Seven years ago, when Olympic organizers awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing, there were high hopes that the event would force China to open its society and foster greater respect for human rights. “This is a very important step in the evolution of China’s relationship with the world,” said former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, architect of another important step in that evolution in the 1970s.
Yet on the day of the announcement in July 2001, CBS News reported that government officials in Beijing had forbidden the network from transmitting video footage for a news story on the Falun Gong religious movement. That should have been taken as an omen.
Contrary to the fondest hopes of the likes of Kissinger and former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, China is not moving forward. If anything, Beijing’s paranoia about foreign and domestic threats to its power has only been heightened by the international spotlight cast by the Olympics. Human rights organization Amnesty International reports that the government has stepped up detentions of individuals who threaten the “harmony” of the Games, and despite assurances that foreign journalists would have free access to the Internet, Beijing is blocking websites that it finds politically troublesome. The Games have done next to nothing to discourage China from propping up a genocidal regime in Sudan, nor did they prevent the brutal repression of Tibetan protests this spring.
Meanwhile, the government’s assurances that it would clear up Beijing’s filthy skies in time for the Games now look like so much hot air. Conditions are so bad that current IOC chief Jacques Rogge has warned that outdoor endurance events may have to be postponed.
This isn’t the first time a totalitarian regime has hosted the Olympics, and it usually hasn’t turned out well. Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Games as a propaganda tool for the Third Reich. Soviet leaders wanted to do the same in 1980, though a U.S.-led boycott spoiled those plans and turned that summer’s event in Moscow into a farce. Of course, sometimes the Olympics can have a progressive effect -- many believe that the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul helped speed South Korea’s democracy movement. But it’s looking increasingly unlikely that China will follow that example.
Beijing wasn’t ready for the Olympics in 2001, when it was selected to host the Games, and days before the opening ceremonies, it still isn’t ready. That’s something the IOC should ponder the next time it’s tempted to try to spread freedom via freestyle.