China’s path to Olympic unlikely to run smooth?

Updated On: Aug 10, 2007

China is under pressure. The Olympics is a psychologically important event for the Chinese psyche, yet the path to the 2008 Olympics may not be entirely smooth.

As a dry run, one million residents will be led into parks across the city to show their enthusiasm for exercise, followed by the launch of the first of a series of sporting test events that will gauge the readiness of the new Olympic stadiums. Hong Kong celebrities including Andy Lau serenaded the crowds with songs. Hong Kong film icon Jackie Chan took to the stage to lead the countdown to the actual event. The Chinese know the stakes at hand. China's No. 2 leader Wu Bangguo said in his speech: 'It is a century-old dream of the Chinese people to stage the Olympic Games. We welcome athletes, coaches, officials, spectators and journalists to participate in, observe and report the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.'

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge said in his speech: 'The world is watching China and Beijing with great expectation... Beijing will not only host a successful Games for the world's premiere athletes but will also provide an excellent opportunity to discover China, its history, culture and people, with China opening itself to the world in new ways.' Asked repeatedly if the IOC would do more to press Beijing on media freedom, Mr Rogge said: 'Any expectations that the IOC should apply pressure on the Chinese government beyond what is necessary for Games preparations are misplaced. The Games can only be a catalyst for change, not a panacea.'

But arrayed against the Chinese government are human rights groups and activists who opposed restrictions on freedom and individual rights. They snipe at the brief detention of several foreign journalists covering a small protest. Rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday challenged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to act against China over human rights concerns. "IOC, you have a duty and responsibility to act now," said T. Kumar, Amnesty's Asia-Pacific advocacy director. Kumar said the Chinese government itself promised to "enhance social conditions, including education, health and human rights" when it bid to host the Olympics. "The IOC and the Chinese government are on trial today for the promises they gave," he said.

But beyond these human rights groups, there are more powerful forces at work such as the US legislators’ proposal for a China Olympics boycott. US legislators introduced a resolution calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing unless China "stops engaging in serious human rights abuses," Congressional aides said. The resolution also calls on Beijing to "stop supporting serious human rights abuses by the governments" of SudanMyanmar and North Korea.

Strong language was weaved into the resolution which also said "the integrity of the host country is of the utmost importance so as not to stain the participating athletes or the character of the games." It said "the Chinese regime regularly denies the right to freedom of conscience, expression, religion, and association," and that it has held thousands of political prisoners without charge or trial.

Perhaps, what might end up as a worry for Chinese policymakers in the long run is the indication that the resolution is expected to receive support from lawmakers from the Democratic party, which itself has also been pushing for rights reforms in China. Democrats not only control the Congress now but stand a chance of taking the White House too.

Other than political guns, US star power is also adding on to the pressure on the Beijing Olympics and this is symbolized by iconic filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s threat to resign as artistic director of the Beijing Olympics unless China takes a tougher stance against Sudan where it is a major investor. The two parties were engaged in "private dialogue" and that Spielberg expected to hear from the Chinese government "sometime soon, very soon".

Chinese reactions to US pressures are more focused on the games and they are keen to prevent competitiveness in the games from going overboard. "We are so far behind the United States it is a serious worry," Cui Dalin, deputy head of China's Olympic Committee, said at a press conference. But this has not stopped the Americans from focusing on symbolically maintaining the number one spot at the medals tally. So much so that China's emergence has forced the United States to respond with a critical re-examination of how it prepares its own athletes for the Olympics, Steven Roush, the US Olympic Committee’s chief of sports performance said.

"They will spend more money on the preparation of athletes and they clearly should be favored to win the most medals and the most gold medals," US Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth has said. US athletes are keen to show that they are up to the China challenge, said swimmer Michael Phelps. "In the past we have always had the opportunity to be very dominant in sport," Phelps said during a recent visit to the Chinese capital. "It is our job to defend our title at the Olympics and we are all going to try as hard as we can, which is all you can ask for." (9 August 2007)


China begins countdown to Beijing Olympics (Straits Times, 9 August 2007)  

US legislators propose China Olympics boycott over rights (AFP, 8 August 2007)

USA eyes Chinese threat at Olympic Games in Beijing (Philippines Inquirer, 7 August 2007)

Spielberg 'may quit Olympic role'(BBC News, 27 July 2007)

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