It has been like watching the coverage of the Beijing Olympics on a split screen. So much of the western media comment in the front section and on the opinion pages has been taken up by the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism,’ in the timeless words of Richard Nixon’s Vice-President Spiro Agnew (and written by the timeless wordsmith, William Safire). The coverage in the sports pages, not to mention live on TV, has been of an entirely different event celebrating the joys of human endeavour in a tough but friendly competition, with individual tales of heroism mingling with spectacular evidence of China’s organisational skills and sporting supremacy. The games were also mercifully light on controversies and doping scandals. The sporting 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 was born in Quebec to an unknown father and a mother who suffered from drug addiction and spent time in jail. Raised by his grandmother, he was familiar with marijuana and LSD by the time he was 11 and dropped out of school after Grade 8. At 13, he was introduced to horses at a farm and discovered a natural affinity and talent for all things equestrian. Twice banned from Olympic competition because of drug use, including cocaine, he faced the wrath of the Canadian equestrian establishment, which tends to be from the right side of the tracks, which would have been happy to see the last of someone from the other side of the tracks. Fortunately for him, and for the adage that everyone deserves a second, sometimes even a third, chance in life, his arbitrator, Professor Ed Ratushny, was a follower of Shakespeare’s Portia in believing that justice must be tempered with mercy. And so, at age 40, this Montreal street kid found himself a member of the Canadian equestrian team in Beijing. His flawless, error free rounds helped Canada win the team silver in a dramatic jump off with the U.S. team and helped him capture the individual gold medal. For me, one of the lasting images of this year’s Olympics will be the medal ceremony with the Canadian Maple Leaf flag fluttering proudly to the strains of the national anthem while Mr. Lamaze fought back the tears that were welling up in his eyes.
The Canadian 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 in the jump off with the Americans.
There were individual performances that took the breath away: Russia’s Yelena Isinbaeva winning magnificent and graceful pole vault for the gold, Australia’s Matthew Mitcham’s stunning last dive under pressure from the 10-metre tower, with three perfect tens, to snatch the gold away from the Chinese leader up to that point, and scores of others. In the end, the record books will mark this as the games where Michael Phelps stamped his supremacy with an all-time Olympics haul of eight gold medals in one year that bettered, by one, Mark Spitz’s record from the Munich games back in 1972. Already a swimming legend when he arrived, he delivered on the promise of the best still to come. Boy, did he ever.
And yet, unbelievably, his heroics may well be overshadowed by the exploits and antics of the brash, utterly unpredictable yet thoroughly joyous Usain Bolt. In his first appearance at an Olympics, ‘My name is Bolt, Lightning Bolt’ captured three gold medals with world record shattering times in each event in which he competed, made a world class field of competitors look pedestrian as he left them well behind in his wake, stirred the world’s imagination and emotions with his unabashed celebrations of dances, jigs and poses alike, and connected with the 91,000 audience in the lovely Bird’s Nest arena in a way that the security blanket bubble-wrapped antiseptic Phelps never did. He turned out to be the embodiment of the outer limits of human skill, the personification of unbounded joy and infectious enthusiasm, and the very best of what the Olympics spirit is supposedly all about. His defeated rivals revelled in his triumphs, recognising the converts to their event that he was attracting and sharing his glory vicariously. Not to mention the cheer he brought to his home country whose athletes had previously captured gold in the sport’s glamour event but only in the colours of Britain and Canada.
Incredibly, this proved too much for the Olympics boss. Jacques Rogge delivered a public rebuke to Bolt for his showboating 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 spirit of the arena and the games that even the sports journalists who reported his comments took him to task for them. It brought to mind Winston Churchill’s famous put down of a rival who had all the virtues Churchill disliked and none of the vices he admired. 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 so much 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, both serious and minor, than any other country. But this was its year and its fortnight. The organisation was flawless, the spectacle 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 the Chinese their moment in the sun? That their athletes captured more than 50 gold medals (and exactly 100 in total) is testament to their investment in youth and sporting excellence. It’s hard to believe that India’s celebrated solitary gold was its first individual gold medal ever in 108 years of modern Olympics history. The Olympics have traditionally been more an opportunity for our officials to tour abroad in taxpayer-funded luxury than for our athletes to compete on a level-playing field. The same Canadian newspapers that have bemoaned the paucity of medals for Canada (three gold and 18 in total) sometimes, unconscious of the irony, criticised the Chinese system for mass producing world leading athletes.
Role of western media
The 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 the western media which dominate the international media. But, unlike the average western reader, Asians also read their own media where they often get an entirely different picture of the same events and happenings. As a result, they can spot double standards and hypocrisy in real time, and it is the global credibility of much of the western media, and not the reputation of the targets of their ire and attacks, that suffers. In this sense, the 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 China 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 Centre for International Governance Innovation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.)
6 months ago