The Olympic Spirit?

Jim Consedine

I must admit I enjoyed watching some of the Olympic Games on the television. For some reason or another, the longer races – marathons, cycling road races and triathalons – held special appeal. But I must also say I was often conflicted when I turned on the TV by the knowledge that millions of people had been deliberately disadvantaged or exploited in order to make sure that the world could see the Games unhindered. I found it so easy to be seduced by the glitter and glamour of the winning of gold so as to easily betray my normally overriding basic instincts that seek fairness and justice.

My access to the Games generally was unhindered by anything from the real daily world of more than one billion Chinese people. Amnesty International has reported that the Olympics have actually increased repression in China. One reason was the massive amount of development in Beijing where 300 000 people were bulldozed out of their homes in order to build various stadiums and roadways at a cost of more than $40 billion in public monies. Unhindered by billions of dollars spent on an already gifted and rich elite to come and enjoy, both as competitors and spectators, in a country where millions work in factories for slave wages in a so-called ‘communist’ state which forbids its citizens from forming free and democratic trade unions. Unhindered by the almost total ignoring of the situation of Tibetans, East Turkestan and other dissident groups within China, carefully choreographed out of the picture. It was in Kashgar, East Turkestan, (which is usually referred to in the Western media as Xinjing), that an attack killed 16 Chinese border police and injured 16 others only a week before the opening ceremony.

Unhindered by the knowledge that New Zealand taxpayers had shelled out more than $80 million since the Athens Games on preparations for its team for Beijing. This means it cost the best part of $10 million for each medal New Zealand won. Is this not gross extravagance by any standards?

It leads one to conclude that the Olympics are run by the corporate elite for the athletic elite. And the rest of us increasingly are paying for it through our taxes. It left me slightly less than enthusiastic about the welcome home given our handful of successful athletes with local mayors rushing to provide ticker-tape parades in their centres. What happened to the unsuccessful ones? One could muse that Its a pity that the same respect isn’t accorded welfare beneficiaries on other occasions!

It seems that the Olympics remain special, the pinnacle of every athletic achievement, despite the fact that they have evolved from being totally amateur to fully professional in the past 20 years. Their billing as the ultimate goal in sport remains untarnished. I can understand the logic of that position. But I’m wondering whether it is time for a rethink. More and more the Olympics have become the corporate Games, where hypocrisy and the pursuit of profits, the modern golden calf, is the guiding principle.

The media took some pride in the fact that we were seventh per capita in the medals table and some big countries were well behind us, like South Africa and India. But we spent $80 million to get there. The question is – what does it prove to anyone to be placed highly on the medals table? That we have lots of money that poorer countries don’t have? Success seems to lift our national psyche for a day or two, but at what cost? Not one of our athletes spoke up at the Games about human rights abuses in China. All adverse comment was successfully screened out of the public view. Generally speaking, everyone conspired to make it so. To all intents and purposes, China appeared to the world as a PR dream: welcoming, smiling, clean (mostly), efficient, friendly. Almost a slice of modern-day paradise!

The reality of life in China is so different. Media coverage of the Games was a giant con, presenting a perception of China so unlike the reality. And we were all complicit. I was reminded of how little we know of human right abuses in China only a day after the Olympics when a 60 Minutes item highlighted the building of the soon to be opened Three Gorges Dam at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. This construction precipitated the forced removal of more than 4 million people from their homes and the submerging of hundreds of villages and small towns. Compensation has been inadequate for replacement for those requiring new homes and jobs. So millions of already poor people pay the cost of the flamboyant dreams of the government elite – and have no say in the decision making process or recourse to appeal authorities. There is widespread poverty in huge parts of China that is not being tackled. The growing rich elite have less and less care for the hundreds of millions living in desperate straits. The one party dictatorship does not allow for change at such a basic level.

In some ways, perhaps there is little that can be done to change China from the outside. But we don’t have to condone what goes on there through our silence. There was a window of opportunity that the Olympics offered the world to stand up and say something of significance. It seems it was wasted

From a biblical perspective that is reprehensible. Imagine what Jerimiah, Amos or John the Baptist would have said. Imagine what Jesus might have done. The answer is probably very little, as he would have been arrested and jailed within minutes of arriving in Beijing. Such is the state of repression in China. But this is not just a problem for China. I suspect it would also have happened in previous years in Atlanta, in Sydney, in Athens as well. A dissident like Jesus would never be allowed to disrupt the smooth flow of this carefully choreographed four yearly event where so much money and image were at stake.

There are bigger things in life than gold medals at the Olympics. Many made huge money from them, not least the successful athletes. Corporate profits will be huge. But spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes, for those who worked around-the-clock for a pittance, for those who were ignored because they were poor and have few rights. Were any of them winners from the Games?

Tui Motu, October 2008

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