Showcasing best of China

by Ramesh Thakur

It’s been like watching the coverage of the Beijing Olympics on a split screen. Much of the Western media comment in the main news and opinion pages has been written up by the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” in the immortal words of Vice President Spiro Agnew (albeit written by William Safire). The coverage in the sports pages and live TV has been of an entirely different event, celebrating the joys of human endeavor in a tough but friendly competition, with individual tales of heroism mingling with spectacular evidence of China’s organizational skills and sporting supremacy. The games were also mercifully light on controversies and doping scandals. The competition was the story, not a backdrop.

There have been tales that fit the dominant Christian narrative of human fallibility, sin and redemption on an epic scale. Eric Lamaze, a Montreal street kid, born of an unknown father and a drug addict mother who spent time in jail, was twice banned from Olympic competition because of drug use, including cocaine. Fortunately, his arbitrator was a follower of Portia in believing that justice must be tempered with mercy. And so, at age 40, Lamaze found himself a member of the Canadian equestrian team in Beijing, helped Canada win the team silver and then captured the individual gold medal. For me, one of the lasting images will be the medal ceremony with the Canadian Maple Leaf flag fluttering proudly to the strains of the national anthem while Lamaze fought back tears.

The Canadian equestrian team also provided one of the best stories of persistence and perseverance. At age 61, Ian Millar was competing in his ninth Olympics. He had never won a medal in his previous eight appearances. This time round he was captain of the Canadian team that captured silver.

There were individual performances that took the breath away: Elena Isinbaeva’s magnificent and graceful pole vault for the gold, Matthew Mitcham’s stunning last tower dive under pressure to snatch the gold, and scores of others. The record books will mark these games for Michael Phelps’ supremacy with an all-time Olympics haul of eight gold medals that bettered, by one, Mark Spitz’s record from Munich in 1972. Already a swimming legend when he arrived, he delivered — did he ever — on the promise of the best still to come.

Yet his heroics may well be overshadowed by the exploits and antics of the brash, utterly unpredictable yet thoroughly joyous Usain Bolt. In his first Olympics, “My name is Bolt, Lightning Bolt” won three gold medals with world record shattering times, made a world class field of competitors look pedestrian, stirred imaginations and emotions with unabashed dances and poses, and connected with the 91,000 audience in the lovely Birds’ Nest arena in a way that the clinical and antiseptic Phelps never did. He was the embodiment of the Olympic spirit and the personification of unbounded joy and infectious enthusiasm, not to mention the cheer he brought to his home country, Jamaica, whose athletes had previously captured gold in the sport’s glamour event only by wearing British and Canadian colors.

Incredibly, this proved too much for the Olympics boss. Jacques Rogge delivered a public rebuke to Bolt for his show-boating antics, saying they were unseemly and disrespectful to Bolt’s competitors (none of whom complained). Rogge’s comments were so out of line and out of tune with the prevailing spirit of the arena and the games that even the sports journalists who reported his comments took him to task for them. If the International Olympics Committee has any spirit, it will gently and privately remind its chief of the Olympics spirit.

Yet in the end Rogge’s gaffe will pale in comparison to the sustained assault on China that was launched by sections of the Western media. I defer to no one in my criticism of China when warranted and justified. China is no more immune from faults and failings, serious and minor, than any other country. But this was its year and its fortnight. The organization was flawless, the spectacle was grand, the facilities were superb, and records tumbled in the pool and on the tracks reflecting the world-beating quality of the facilities. Why begrudge it its moment in the sun? That its athletes captured 51 gold medals (and exactly 100 medals in total) is testament to its investment in youth and sporting excellence. It’s hard to believe that India’s celebrated solitary gold was its first gold medal ever in 108 years of modern Olympics history. Sometimes, the same newspapers bemoaned the paucity of medals for their own country and, unconscious of the irony, criticized the Chinese system for mass producing world beating athletes.

Western media need to be careful for another reason. Asians today are better educated, better read and better informed than ever before. They read, watch and follow Western columnists who dominate the international media. But, unlike the average Western reader, Asians also read their own media where they often get an entirely different perspective on the same events. They can spot double standards and hypocrisy, and it is the global credibility of the Western media, not the reputation of the targets of their ire and attacks, that suffers. Western media must accept their fair share of the blame for the declining soft power assets of the West in global affairs.

The government of China takes rightful pride — as do the people of China and, as far as we can gauge, the overwhelming majority of overseas Chinese — at a games well run and ceremonially concluded. Tomorrow is another day, and might be another matter as we return to the post-Olympics reality of a quarrelsome world and shine the international spotlight on China’s errors and wrongs. Today belongs to them and the athletes who brought glory to themselves and their nations and joy to the rest of us mere mortals.

Ramesh Thakur is distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.