Olympic hosts are anointed by two different philosophies. The global community either uses the games to showcase — and reward — countries considered models in transparency, democracy, press freedom and human rights, or we dangle the Olympics to encourage the development of all of those things in countries where they don't quite yet exist.
The 1964 games in Tokyo reintegrated Japan after World War II; the 1968 games in Mexico City nudged development in what some considered a third-world country; the 1988 games in Seoul helped usher South Korea from dictatorship to democracy.
And now we are on the eve of the International Olympic Committee's greatest experiment yet in host-country transformation: the Beijing Olympics.
When these games were awarded in 2001, by a 56-49 margin, then-IOC Director General Francois Carrard acknowledged China's most controversial deficiency: "Human rights," he said, "is a very serious issue in the entire world."
He then made a conflicted statement.
"It is not up to the IOC to interfere in this issue," he said, "but we are taking the bet that seven years from now, we sincerely and dearly hope we will see many changes."
Carrard toed a murky line: Nowhere in the Olympic charter does it say the games should be wielded to effect political change. But the intentions of the hundred-plus individuals who held a vote have been heard in less official pronouncements, in talk of sincere hopes and wishes for a more open, environmentally conscious and human-rights friendly China.
"Those people who were hoping the Olympic Games could help China open up were holding Seoul in the back of their minds," said Susan Brownell, a Fulbright researcher at the Beijing Sport University and the author of Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.
South Korea's military dictatorship collapsed less than a year before the 1988 games amid fears that the international Olympic spotlight would shine on the country's embarrassing political turmoil and not its economic arrival.
"That was one of the great successes of the IOC," said David Wallechinsky, vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. "I think that certain members of the IOC may have deluded themselves into thinking there was a similar situation with China."
Today, seven years after Carrard said he was betting on change, officials at the IOC and in China seem taken aback that, in the absence of change, these games have become so controversial.
Human Rights Watch has criticized China's treatment of the migrant workers who built much of the Olympic infrastructure. Reporters Without Borders is furious there has been censorship of the Internet at the official media headquarters. And the air quality in Beijing has made scant improvements following stopgap environmental clean-up efforts.
If the Olympic experiment to change China didn't work, many scholars say they aren't surprised — and that the IOC shouldn't be either.
"The problem," said Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, "is that the kinds of changes that people either wanted or anticipated — that they thought they would see — in terms of political reform and the environmental processes, those are things that speak very fundamentally to the way China is governed."
China could not establish freedom of the press, for example, without changing the very nature of the tightly controlled, one-party authoritarianism that defines Beijing's communist government.
"And this particular Chinese administration of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping has very little inclination toward that," Economy said. IOC officials either failed to understand this or, as Wallechinsky suggests, chose not to. China, for its part, said in 2001 what Olympic officials wanted to hear, Economy believes.
At issue now is whether actual promises were made — or demanded. China did pledge to make this an environmentally friendly "Green Games," but no similar promises were ever made regarding human rights or their specific application in places like Darfur and Tibet.
"I think really there was an attempt to avoid promising anything, rather than an attempt to make promises," Brownell said of the Chinese. "That human rights groups have been saying China made promises, I think that's wishful thinking. I understand why they're doing that — it's a political strategy. But I'm a social scientist, and from that perspective, that's just not true."
China's Beijing Olympic Action Plan includes this awkwardly translated goal among five "strategic principles" for the 2008 games: "Hosting the Olympic Games to promote the opening-up." Exactly what was to open up (China itself, the government to dissenting opinions, the state-run media?) wasn't spelled out.
That phrase may have sounded promising seven years ago, but, in retrospect, China was light on specifics. For that, Duke professor Orin Starn doesn't fault Beijing. He faults the IOC.
"The IOC is made up these different countries and nations that are scared of China, that want China's trade, that can't do without China," said Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology and the faculty director of the Duke Human Rights Center. "The IOC has never been in a strong bargaining position. This has never been a Sudan, or a Bosnia, where we can dictate conditions."
The IOC, Starn said, wanted to bring the games — and the billion-dollar sponsors — to the world's most populous country and newest economic superpower. It didn't have much leverage to demand concessions on behalf of Tibet and domestic political dissidents in the process.
Brownell suggests the cultural misunderstanding around the 2008 Olympics didn't simply lie between the East and West. Many activists and diplomats failed to understand the IOC, which, she said, doesn't technically have the power to demand human rights concessions even if its members didn't fear China.
"The IOC brings together 205 nations in the world who can hardly agree on anything," Brownell said. "The only thing that holds it together is the charter, that in order to become an IOC member, you have to agree to abide by it."
The phrase "human right" is mentioned only once in the document, embedded in the premise that "the practice of sport is a human right." The charter takes no position on human rights, plural. And the half-dozen references to politics all refer to the required absence of their influence — on national Olympic committees, on Olympic athletes, inside Olympic venues.
But the practical application of the Olympic spirit and its written bylaws have confused many people — including, it sometimes seems, IOC members themselves. Carrard's mixed message in 2001 was an example of this.
So, too, was a press conference held earlier this spring with IOC President Jacques Rogge and Hein Verbruggen, head of the group's Beijing coordinating committee. Both said they believed the games were still a "force for good" in China (by extension suggesting some unidentified things are currently not so good). But Verbruggen also stressed, "We don't want to be, as the IOC, involved in any political issues."
Wallechinsky laughs at that statement, recalling, for example, the IOC's 28-year ban of South Africa from the Olympics because of Apartheid.
"For anybody to say today, 'It's not about politics, you have to separate sports and politics' — that's ridiculous," Wallechinsky said.
(The latest official to go on record denouncing the "politicization" of these games on Aug. 1, one week before the opening ceremony, was Hu Jintao himself.
Wallechinsky says it doesn't matter that "human rights" doesn't appear in the Olympic charter. The idea is present in the fifth Fundamental Principle of Olympism, that any discrimination with regard to a country or individual — by race, religion, politics or gender — is "incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement." Falun Gong members in China might say they're discriminated against because of their religion, just as the same could be true of anyone not belonging to the Communist Party.
"With 125 democracies in the world," Wallechinsky said, "there was no excuse for awarding the games to one of the 70 or so countries still ruled by a dictatorship."
Brownell wants the IOC to better articulate its role as a platform for bringing together countries and officials who may, among themselves, then discuss whatever they want. But she fears any departure from that neutral facilitating role.
"That was never going to happen, and that can't happen: When the IOC starts taking positions on human rights, writing those into host city contracts," she said, "given the state of the world, I think that's the end of the Olympic Games as we know them."
Starn pointed eerily to the United States' next bid, for the 2016 summer Olympics.
"Imagine the reverse," he said, "that if for Chicago's bid, the IOC said to the U.S., 'You need to close Guantánamo, you need to make apologies and make reparations to the hundreds of innocent people tortured in the war on terror, you need to abolish the death penalty.' That would have been a nonstarter with the West. I think it would have been a nonstarter with China."
The simplest strategy for the IOC, Economy said, would have been to never mention human rights (or press freedoms or environmentalism) in the first place, confusing the role of the games and giving false hope to activists. In the unofficial experiment of promoting change along with staging decathlons, maybe the IOC got in over its head with China.
Then again, the IOC may never have a bidding country quite like this again — with equal economic might and political downside — and we won't see the lessons of China applied.
"Frankly, now that China has hosted the Olympics, there really aren't any dictatorships that could pull off the Olympics," Wallechinsky said. "What, is Zimbabwe going to host the Olympics? Not going to happen. I could see the IOC may not have to confront this for a long, long time. Unless Vladimir Putin cancels the legislature."
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