Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, was only partly right in saying that the stunning Beijing Olympics would lead to further evolution and improvement. Of course, every event must be a step forward if it is not a step backward. But let us also acknowledge that in staging the 2012 games, Britain may not need to drive itself as relentlessly as China did.
The difference is between an established and an aspiring power. As Chinese athletes recreated the gold standard, one almost heard them murmuring: We are the greatest. Not only are we Asia’s Number One, we are Number One in the world! That conclusion is understandable. What I found less explicable was the suggestion by Indian television commentators that the British would develop an inferiority complex because they cannot match the panorama of history depicted in the grand opening.
With Mayor Boris Johnson claiming that far from being Chinese, ping-pong was played on 19th century British dining tables and called whiff-whaff, London has enough history, culture, imagination and talent to put up a comparable show. But major corporate backers are tightening their purse strings, and Britain may have problems matching China’s multi-billion dollar budget. Something else that Indians and Chinese might find difficult to accept is that though the countdown to 2012 has begun and the Olympic flag flies above London’s City Hall, many ordinary London householders view the coming extravaganza with distaste. They fear the prospect of property prices soaring, of being flooded with even more visitors, of chaos, confusion and traffic jams with familiar streets suddenly becoming one-way drives, parking problems, and pressure on all services.
It’s different from 1948 when London hosted the first post-Second World War games. That was independent India’s debut and we heard in school that in passing the royal box where sat King George VI, lately shorn of his Ind Imp title, the leader of the Indian contingent did not dip the standard in customary salute. Some thought it was first-time gaucherie; others accused India of flexing newly independent muscles. But that ripple in a teacup was quickly forgotten. Though 1948 was a time of lingering wartime austerity with food and clothes still rationed, there was exhilaration and a feeling of release as the victory celebrations peaked in the Wembley Stadium games.
Commercialisation alone doesn’t explain the change. Nor politics which go back to 1936 Berlin. It was regarded as politically significant in 2000 when North and South Korean athletes marched under one flag in Sydney. Alas, reunification hopes came crashing down when they participated as two separate teams. Timor Leste was not independent, but its token presence, albeit under the Olympic flag, marked another political milestone.
What is new is the steely sense of national purpose to win instead of the fun of playing the game. China resented it as a slight when Beijing didn’t get the 2000 games. Winning the 2008 bid was “an example of the international recognition of China’s social stability, economic progress and the healthy life of the Chinese people” Vice-President Li Lanqing crowed. It was another Long March, not of idealistic national saviours but of the biggest, most carefully vetted army in the history of organised sport, each sportsman-soldier as sternly programmed as Mao’s Red Guards. No one knows how much pressure was applied to them. Or how many cracked under the strain.
China’s Golden Leap Forward began in Atlanta in 1996 when it won 16 gold medals against America’s 44. In Sydney, China landed 28 and America 37. In Athens, in 2004 it was China 32, America 36. The Chinese feel they started another Long March into history in Beijing last week. An America that cannot match its gold standard (never mind the overall tally), dare not be obstructive over Taiwan or the Dalai Lama.
Britain might worry that so many of its medallists are from the 7 per cent who go to public school which counter the robust populist image conveyed by a London doubledecker, David Beckham and 10-year-old Tayyiba Dudhwala. But Human Rights Watch’s complaint of “massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom, and increased political repression” will not be heard as ping-pong goes home to London. As for feeling upstaged, I recall reading about a banquet where Queen Elizabeth and another grand woman arrived wearing identical dresses. Questioned about Her Majesty’s thoughts on the subject, a Buckingham Palace spokesman replied, “The Queen does not notice what other people are wearing.”