David B.




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August 18, 2008

China’s Triumph of the Will, and America’s Olympic-Size Complicity


Let us all tip our hats to the great helmsmen behind the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, shall we? By all accounts, it’s been a glittering success, an unforgettable athletic bacchanalia beyond compare. From the mocked-up fireworks display above the gargantuan Bird’s Nest stadium through the faked children’s songs at the opening ceremonies to American Michael Phelps’s accumulation of a record eight gold medals, it has been the spectacle of spectacles, and certainly the games’ organizers, hosts and sponsors couldn’t be more pleased.


And why shouldn’t they be? The 2008 Olympics embodied everything the “Olympic Spirit” is supposed to be about. Nations set aside their squabbles for a week’s worth of sporting competition, turning attention away from petty matters like warfare, economic exploitation and environmental destruction and focusing instead upon the remarkable fact that even under the glare of global attention, Racer A from Country X can run the quarter-mile in four fewer milliseconds than Racer B from Country Y. What could be more worthy of hundreds of hours of broadcast television attention, or reams of breathless printed prose?


For Americans, the 2008 games could even be considered a rival in some senses to the storied 1936 Berlin contests. Who can forget how a young African-American upstart named Jesse Owens shamed Hitler’s revered Aryan runners, racking up four gold medals in a record-setting display of American pluck and determination? In the same fashion, we now have Time Magazine cover boy Michael Phelps, eight gold medals firmly in hand, to set the new hero-of-the-week standard. Surely his photo on a collectible Wheaties box can’t be far behind.


It’s been a magical week indeed: The drama, the pathos, the glittering triumphs and the graceful flameouts of the planet’s best athletes, broadcast live on seven continents and feverishly recounted in hundreds of languages thanks to billions of “official sponsor” advertising dollars, have succeeded in making wholesale murder completely disappear. China’s unflagging support of the Sudanese government, despite its ongoing genocide campaign in Darfur: Gone. China’s exploitation of the Zimbabwean people through its support of the Mugabe regime: Out of sight. China’s steadfast support of a murderous government in Myanmar: Invisible. China’s exploitation of its own people in millions of sweatshops and subsistence farms in the shadows of its glistening skyscrapers: Missing. And the unending, torturous rape of – what’s that little country called? Tibet? Hmm.


At the same instants in which George W. Bush was patting swimmers’ butts and distractedly tapping a little American flag on his knee during the opening ceremonies, at the same instants n which Michael Phelps was winning each of his precious gold medals, human beings were dying in Darfur, in Zimbabwe, in Myanmar and elsewhere at China’s behest and on China’s behalf. Unseen, unremarked and unmourned other than by their families and friends, they variously bled, starved, succumbed to torture or worked themselves to death while the world happily turned its attention towards pretty fireworks and shiny awards ceremonies.


In the truest spirit of the Olympics, this global act of complicity and denial was a genuine team effort: It took the efforts of thousands of Chinese bureaucrats, a bored and indifferent American president, scores of apathetic athletes, millions of spectacle-hungry television viewers and tens of billions of sponsorship dollars from the likes of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and Ford to pull off one of the biggest acts of collective denial since, oh . . . 1936.


1936: The year a talented and soulless young German filmmaker named Leni Reifenstahl made Olympiad, a masterful and moving glorification of the athletic triumphs of Nazism, plucky black Americans notwithstanding. 1936: The year hundreds of nations sent their athletic ambassadors to Berlin to glad-hand with Hitler in a show of global “good will.” 1936: The year the nations of the Earth decided to look past the host country’s faults, convince themselves that those nice clean-cut Germans weren’t such a bad lot after all, and settle in to the serious business of badminton and shot-put.


Of course, it ended rather badly: Despite Jesse Owens’ four gold medals, the Germans went on to set a few records of their own, measured in tens of millions of dead. Perhaps the Chinese government will manage to break this record by the time the Olympic funeral pyre snakes its way into London in 2012. Probably not. But if not, it won’t be our fault: Through the countless dollars, the silence of our president, the millions of viewers watching at home on their Chinese-made flat-screen TVs and the oh-so-sexy sight of Michael Phelps swimming toward his gold medals through rivers of blood, we’ve certainly done our damnedest to help.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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