Friday, August 08, 2008

Let the Games Begin

I love the Summer Olympics. My track and field background certainly plays a role in my devotion to the quadrennial games, as this is the one time every four years when the jumpers and throwers and runners take center stage. NBC is planning about a billion hours of coverage, and I plan to watch a million of those hours over the next fortnight or so.

One curiousity that even casual viewers will have is how NBC and its several component stations will address the China question. Will NBC remain largely mum, making the fatuous (and demonstrably false) claim that politics have no place in the Olympics? Will any athletes use the medal stand, starting blocks, or any other platform to speak out against China's human rights abuses? Will China shoot itself in the foot by proving its critics' point?

And then there is the much-discussed issue of air quality. Everything you have heard is true. The air is nasty in China. When I was in Beijing a couple of years ago the smog was ubiquitous. On my last day, however, a mucous-thick yellow haze draped the city so that on the way to the airport early in the morning visibility was near impossible. Barring great luck, expect this environmental worry to be a legitimate question, especially when outdoor endurance events are in play.

My guess is that the main theme we'll see the most over the next couple of weeks will involve that precarious line between cultural exploration and cultural streotype. There will be myriad stories and images exploiting the differences between China and the West that will inevitably hint at the idea of ther inscrutable Chinese. And this is understandable -- China is very different from what most of us know. But how this is handled will be telling. There will be very real transportation and language issues for athlete and spectator alike. And China is fascinating. But this sort of endeavor is fraught with landmines. The line between caricature and picture is finer than most think.

Here are a few links that caught my eye this morning: Bob Ryan's column in The Boston Globe is, as should be expected, fine. The New York Times has a blog, Rings, covering all things Olympics (and here is an interesting interview on odd Olympic events with NYT sports magazine Play's John Tayman). The Washington Post scours its archives and samples excerpts from more than a century of opinions on the Olympics. The Council on Foreign Relations spotlights how the Games are part of a larger plan to augment China's peculiar brand of authoritarian capitalism. Here is an article from South Africa's Mail & Guardian discussing the "spectacle and controversy" that will be these games.

Enjoy the Games, USA! USA! Etc.


Anonymous said...

i to will be watching the games with eagerness. Yes,therearefarmore american competetors than brits, but i fell we can get up at the top of the medals table. Will we beat you? i doubt it, you have only ever not finished in the top three in 1 games, 1980, when you refused to join, because of russias invasion of afghanistan.Oh, p.s, in the 2008 games, they've only gone and invaded Georgia.
Anyway, only 5 nations have ever won the games, and only two have won more that britain, Russia and america, and as long as america keeps winning the games, our record will stand, lol. We will still try and beat you, though, of course.

this is danny, by the way.

Slicer said...

The Iraqi and Iranian delegations just entered the stadium, and Matt Lauer noted that one point on which China agrees with the United States is that Iran should not possess nuclear weapons. "Where sports and politics collide, so I apologize," he said.

The commentators (Costas specifically) seem to go out of there way to avoid any type of political talk. It's almost a little odd.

dcat said...

Slice --
I watched the last hour or so, thought the spectacle impressive, as almost always, bu less dorky than most years, if still a bit dorky. Every time they started to hit on politics I think their Chinese hosts zapped their "attitude re-conditioning" chairs. I hope NBC is not so tepid the entire time.

Danny --
I enjoy the added element of medal counts up to a point, but ultimately I get absorbed by the stories, and occasionally will support athletes against Americans if there seems a good reason. One thing I will say -- pound-for-pound the Australians are badasses in sport. We'll see it in the Olympics. And think about rugby -- they are one of the elite national teams in the world in rugby union, the most popular form of the game, are similarly ranked in rugby league, and aussie football is more popular than both in all likelihood. Blend the three together and put them all in union? Egads, man. And they are dominant in cricket and even the socceroos are pretty darned good given where soccer/football ranks in that country.

General, probably hypersensitive observation: In dealing with the smaller nations, it seems as if Costas, Lauer and co. tended toward the snide, dismissive, or snotty, with African nations taking a disproportionate brunt of the condescension.

Also: No one at NBC bothered to figure out the proper pronunciation of Lesotho? Good fucking God, man. You're getting paid well.

Finally: I realize we tend to be American-centered, but t is at leaast arguable, and probably wrong, to assert that Yao Ming is China's most popular athlete. that probably falls on the shoulders -- with significant accompanying pressure -- of Liu Xiang, the defending gold medalist in the 110 hurdles. Yes, Yao carried the flag, but that hardly is probitive of anything.

End of rant.


Anonymous said...

yes, the stories are good, but i am always watching for the medal count, for though we all unite togeher, we all secretly, more than secretly, want to surpass each other. Britain has finished 10th, twice, i hope to surpass that this year.
when watching the flag bearers come out, i was actually impressed by the BBCsknowledge of each and every country, and toldme some thingseven i did not know, though most of it was on the african nations, and africa is one of myworsesujects. However, theydid forget to mention Kenya, but they redimed that today.
ps, what times are the majority of events on in your time zone. Most events are on at 3AM over here. however, i dont mind, i never sleep 'till much later.

Anonymous said...

The Olympic opening last night was amazing. Now speaking as a woman, I had to wink my eye at the Olympic team from the Netherlands, whew...can we say, "sharp". The United States looked great as well. One thing I noticed during the Koby Bryant and LeBron James interviews was that these young men seemed so keen on representing the United States. Now as a very young historian, I find the Olympic games amazing. Just think of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Most people forget that in 68' Peter Norman the Australian sprinter wore Human Rights buttons. We could even take it back to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The surge of protest from African Americans and Jewish Americans about the United States participation in these games. So, there is a lot to look at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

Ken said...

Of course, the choice of Yao Ming to carry China's flag could easily be said to be political in itself - though I don't know how the Chinese flag carrier is selected, I imagine part of the reason at least would be for the visibility it would give the team in the United States. And, of course, anyone who denies the US choice for flag carrier was political is jst wilfully ignoring the point.

That said... I think that sports are interesting precisely because people try to deny is political content, it means that the political attitudes people display in sporting contexts are much less overt, and thus often more telling.

Anonymous said...

gold and bronze for ritain in the 400m swimming final. not bad cosidering every other swimming even left us in second to last and last place. Unlucky to the American girl who cae second. she was wining for so long.