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He saw a chance to spin Olympic gold

Times Staff Writer

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Communists” could be the title of Jeff Ruffolo’s autobiography.

Perhaps the book could explain how it was that a Republican Mormon from Orange County became a public relations advisor on (some might say apologist for) the Chinese Communist Party’s handling of the Beijing Olympics.

At 51, Ruffolo is old enough to have spent his formative years steeped in anti-communism. He grew up in Woodland Hills in a family of John Birch Society conservatives, and by his own admission was none too fond of foreigners or minorities.

“I was a real bigot when it came to China. I had a lot of prejudices that I had to leave behind when I came to this place,” he said over lunch in the basement cafeteria of the media center next to the Olympic Green. “I had to learn that they have their way and their political philosophy. I respect that.”

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Today Ruffolo has only the highest praise for the Chinese, but then again, he is paid to say nice things. Ruffolo is the only foreigner handling media at the headquarters of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.

On his resume, he describes his job as “intimate advisor to senior Chinese leaders on the Olympic movement.” That might be something of an exaggeration given that he doesn’t speak Mandarin and doesn’t drink alcohol, the lubricant essential for wriggling one’s way into the inner sanctum in China.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say Ruffolo has had unusual entry into an organization dominated by party cadres. He stands, arms folded, at the back of most Chinese news conferences -- as unobtrusively as possible for a pasty guy who’s 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds.

“I’m the only American who rewrites speeches of Communist Party chieftains,” he boasted.

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The entire concept of media relations is different in China. News conferences usually consist of an official reading a report laden with statistics. (“This year we saw a 3.19% growth in the number of press conferences and a 3.78% increase in the number of attendants” is how the media department opened a welcoming meeting for journalists.) The journalists themselves are supposed to be part of the propaganda apparatus, reading scripted questions that elicit flattering answers.

The Chinese were not prepared for the confrontational style of the foreign media. For example, a journalist for Britain’s Channel 4 began a question about human rights at a news conference last week by saying, “Given that the Chinese government has lied through its teeth. . . . “

The Chinese were also unaccustomed to moving quickly with the media. When director Steven Spielberg quit in February as an artistic advisor on the Olympic opening ceremony, citing Sudan’s Darfur humanitarian crisis and China’s links to that country, the news broke over the Chinese New Year holiday.

“The Western media was clamoring for a comment. The people who could comment were out of town. Their instinct was that you had to get everybody together to analyze what had happened,” Ruffolo recalled.

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By the time the Beijing organizers had prepared their statement, two days had passed and nobody was interested.

“I think the Chinese learned a lot from experiences like Spielberg about how fast the news cycle is,” he said.

As a rule, Chinese officials don’t like to take advice from outsiders, which is why they release so many translated statements in an incomprehensible Chinglish.

Ruffolo’s first task was convincing the Chinese that they might actually need outside help in dealing with the 20,000 foreign journalists descending on Beijing for the Games.

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Ruffolo has been a sports fanatic since childhood but, lacking athletic talent, he became a sportswriter. He started as a student at Brigham Young University in Utah, covering high school sports for $8 per article for local papers.

But he eventually discovered that his real talent was in sales and marketing. He promoted sporting events, airlines, resorts, Republican congressional candidates and, most of all, himself. (Ruffolo has a PowerPoint presentation of his own career on his laptop.) He later moved to Hawaii and then to the city of Orange.

When Beijing won the right to hold the Olympics in 2001, he knew he was going.

“These were going to be the greatest Games in history. I had to be there,” Ruffolo said. “It’s true I’m a bit of a maniac. But if I weren’t, I would be sitting at home watching the Games on television.”

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Before the Olympics, Ruffolo had some contacts in China through PR work for China Southern Airlines. He had also worked at the three previous Summer Olympics as a play-by-play commentator on volleyball for Westwood One radio.

It took 12 interviews to get the job. The Olympic committee members were polite enough that they never slammed the door in his face, but they didn’t take him seriously either.

“They don’t throw you out in China. They say, ‘Got to go,’ ” Ruffolo recalled.

But he persisted, applying what he calls the “drip, drip, drip” method of constant phone calls and e-mails. Trying to convince the Chinese they shouldn’t discriminate against a foreigner, Ruffolo even paraphrased a famous quote of their late leader Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

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He was finally hired on a month’s probation, stuck in a hotel 90 minutes from the Olympic committee offices. The bosses tried to limit his work to what they call “polishing” the news releases, basically fixing up the Chinglish.

When Ruffolo suggested an elaborate opening ceremony in which NBA star Yao Ming would throw a burning basketball into the mouth of a dragon that would in turn spit fire to light the Olympic flame, he was told curtly that he didn’t understand Chinese culture. Chinese dragons are good, not evil -- only Western dragons spit fire.

Eventually, the Beijing organizers began to accept some of Ruffolo’s ideas.

“We lacked expertise in the foreign media,” said his immediate supervisor, Wu Kun, manager of the news desk at the Olympic media center. “And Jeff had such enthusiasm for the Olympics.”

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Ruffolo takes pains to say he is not an Olympic spokesman. Only Chinese nationals can speak for the Beijing organizing committee, and the International Olympic Committee has its own media staff that flew in from headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

But Ruffolo has quick retorts for any criticism that might be leveled against Beijing’s handling of the Games.

That the Chinese government promised to protect free speech during the event?

“The organizers would rather focus on the athleticism of the Olympiad than protests,” Ruffolo explained.

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That many websites, including Amnesty International and the BBC, were blocked at the main media center?

“The Chinese have been as open and tolerant to new ideas as they possibly could be,” he insisted.

Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, an old friend of Ruffolo’s, said: “Jeff is in a hard position. He voted for George W. Bush and now he’s in charge of spreading the Chinese Communist line to the West.”

Ruffolo says it’s his conservative political background and Mormon beliefs that have allowed him to adapt to working in China.

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“There are a lot of similarities between the Mormon Church and the society run by the Communist Party,” he said. “In China, like in the church, there is a hierarchy. There is no place for individuals or cowboys. I’m very comfortable with that.”

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barbara.demick@latimes.com


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