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Out of Bounds- Beijing gets the Prize, but has to live up to it

by Chuck Cordill, associate sports editor

Once again, Beijing has the world in a buzz. This time, there are no tanks involved. This time, a downed spy plane isn’t at the forefront. “Execution” will be a term used to describe sporting achievement on the playing field and not the aftermath of a hasty trial. And unless Tibet has been safeguarding a decent long-distance runner, that nation’s struggles are not a part of this story either.

In one of the most controversial decisions in recent memory, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Summer Olympic Games to Beijing, capitol of the People’s Republic of China and ground zero for the strongest remaining communist government on the planet. In the midst of global outcry over human-rights abuses, religious persecution, mandatory abortions, and rapid military expansion, the IOC has taken a seemingly proactive approach.

The Olympic logo is one of the most recognized symbols in the world. The question is, if China will be able to live up to its reputation.

Several other cities were in the running for the big prize – Toronto, Paris, Istanbul, and Osaka. Fairly safe choices in comparison to Beijing. All pretty stable. All well equipped to host the biggest sporting event on the planet. But for the IOC, Beijing proved irresistible. Stage the Olympics, make the world a safer place. Who could argue with that?

Instead of awarding the Summer Games to China in response for progress made in human rights and democracy, the IOC seems to have given the prize as a “dangling carrot,” saying, “Here it is, now earn it.” Ideally, the Olympic Games are an international spectacle that transcends politics. The Summer Games are supposed to provide a four-year respite from the grim reality of the world, a sort of global cease-fire where we forget about warring armies and ideologies. For a few weeks, we are supposed to bask in the glory of athletic excellence and, inevitably, end up cheering for some underdog whose name we can’t pronounce, from a country we’ve never heard of, in a sport we never really understood.

Ideally, the Olympics are a “no spin zone,” free of all the nasty stuff that makes the 6 O’clock News. But when it came down to the vote, politics won out. The IOC and Chinese government readily admit they hope the Summer Games will be a springboard to accelerate reform. The rationale behind the Beijing vote was that human rights progress and further democratization of the world’s largest nation would be facilitated through the watchful eye of the media.

If these advances do occur, the world will be a better place and the IOC will receive due praise for its role. But one need only to look back to1936 to realize awarding the Olympic games doesn’t guarantee advancing human rights. The 1936 games were held in Berlin, Germany. The power base for Hitler’s Nazi regime. Many think that hosting the games solidified Hitler’s power and helped span, just a few years later, the Nazi’s bloodbath that innundated Europe and eventually the whole planet.

Let’s not forget the images the world saw in and around Tiananmen Square in June of 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army turned its guns on it’s own citizens. The Chinese government never released an official toll of those who died, but estimates range from several hundred to the thousands. Those appalling images of brutality will not go away; all the PR and political lobbying in the world can’t erase them. Most of the key players involved in the protests were either killed, jailed, or forced into exile. But their voices are still heard in the consciences of those who enjoy freedom.

To be fair, Jiang Zemin has made progress in modernization, but there is a lot of work to be done before China can legitimately join the rank of civilized nations. Documented summary trials and hasty executions undermine the nation’s efforts to win global respect. It is indeed troublesome that one of China’s greatest exports is “harvested organs,” most coming from executed criminals and some allegedly taken before the unwilling donor had actually died.

Nonetheless, if awarding the Summer Olympics to Beijing will become the catalyst for real and substantial reform in the People’s Republic of China, the nations of the world will have reason to rejoice. Manufacturers worldwide are licking their chops at the prospect of marketing their products to several billion souls. Politicians are giddy over the opportunity to bring an isolated society into the open.

It won’t be easy, but if IOC’s plan succeeds, the thousands who perished in Tiananmen Square, the “Cultural Revolution,” and other purges may not have died in vain. They paved the road to the present, but the destination, long sought, is still to be seen.

Actually, the Olympic Spirit can be summed up in that simple image we all remember of the figure of a lone man holding a squad of Chinese tanks at bay. That man represents all of the athletes who have ever and who will participate in the planet’s greates showcase. Determined, focused, and probably a little bit crazy – that guy touched the same nerve in all of us. It’s the same nerve that sings when a kid from some country we’ve never heard of excels in a sport we don’t even understand. There’s beauty and humanity in that.


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