In The News

In China: Olympic Expectations and Anxieties

July 30, 2008

In Chinese folk culture, “8″ is the luckiest and most auspicious of all numbers. So it’s no accident that the Beijing opening ceremonies for the 29th Olympiad will kick off at exactly 8 PM on the 8th day of the 8th month of the year 2008. The five mascots for the Beijing Olympics are cute and kitschy, as all previous Olympic mascots have been. But the Beijing mascots also are suffused with Chinese symbolism, with four animals (panda, swallow, fish, Tibetan Antelope) and the flame representing the five traditional Chinese “elements” — sea, forest, earth, sky and fire — and having names that can be combined to express fellowship in Mandarin. While the program for the opening ceremonies remains a closely guarded secret, there are rumors that the dragon and the phoenix will be making appearances. Both of these mythical creatures are associated with a resurgent and ascending China.

The references to Chinese folk traditions suggest Beijing is leaving no stone unturned in its effort to host a successful and incident-free Olympics. The physical infrastructure of Beijing has been dramatically and impressively overhauled for the up-coming games, with a stunning set of new athletic facilities. New public transportation systems have been inaugurated and even new model taxis are roaming the city’s streets. Traffic restrictions in the city and curtailing industrial production in surrounding areas will be strictly enforced during the Games in an effort to improve air quality. Beijing Olympic organizers have also gone to great lengths to project a hospitable environment for athletes and spectators, instructing residents on how to behave with and help foreign visitors. For the first time, Beijing has designated protest zones for international and Chinese demonstrators. These are allocated spaces where authorized demonstrations can be held, similar to designated public spaces other host cities have provided for various major international events. At the same time, Chinese authorities have put in place rigid security and public safety control measures, and significantly tightened up procedures for visa applications and for entry into China during the Olympics.

The mood now throughout China ” in Beijing and beyond — is edgy and expectant. The country is excited. A number of Olympic events will take place outside Beijing: sailing in Qingdao, hundreds of miles to the northeast of the capital city; equestrian events in Hong Kong, over a thousand miles to the south, and other preliminary sporting events in Shanghai, Shenyang and elsewhere. Expectations of what the Games will accomplish are enormous. Over the past 112 years, only two of the 24 previous Olympics have been hosted by Asian countries: Japan in 1964 and Korea in 1988. In both cases, the games served to underscore the emergence of those countries, especially Japan, as major actors on the global stage. China wants “and anticipates – nothing less. In fact, by its efficient and state-of-the-art management of the Olympic Games, Beijing hopes and expects to make even greater gains in terms of international respect. China believes these Games can and should substantially enhance its global image, help it gain the recognition it believes it has earned as a global power, and offer a humane and friendly face to the rest of the world.

The Chinese public, meanwhile, has extremely high hopes that their country’s athletes will win more medals ” and specifically more gold medals ” than ever before, and more than any other country. This is remarkably ambitious, since the People’s Republic of China only began competing in the modern Olympics with the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Within the exception of a token, and medal-less, appearance at the 1952 Helsinki Games, China did not participate in any summer Olympics from 1948 to 1984 because of its dispute with the International Olympic Committee regarding Taiwan’s participation and status at the Olympics. This dispute was resolved with the agreement to have Taiwan compete at the 1984 Games as “Chinese Taipei”, a name it has been using in the Olympics ever since.

In Los Angeles, China placed fourth in the gold medal standings, with 16. However, the USSR, a perennial Olympic powerhouse, boycotted those Games, thus skewing the medal tallies. At the Seoul 1988 Games, with the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies participating, China fell to 11th place in gold medal standings with just 5 golds. Since then, it has been rising as a major Olympic competitor:

  • Barcelona in 1992: 4th place with 16 gold medals;
  • Atlanta in 1996: 4th place with 16 gold medals;
  • Sydney in 2000: 3rd place with 28 gold medals;
  • Athens in 2004: 2nd place with 32 gold medals

By way of comparison, the U.S. has been the top gold medal earner in each of the last four Olympics since 1992 (45, 44, 30 and 35 golds, respectively). However, China has invested heavily over the last four years in the training and preparation of its 2008 Olympics athletes, and will be fielding the largest team of any of the participating nations, all intent upon capturing the most gold medals. A great deal of national pride is riding on the performance of those Chinese athletes. Recent surveys and interviews reveal that the Chinese public expects, even assumes, its athletes to win more gold medals than any other country.

With so much at stake it’s not surprising that there is palpable anxiety. In their efforts to exert control and prevent mishaps and incidents, the authorities may be erring on the side of caution. This could limit the gains for China’s global image. The organizers have even prohibited the display of banners and large groups of Chinese spectators wearing t-shirts that bear the slogan “Go, China”.

In its newfound pride and self-confidence, the Chinese public may be too easily dismayed and possibly even embittered if their team does not top the medals list. Disgruntled Chinese sport fans in recent years have been known to take out their frustrations through unseemly actions. This is something the Beijing organizers intend to avoid at all costs.

The Beijing Olympic organizers are aware the world’s attention is focusing on Beijing and China on the eve of the Olympics. Of course, the Games will be front-page news around the world. This Olympic news coverage gets even higher profile because it is only the third time in Olympic history that the host country’s government is, itself, a subject of international debate (Berlin in 1936 and Moscow in 1980 are the other two).

The country’s epic history and rich culture, its explosive emergence as an engine of global economic growth, its international opening-up and domestic reform, while remaining under Communist Party rule, have aroused the world’s curiosity ” what is really happening in China and what are China’s real global ambitions? Journalists from around the world will bombard their audiences with suggested answers to these questions, along with an ocean of human-interest feature stories during the Olympic Games.

The potential for escalating tensions and differences between the Chinese organizers and the international media are quite real. But these are the Olympic Games. Perhaps the best advice to be given to host, visitor and observer alike is to relax and enjoy them.

Allen Choate is the Vice President for Partners in Asia Development at The Asia Foundation. He is based in Hong Kong and can be reached at achoate@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Allen Choate

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