Despite the endless wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Phelps--Ive found myself enjoying this Olympics. The Beijing Olympics, despite the best attempts of its organizers to hide everything other than a carefully crafted image, has revealed a great deal about China today.
The womens gymnastics competition was particularly illuminating. Bela Karolyis allegations that some of the Chinese gymnasts were underage seems legitimate considering the physical appearance of the girls as well as the admission of a former Chinese gymnast on state-owned television that she competed at 14 years old, two years under the legal limit, in the 2000 Sydney Games. It seems highly unlikely that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is reaping huge revenues from these Olympics, will investigate these claims. NBC, to its credit, was more than happy to cover the allegations of underage participants, as the U.S. team--which features, as it always does, rosy-cheeked All-American girls--failed to overcome the Chinese gymnastics machine.
The network, however, did not cover any aspect of the protest in Beijing that occurred less than a half-mile from the Birds Nest, the main Olympic stadium. Several foreign nationals were arrested, and one accredited British journalist--not involved in the protest--was treated very roughly by Chinese police. His film was confiscated. The protest, not surprisingly, was reported to have lasted only minutes, as the hundreds of plainclothes policemen patrolling the athletic centers swooped on the protestors immediately. Beijing organizers promised that the press would have as much freedom as other countries to cover events inside the country, but that has been anything but true. The IOC, not wanting to endanger its own enormous revenue from the Olympics, has said nothing.
The protest took place in some sort of wonderland for ethnic minorities set up for visitors. Along with Chinas rather bizarre use of children in traditional ethnic dress during the opening ceremonies, the Olympics have underscored Chinas token treatment of minorities. The continuing terrorist attacks by Muslim minorities in western China, which the media has been essentially unable to cover, have offered us a rare opening to see how the majority Han perceive their own minorities--mostly as foreign, caricatured curiosities, it seems. Although the terrorist attacks are unlawful and immoral, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems disinclined to recognize Muslim minorities as anything more than illegitimate nuisances.
The Olympics, finally, have shown the extent of Chinas nationalism, although that nationalism might not be larger than other countries. I was watching a mens volleyball game between the U.S. and Venezuela, and the mostly Chinese crowd was firmly behind Venezuela. The American announcers pretended that the Chinese just didnt want a sweep, but it was clear that they were rooting against the U.S. This is not in itself a bad thing, but Americans have consistently underestimated Chinese nationalism, which has been on display during these Olympics. Phelps events at the Water Cube have, conspicuously, many unfilled seats. Chinas lack of interest in watching a dominant swimmer is telling--would there be open seats if the Games were held in Japan or Indonesia?
For all of the medias banal clichs about Chinas coming-out party and Beijing as a city of startling juxtapositions, and the CCPs attempts to show absolutely nothing about their country, the American public has been able to learn much more about China than I thought it would. This is surprising; the Beijing Olympics seemed like a conspiracy by all the major players to present China as a series of clichs--the Great Wall, lots of people moving in unison, rapid industrialization. Instead, weve been able to see littl bits of the real China, both good and bad. For that, Ill keep watching.