Bashir Mohammed Atarabulsi has a chip on his shoulder.
The Chinese government is hoping it will help bring the 2000 Olympic Games to Beijing over the vociferous objections of members of the U.S. Congress and international human rights organizations.
In 1984, Atarabulsi was the leader of the six-man Libyan national team sent to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It was a tiny squad of one weightlifter and five equestrians, but Atarabulsi was fiercely proud of it.
“My beautiful team,” he recalled wistfully during a brief interview recently in Beijing, which he was visiting in his capacity as Libya’s representative on the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Atarabulsi’s bitterness is against the United States: In 1984, U.S. officials barred two Libyan journalists from the country on the grounds that they were “known international terrorists.” In reaction, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Kadafi ordered the team withdrawn from competition, ruining Atarabulsi’s dreams of Olympic glory for the People’s Bureau of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, otherwise known as Libya.
But revenge comes to the patient. Atarabulsi is one of the 90 IOC members who will meet in Monte Carlo on Thursday to choose the site for the 2000 Summer Games. There are five candidate cities, including front-runners Beijing and Sydney, Australia.
Atarabulsi refused to discuss his vote. However, China is one of the few international allies that Libya, a pariah state, has left. Given his experience in Los Angeles, the Libyan is unlikely to go out of his way to please the U.S. Congress.
In the egalitarian world of Olympic politics, the preferences of IOC members from Luxembourg and Mongolia, Panama and Swaziland carry just as much weight as those of each of the seven great industrial powers. Libya’s vote counts the same as that of the United States.
This fact was not lost on Chinese officials last week when they hosted and feted Atarabulsi and his wife for six days, installing them in a $290-a-night suite at the gleaming China World Hotel and providing them with a Mercedes-Benz stretch limo with “Beijing 2000" license plates and motorcycle escort.
In the final days before the Olympic Committee decision, China has pulled out all the stops in its campaign to win the Games for Beijing.
It is sending a 200-person delegation to Monte Carlo to make the final presentation. Chinese national television will take itself to the principality, a bastion of capitalist tax evaders, to broadcast the vote results live to China’s 1.2 billion people.
For the Chinese leadership, the Olympic Games offer a way of regaining respect lost in the dark days when it suppressed the Tian An Men Square pro-democracy protests in 1989. As a result, they have mounted the kind of relentless, determined, multi-front campaign that few other, non-totalitarian states could expect to match.
Journalists in state newspapers have been instructed to hold back all negative stories until after the big date. Controversial trials have been postponed while hotels sponsor Olympic-theme ice-and-butter sculpture contests. IOC members are feted like heads of state. And unsightly street vendors in rags are swept up by special police units into panel trucks.
The annual Chinese National Games held here Sept. 6-15 were presented with all the hoopla and fanfare normally associated with the Olympics themselves. The many visiting IOC members were encouraged to imagine the national events as a preview of what could be in store on an even grander scale in 2000 if only Beijing were chosen.
Two Chinese female runners, Wang Junxia and Qu Yunxia--aided by what their coach described in a press conference as a special potion made from “caterpillar fungus” brewed in the remote mountain reaches of China--contributed to the production by shattering three world records in distance races. Wang, in particular, shocked the sports world by breaking the record for the 10,000 meters by an amazing 41.96 seconds.
Last Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Peng, villain of the Tian An Men crackdown, unveiled a new six-lane, $172-million highway linking Beijing to the Capital International Airport. The new road, he noted, would help speed the arrival of athletes and spectators for the Olympic Games.
As final proof of its desire to host the Games, the Beijing city administration even offered to build a monument inscribed with the names of the 90 IOC members on the Great Wall of China, the greatest symbol of China’s historic nationalism and isolationism.
Typical of the Communist regime, the effort to win the Games has been both menacing and obsequious--iron and silk--best characterized by the pervasive slogan emblazoned on countless billboards and banners in the city: “A More Open China Awaits 2000 Olympics.”
The motto carries an inherent double message that is well understood by intellectuals and reformers still recovering from the 1989 government crackdown.
If “a more open China” awaits the 2000 Olympic Games, what kind of China will it be if Beijing does not get the Games? Some see in the promise an implied threat.
For this reason, many Chinese intellectuals here oppose the efforts by Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and other members of Congress to block the Chinese Olympic bid. If China is awarded the Games, they reason, it could give the democratic reform movement the breathing room it needs to fully recover from the Tian An Men setback.
“The American congressmen and other groups that oppose Beijing’s hosting the 2000 Olympics have taken a very shortsighted view,” said a graduate student at Beijing University who is a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement. “The Olympics can help open China to the rest of the world and prevent the (Chinese Communist) party from committing obvious human rights abuses before the year 2000.”
The Games, commented a college liberal arts instructor, “can be used by reformers within the party to push for political liberalization. But if Beijing does not get the Olympics, conservatives can use the decision to further isolate China from the rest of the world.”
Ironically, the human rights issue gives Beijing an extra card--not available to rivals Sydney; Manchester, England; Berlin, and, at least to the same degree, Istanbul, Turkey. Diplomats from various embassies here report that IOC members from their countries have been promised that political prisoners will be released on their behalf if they pledge their support for Beijing’s candidacy.
“This gives the Olympic delegates the impression that they can accomplish two goals at the same time,” said one diplomat who hopes to see another city picked. “They can choose a site for the Games and free a prisoner or two in the process.”
Indeed, since spring, Chinese authorities have bolstered their bid by freeing a steady stream of political prisoners at intervals.
In what one cynical diplomat described as an attempt to woo votes from predominantly Roman Catholic southern Europe, South America and Central America, the Chinese government in recent months has “loosened up considerably on the underground Catholic minority.” According to John Kamm, an American businessman who serves as a conduit for the Beijing government in prisoner releases, 17 of 20 imprisoned underground Catholic priests, mainly in Shanghai, have been freed in recent months.
But Beijing authorities reserved the biggest announcement for Tuesday when they finally freed Democracy Wall hero Wei Jingsheng, only six months before the end of his 15-year term.
Wei, who challenged the authority of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in a widely disseminated essay published in 1978, has served most of his sentence at a labor reform camp in remote western Qinghai province. He was described by family members as too weak and too disturbed by his years in captivity to meet with the hordes of foreign reporters who camped on his family’s doorstep in Beijing.
His failure to appear in public spawned rumors that he was being kept under wraps until after the Olympics vote in Monte Carlo. However, his brother, Wei Xiaotao, said this was not the case. To the contrary, the brother told reporters, China’s most famous dissident and political prisoner hopes that Beijing’s bid for the Games will be successful.
There are limits, however, to China’s Olympic-inspired compassion for political prisoners. Still in jail but considered politically too dangerous to release before the Olympic decision are the intellectuals dubbed by government prosecutors as the “black hands” of the 1989 democratic reform movement, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao.
According to many who follow the Olympic site selection closely, the combined Chinese efforts have boosted Beijing’s candidacy, once considered doomed; its chances are now thought to be running at least even with Sydney’s.
A month ago, Chinese authorities, stung by an initial site selection report critical of the infrastructure and pollution problems in Beijing, had begun to talk about another candidacy for the 2004 Games. Recently, however, they have dropped such defeatist talk.
One thing is clear, however: If China does not get the 2000 Games, the Communist government’s wrath will be directed not at the IOC but at the United States, which China feels poisoned the atmosphere with congressional hearings exposing Chinese human rights abuses and a non-binding congressional resolution opposing the choice of Beijing.
One Chinese official even hinted--and was quickly contradicted by other officials--that China might consider boycotting the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta if it fails to land the 2000 Games.
The vote to select the site for the 2000 Games can involve as many as four rounds. In each round, the city receiving the fewest votes is dropped from consideration until one city emerges with more than half the votes. Atlanta, site of the 1996 Games, trailed Athens for three votes before finally edging out the Greek capital.
What American officials fear most is a worst-case scenario in which Beijing is edged out by one of the other cities by a two- or three-vote margin. In an already tense political climate, the Olympics issue could be yet another sore point in Sino-U.S. relations.
“No one can predict how the Chinese will react if they lose by a large margin,” one diplomatic source said. “But if they lose by three votes or so, some of them would probably use the occasion to blame the United States.”
Beijing bureau researchers Elisabeth Grinspoon and Kevin Platt contributed to this report.