the world. “In respect of military method,” Sun Tzu said, “we have, firstly, measurement; secondly, estimation of
quantity; thirdly, calculation; fourthly, balancing of chances.” Or as Canada’s Chambers puts it, “Kudos to them. They’ve invested in sport, they’ve invested in coaching and their support network. I’m sure it’s going to pay off.”
Of course, no Games are trouble-free. Doping, of course, barred more than two dozen competitors from even setting foot in Beijing. And one who did, Spanish cyclist Maria Isabel Moreno, was caught in a surprise drug test July 31, and turned tail for Spain before the results came back positive for endurance boosting EPO.
Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, predicts there will be between 30 to 40 cheaters exposed by the 4,500 drug tests that will be administered in Beijing. “Doping is to sport what criminality is to society. There will always be criminality,” says Rogge. “There are 500 million people who do sport on earth. There are not 500 million saints.”
After the fiasco of the international portion of the torch relay, Chinese authorities have been on edge about possible demonstrations, but few materialized. A handful of Canadians were among those deported in the Games’ first week for staging pro-Tibet demonstrations outside of the government’s designated—and remote—“protest zones.”
On the day of the opening ceremonies, authorities went as far as ordering residents of the capital to celebrate at home, rather than in the streets or public parks. So instead, people gathered around storefront televisions in the old city’s narrow alleys, under the watchful eyes of red-armband-wearing “security volunteers.” The official reason was said to be safety concerns over the massive pyrotechnic displays being launched across the city. But security around Olympic sites has also tightened since last week’s release of a video purportedly made by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party. It warned Muslims to avoid being on trains, buses or planes with Chinese during the Games.
The precautions muted the party, but hardly dampened the pride of many Chinese. In Beijing, downtown streets and residential areas are awash with the red and gold national flag. And headbands and painted faces are
TO BE AN OLYMPIC VISITOR MEANS RUNNING A GAUNTLET OF CHEERFUL ‘HELLOS’ EVERYWHERE YOU GO
the latest fashion accessories. Just outside the Forbidden City, David Yang, the owner of a souvenir shop, expressed supreme confidence that these will be the best Olympics ever. “I think the Games are a platform to promote Chinese culture,” he says. “It’s good for sports, for our economy, for propaganda.”
Yang is still hopeful that a friend will come
through on a promise to give him a ticket to the women’s gymnastics final. Priced between 150 and 600 renminbi, the ducats were within the reach of many locals. But demand far exceeded availability and now scalpers are commanding 5,000 renminbi, more than seven times the average monthly salary. Others in the capital are finding less traditional ways to catch the spirit of competition. “Hip Hop Dance Party and Olympic Booty Shake this Saturday,” promises a large sign inside the bustling Alpha Omega Club, a mixing spot for tourists and locals.
The Games themselves are a fascinating mix of the business of sport, the business of geopolitics and, of course, the business of business. To be a non-sponsor in Beijing, even more so than most Olympics, is to be rendered invisible. American Standard may make most of the bathroom fixtures at Olympic venues, but since they didn’t shell out millions for a sponsorship deal, you
wouldn’t know it. White tape or cheerful Olympic stickers cover their brand names. The trademarks of fridges and televisions in the media village are similarly masked.
Most of the domestic Games coverage—rife with sponsors’ product placement—is no different than the home-team cheering of broadcasters in Athens, Turin, or Salt Lake City. The Chinese national evening news, however, is a telling throwback to the dreariest of Communist propaganda. On the opening day of the Games, for example, a day the Chinese won their first two gold, there was no mention of the victories in fully the first 15 minutes of the broadcast. Instead, it was given over to the business of China’s President Hu Jintao, as he met with an endless stream of world leaders: Hu shaking hands; Hu nodding attentively across a boardroom table; Hu sitting with leaders at elaborately carved side tables holding unsipped pots of tea. The only colour from Hu, with his severe black suit and bulletproof helmet of hair, came from the fresh ties that seemed to greet each new delegation. There were leaders from the U.S. and Russia, from a succession of African nations. Even Croatian President Stjepan Mesic scored major face time. Canada’s political leadership, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper sitting out the opening, was as invisible here as an American Standard toilet.
Geopolitics aside, the Games have enough cheerful spectacle to make it easy to forget at times that China remains a country of lim-
ited freedoms and iron-fisted rule. Still, there are revealing moments. Buried deep away from the Olympic news, the Oriental Morning Post reported last week that 51-year-old Chen Zhonghui of Jiangsu province was sentenced to 1V2 years in prison for selling black market political books. “All have titles peppered with sensational eye-grabbing phrases such as ‘backdoor political secrets’ and ‘leadership power struggles,’ in reference to their entirely fabricated content,” it reported.
Even the lack of rain on opening night, despite a threatening forecast, was also later credited, legitimately or not, as the work of the state. Some 1,100 rain dispersal rockets were fired into the Beijing sky before and during the ceremonies in what is called the largest weather modification exercise in China’s history.
CHINA IS WINNING THIS PR WAR WITHOUT GOING INTO ACTUAL BATTLE
The Games’ opening ceremony, for all its beauty and grace, contained more than a hint of military might in the brilliant synchronization of the 9,000 elaborately costumed soldiers who were key performers at the national stadium. Many of the Games’ “volunteers” are also from the army and can be seen in the evening marching home to their barracks in tight formation. Still, their bearing is hardly intimidating. To be an Olympic visitor in Beijing means never having to open a door, and running a gauntlet of cheerful “hellos” everywhere you go.
China’s determination to put its best face forward is the measure of the profound change its society has undergone in less than a generation, say the two members of Team Canada who enjoy true celebrity status in China. “China has totally changed,” says Jujie Luan, the Edmonton fencer who won what was then a rare gold for China at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Although she’s lived in Canada for more than 20 years and changed her citizenship, she remains a hero here, more so for having the guts to mount a comeback for Canada at the age of 50. Although Luan was knocked out in the early going, the fencing hall was filled with Chinese shouting “Ca-na-da” and applauding her efforts. “Sports are for fun. In Canada, they don’t take them seriously. In China, sports are for the government,” she says. “In 1984, China wasn’t strong, not economically grown up. Now they are strong and athletics
are like 10 times better.”
Canadian team attaché 43-year-old Mark Rowswell, known to hundreds of millions of Chinese as the comic and celebrity superstar Dashan, has lived through China’s rise for more than 20 years after embracing the language and culture while a student of East Asian studies at the University of Toronto. He has a foot in both countries, dividing his time between his hectic celebrity demands in China and the tranquility of life with his wife and children on a farm north of Toronto.
His temporary appointment as Canadian team fixer has bought Canada immeasurable goodwill. Equally important is his clear-eyed ability to explain the mysteries of Western culture to the Chinese media in flawless Mandarin, and to assess for the Western media the impact of an emergent China.
The Chinese, he says in an interview, are genuinely stunned that the Games, and the international torch run before it, became magnets of international protest. They have seen, as Rowswell has, an astonishing transformation. “It was a society that 30 years ago was completely closed. It was like North Korea 30 years ago,” he says. “From the Chinese perspective they see so much change, so much improvement in their daily lives, such an extension of their personal freedoms. Although not to deny the limitations and the problems with human rights and everything, but from a Chinese perspective they’re seeing this huge progress and all of a sudden seeing the criticism getting worse and worse.”
Whether the rise of China as a second superpower adds balance to global affairs remains to be seen, he says. Regardless, it is a reality to be dealt with. “When China joins the world community it doesn’t mean all of a sudden they just start playing by our rules. As a big player, they make their own rules as well,” he says. “From a Canadian perspective, we see the same thing with the Americans, they don’t always play by the rules. They make up their own rules too, and China is like that. There’s going to be friction, they’re going to do things that we wouldn’t do. They are a big power already and they’re going to get bigger.”
The importance of these Games to China can’t be overstated, but the impact of their legacy should not be overblown. “China is changing rapidly without the Olympics and it would have been changing anyway,” he says. “China is not becoming an economic superpower because it got the Olympics, it’s the other way around.”
A brace of Chinese Olympic medals is a nice bit of symbolism, a reward in their view for having already seized the future. Like any good strategist, Sun Tzu figured it out long ago. The best commanders win wars, he wrote, without going to battle. M