Asia’s Olympics Debs

Posted January 4, 2008

Categories: Articles, Asia

Nearly 70 years after the Games began again in the modern era, the Olympics finally took place somewhere outside the West. It was 1964, and the host country was Japan. The Tokyo Olympics were an opportunity for Japan to erase the stain of history. It had been tapped to host the 1940 Olympics, but its invasion of China scotched that deal. The 1964 Olympics would solidify its new reputation as a peaceful country.

As importantly, Japan wanted to prove to the world that its economic miracle was built on more than just cheap exports. In 1964, the famous “bullet train” went into operation, establishing a new global standard for public transportation. Also in 1964, Japan joined the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club of the economic big boys. It would take only four more years for Japan to pass Germany and become the world’s No. 2 economy. The upset victory of the Japanese women’s volleyball team over the Soviet Union to capture Olympic gold that year symbolized the dynamism of this agile and resourceful nation.

By the time the Olympics returned to Asia in 1988, Japan was already a seasoned global economic power. The host of the 1988 Olympics, South Korea, was hoping that its “coming out” party would provide a similar economic boost. South Korea had followed Japan’s economic model but at a more feverish pitch. South Korea took only one-third the time of Japan to double its per-capita economic output, and it was proud of its ppali-ppali (hurry up) spirit. It was also in the middle of a profound political transformation. Political protests had peaked the year before, and the authoritarian government of Chun Doo-Hwan agreed to democratic elections in part to prevent controversy from spilling over into the Olympic year.

And now China is the third of Asia’s Olympic debutantes. Like Japan and South Korea, China has tried to use the Games to demonstrate that it has transcended the past and belongs among the most powerful economies of the world. The new stadiums, the bustling streets of Beijing, the greater outspokenness of the population: all of these indicate that China has left the Cultural Revolution, not to speak of the humiliating colonial era, far behind. And with continued, near-double-digit growth rates, China is well on the way to repeat South Korea’s trick of leaping from the developing world to the developed.

Like any coming-of-age event, the Olympics not only acknowledge transformation, they can be part of that transformation. As we wrap up our sports and foreign policy strategic focus, consider the story of Cathy Freeman, Australia’s first Aboriginal Olympian, who won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “Her Olympic success has perhaps helped to change the face of prejudice, almost a taboo subject in a modern Australia,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Grant Jarvie in Sports as a Resource for Hope. “Her Olympic reception following victory in the final of the 400-meter dash may be viewed in stark contrast to the day she traveled to a meet at age 13. Waiting outside Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, she was ordered to move on by a group of middle-aged white housewives, when the whole adjacent seating area lay vacant. As Cathy Freeman held the Olympic torch aloft during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games she did so in an allegedly different Australia from the one experienced by her parents.”

Of course, like any debutante ball, the Olympic Games are carefully orchestrated to ensure that nothing embarrasses the participants, the organizers, or the viewers. The Games are theater, and the director/dictator wants to sustain a particular illusion. It’s no surprise, then, that Beijing went to great lengths and expense to stage-manage the affair. It cracked down on dissent, increased the police on the street, and controlled the camera as much as possible so that international audiences saw the spectacle and not the messy reality backstage. In 2008, this meant a sharp increase in security. As FPIF contributor John Sugden points out in Watching the Games, the increase in security expenditures is part of a larger trend: “In Los Angeles in 1984, the average security cost was $11,627 per athlete, or $14 per ticket. Two decades later in Athens, where there were an estimated 10,500 participants, the average cost was $142,857 per athlete or $283 per ticket.”

The security and surveillance capabilities upgraded for the Olympics don’t magically disappear when all the athletes and crowds go home, and that is certainly a long-term concern for activists in China. But when The New York Times editorializes that “the final gold medal – for authoritarian image management – can already be safely awarded to China’s Communist Party leadership,” it misses the larger point that all governments engage in such image management. Did the United States bring journalists on tours of the poorest Los Angeles and Atlanta neighborhoods in 1984 and 1996? Did Japan highlight its appalling record on minority rights in 1964 or subsequent Winter Olympics?

Also outside the limelight are concerns of economic fairness. The Play Fair at the Olympics coalition, which first mobilized around the 2004 Athens Games, focuses attention on the terrible working conditions for those who produce sports equipment. Because of media campaigns and pressure on corporate giants like Nike, some new regulations are in place on wages and safety. But inevitably, down the chain of production, suppliers find ways to maintain the status quo. As the Maquila Solidarity Network points out in an FPIF policy report, Clearing the Hurdles, “when the Chinese government raised the minimum wage in Dongguan province in order to account for a skyrocketing inflation rate on basic goods like food, employers at many of the athletic footwear factories studied by Play Fair found ways to nullify the increase. Some employers raised production targets, thereby reducing or eliminating production bonuses, a significant portion of worker incomes. Others introduced new charges for food, lodging or other services. Some of the workers interviewed now receive less income than before the minimum wage increase.”

In the end, China has probably gotten what it wants out of the Olympics: some new buildings, a large haul of medals, the memorable performance of Michael Phelps, 100 world leaders at the opening ceremony, relatively clean air. There is renewed appreciation of its economic advances. In a Foreign Affairs essay timed to coincide with the Olympics, economist C. Fred Bergsten even made the astonishing proposal that the United States and China should preside over the global economy in a new institution: the G2.

To achieve these goals, Beijing suppressed protests and faced down boycotts. But like Tokyo and Seoul at Olympics past, Beijing also worked really, really hard. Those who rightfully criticize China’s human rights record need also to acknowledge the pride that went into this coming out party. A billion people thrilled at their country’s debut on the Olympic stage. That figure will continue to resonate long after the medal-counting is over.

Next Steps for Obama

After long deliberation, Barack Obama chose the vice presidential hopeful with the grayest hair. Delaware Senator Joseph Biden’s gray hair symbolizes experience, which Obama chose over social conservatism, regional vote-getting, and placating the Hillary diehards. The decision, however, is “a stunning betrayal of the anti-war constituency who made possible his hard-fought victory in the Democratic primaries and caucuses,” FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes laments in Biden, Iraq, and Obama’s Betrayal. “Biden, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the lead-up to the Iraq War during the latter half of 2002, was perhaps the single most important congressional backer of the Bush administration’s decision to invade that oil-rich country.”

FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen takes a close look at Obama’s Latin America policy and finds some reason to hope. “The most important reason to take change seriously is that the Obama campaign is bigger than the candidate,” she writes in Would There Be Change in Obama’s Americas Policy? “This is its saving grace. Through the media, the public has been taught to be skeptical of real change. The incipient movement to buck that socialization is the grandest achievement of the Obama campaign so far. Relations of mutual respect in the hemisphere don’t depend just on presidential elections; they depend on a reactivation of civil society in the Americas at a critical moment for the region.”

And in a TomDispatch article, I look back from 2016 in a reverse futurological exercise and conclude that Obama, after winning the White House, indeed did many good things: close Guantánamo, negotiate with adversaries, sign Kyoto. But it wasn’t enough to prevent a Goldilocks Apocalypse: “we seek out the comfortable middle at our own peril. Not too hot and not too cold, not too hard and not too soft, it’s a strategy guaranteed to lull anyone into a dangerous complacency.”

Iran and Iraq

The drumbeat for war with Iran can still be heard in Washington, but still unclear is whether it’s a little bit of background noise or the ominous soundtrack that signals bad things around the corner. Stephen Kinzer, for instance, sees the war in Georgia as possible prelude to an American attack. Meanwhile, FPIF contributors Dedrick Muhammad and Farrah Hassen attended the recent Christian United for Israel (CUFI) summit in Washington, DC and listened to the kind of demonization that so often precedes the initiation of hostilities. “What we found most disturbing about the summit is how this group of Jews and Christians, Democrats and Republicans, managed to get past their differences to unite against their Muslim enemy,” they write in Christians United for Israel and Attacking Iran. “We never heard any of the panelists explicitly say, ‘Muslims are evil.’ However, the same message was finessed with the excessive use of the trendier, post 9/11 term ‘Islamo-facists’ and its equivalents, ‘Islamo-radicals,’ ‘jihadists,’ and ‘death-worshippers.’”

But however loud the anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim rhetoric of CUFI, the pro-war crowd comes up against something of equal power: silence. As FPIF contributor William O. Beeman argues, without even indirect support from some key middle powers, the Bush administration will have a very tough time of attacking Iran either directly or through a proxy. “Israeli officials acknowledge that it would be difficult to launch such an attack without approval from Russia, China, and India, something that the United States would have to lobby those nations to achieve,” he writes in Big Three Block Iran Attack. “The chances at present are extremely slim that any of the three will acquiesce.”

Benjamin Tua goes further and finds some reason to be optimistic about the situation in the Middle East, from the Israel-Hamas ceasefire to the resolution of the Lebanon crisis. “These developments are occurring largely despite not because of U.S. efforts,” the FPIF contributor writes in On the Brink of Peace in the Middle East? “There has been a marked diminution of U.S. influence in the region as local actors continue to harbor considerable skepticism about U.S. motives. At the same time, European influence has increased, in particular France, whose Mediterranean Union initiative, launched in July, includes Israel and the Palestinians as well as Turkey and key Arab states. Ironically, as these events unfold, and despite disappointing U.S. policies, there is still room for America to engage more fully in shaping positive outcomes in the region.”

Shaping more positive outcomes should involve coming to terms with the recent past. The United States failed to punish any of the high-ranking military officers responsible for the Abu Ghraib abuses. According to FPIF contributor Aaron Glantz, it’s on the verge of doing the same with the crimes committed in Fallujah. “With Fallujah, however, there were no damning photographs broadcast on television screens across the country. There were no congressional hearings,” he writes in Fallujah Fall Guy. “So the Pentagon, and now the Justice Department, have focused exclusively on prosecuting low-ranking enlisted personnel.”

Speaking of fall guys, check out Devin West’s review of a new book on sports hero Pat Tillman and the family’s quest for the truth of what really happened in the events surrounding his death in Afghanistan.

Gone But Not Forgotten

President Pervez Musharraf resigned last week, but don’t expect big changes out of Pakistan. “Perhaps the one small consolation is that Musharraf’s resignation is the first time that formal, parliamentary proceedings have unseated a military head of state in Pakistan,” writes FPIF contributor Mustafa Qadri in Musharraf’s End: New Beginning? “He has been as bloodlessly removed as he was self-installed. The predominant fear in Washington is that Pakistan will lose its focus on the ‘war on terrorism’ now that it is controlled not by one man but by numerous, competing centers of power. But even at his height, Musharraf appeared unwilling or incapable of challenging the elements within Pakistan’s army that have been nurturing militancy.” (I must have had Pakistan on my mind when I was writing last week’s World Beat, for how else could I have written that Dhaka is the capital of Pakistan and not Bangladesh?)

Meanwhile, in Georgia, the United Nations has been forgotten but not gone. FPIF senior analyst Ian Williams recommends that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon get into the act. “Moon’s customary low profile does allow some possibilities for his ‘good offices,’” he writes in What to Do Now in Georgia. “Some form of UN mission could allow both sides to descend with dignity from the poles they have climbed. A good example would be the brokering role the UN played in ending the Iran-Iraq war. Such quiet diplomacy, in concert with UN monitors and peacekeepers, could produce a durable settlement without asking any of the parties to eat humble pie.”

Finally, in a follow-up to the famous fist-raising protest at the 1968 Olympic Games, I received an interesting letter about Australian Peter Norman, the third man on the medals platform with Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Sportswriter Dave Zirin’s moving tribute to Norman is a good way to round out our coverage of sports and foreign policy.

FPIF, August 26, 2008

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