Pesky reporters, smog raise ire of Chinese
Mother Nature was always going to be a problem, because there are some things even the rulers of China can’t control. Without some timely rain and wind, Beijing’s Olympics will be viewed through a brownish soup of polluted air even though organizers did everything but mount giant fans outside the city to rid it of the haze.
Pesky reporters were supposed to be another matter. The Chinese have a long history of doing whatever they have to do to make sure the wrong message doesn’t get out. And that wasn’t going to change for three weeks of fun and games, no matter how many promises were made otherwise.
The International Olympic Committee must have known that, even as it repeated Chinese assurances that reporters would have unfettered access to the games and everything surrounding them. Totalitarian regimes don’t suddenly open themselves up for inspection just because the world is watching, especially if they’re already under fire for issues ranging from religious persecution to human rights violations.
The first of some 10,000 or so media types now arriving in Beijing discovered that without even venturing out to find an underground cell of Tibetan separatists or Falun Gong members. With just a few clicks of the mouse in the main press center they found the Chinese had blocked access to Internet sites they view harmful to their self interest.
Journalists wanting to research who won the 100-meter race in the 1952 Olympics or which Chinese table tennis player has the chance for most medals won’t have any problem. But finding out what Mia Farrow and the Dream for Darfur people are doing during the games or what the Dalai Lama is up to will be a lot more difficult.
Concerned athletes will have problems, too. Students for a Free Tibet bought a full-page ad in the New York Times this week asking them to go to a Web site to find different ways to show their support during the games, but they better take notes because that site won’t be available in Beijing.
That’s the whole point, of course. The Chinese and the IOC want the focus of the upcoming media blitz to be squarely on what happens in the pool, on the track or in the ring. China didn’t invest untold billions in its coming out party to be overshadowed by human rights complaints, and the IOC didn’t award the games to Beijing with the idea that commercial messages from its many sponsors would be compromised.
In a perfect world they wouldn’t. The athletes who have worked so hard to get on a world stage most will occupy only once in their lives deserve the spotlight. And they’ll get it for the most part.
But this isn’t a perfect world. It’s a complex place where politics and sports are intertwined and can’t always be separated, no matter how much those holding power try to keep them apart.
The Chinese will try awfully hard to do just that, judging from what we’ve seen so far. Blocking the Internet is just the beginning for an Olympics that will be tightly controlled from the opening fireworks to the day everyone packs up and leaves town.
Broadcasters already are chafing under restrictions imposed for broadcasting from Tiananmen Square, the iconic scene of the uprising nearly two decades ago that riveted the world’s attention on China’s authoritarian government. And the Chinese have put together an army of 110,000 police, riot squads and special forces to take care of any nastiness the 300,000 Olympic volunteers and neighborhood watch members don’t squelch themselves.
Still, there’s undoubtedly going to come a time during these games when even the most heavy-handed measures won’t be enough. Various activist groups have promised surprises for months now, and one of them surely will slip through the cracks and deliver a message to the world that won’t be flattering to the hosts.
The media will be there to report on it, because that’s what we do. It’s our job not only to take you in the mind of the world’s fastest swimmers and best gymnasts, but also to bring you the reasoning behind those who want to use the Olympics to present their point of view.
Unfortunately, the Chinese don’t seem to understand we take no great thrill of reporting things that might embarrass them and take away from the spectacle of what should be the most grandiose Olympics ever. Most who cover sports surely would rather concentrate on things they know best, but a story is a story no matter how much the Chinese try to pretend it’s not.
In the end, the Chinese will find the outside media has more in common with Mother Nature than they think.
Neither can be controlled very easily.