I did my duty, as a sports writer and person who was simply curious. I got up early this morning, flipped on my TV, and sat back to see what the Chinese Olympic Committee had cooked up for an Opening Ceremony for the 2022 Winter Games.
Beijing is the first city to host a Winter and Summer Olympics, a remarkable feat, considering they really don’t get any snow.
My view of these Beijing Olympics is different than most, as I was one of 100,000 who was lucky enough to sit in the sweatbox of the Bird’s Nest (aka Beijing National Stadium) to see the Opening of the Summer Olympics on 8/08/2008 at 8:08 pm. (Eight is a good number in Chinese lore.) It was an intense experience, starting from walking through the precise lines of thousands of Chinese soldiers, military vehicles and even a tank to get into the Bird’s Nest. I stopped to peer into the smoked, bullet-proof glass of an armored personnel carrier...I KNOW, WHAT WAS I THINKING?!...only to be shocked by a hidden, young-looking soldier staring back with wide eyes.
I shrieked. He smirked. I moved on.
The 2008 ceremonies were about announcing China’s position as an elevated being, mixing communism with a veneer of promised human rights and a dash of big-C Capitalism. The International Olympic Committee laid out this heavy line of wishful thinking that giving the 2008 Games to Beijing would reward/encourage the Chinese to be better actors on the world stage.
Back then, our innocent international selves worried about what was happening in Tibet, preserving the democracy in Hong Kong, and the human rights violations happening to the people who had their homes and businesses seized and demolished to make the massive Olympic Green venue area. The Chinese even promised a protest zone, requiring citizens to be brave and get permitted.
Remember, “One World, One Dream’?
Peace through sports.
The last time I was in the Bird’s Nest, I saw people crying at the sight of national hero Yao Ming carrying the flag; North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela cheered like a boy band; and the U.S., United Kingdom and Japan booed like the baddest wrestling heels coming to the squared circle.
Gymnast Li Na, suspended by cables, ran around the top/side lip of the stadium as the final torchbearer. The place was ready to blow with screams and emotion. He lit the cauldron, and everything shook from the roar and the fireworks going off. The night turned bright, with soon the smell of gunpowder floating through the humid air. I could feel the compression from the booms inside my ribs.
Whoa. It was amazing, and I was pretty geeked to be there and write about it. I was still scared though, knowing I was in a very weird world where the military was right in my face.
Flash forward to this morning: I was snuggled on the couch, with a nice blanket, some tea and the OFFICIAL EDITOR CAT, Sophia, taking in the spectacle in 4K. It seemed subdued, admittedly colder in every way, Bird’s Nest Opening Ceremony 2.0.
I saw these Olympics laid bare. No more lies. Except the ones the IOC wants you to consume with loyalty. Higher, stronger and faster. Big aspirations.
Best of luck to the athletes. Always. They're the innocent ones.
But we’re all doing business with the great machine of China, and they’re no longer bothering to even give lip service to stopping human rights violations. Hong Kong’s democracy is in shambles. The Tibetans are isolated in their bid to be on their own. And the genocide of Uighur Muslims, happening right now at various concentration camps in China, is horrifying.
Want to add to the pile? The repression of free speech, tennis player Peng Shuai still likely in danger after revealing sexual assault accusations at a high party official, the dubious cooperation with global COVID-19 investigators, stealing of trademarks and IP, blah blah blah are all going down in China.
The IOC was again willingly fooled by China. They took the big pile of money and played the game of standing for nothing real - again. The U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia launched a diplomatic boycott of the Opening Ceremonies in protest of the Uighur situation, but really, are Boris Johnson, Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden missed? Nope.
Seeing the mostly-empty stadium made me a little sad, as it is impossible for regular people to access or witness these Olympics. There are huge barriers and fences to keep the COVID bubbles intact, meaning no contact with the outside world for the media, coaches and athletes.
My best moments occurred when I got outside of the Olympic areas and experienced Beijing. I made an effort every day, even only for a few minutes, to walk around and look. See the kids playing. Smile at doggies. Hear music coming out of the apartment windows. Have people point at my Detroit Tigers English D logo hat, and tell me “Eminem” with a smile. I would pop into stores just to look. One grocery store, only three blocks from the Main Press Centre, had an amazingly huge arrangement of seafood. (NOTE: DO NOT TRY TO TOURIST AND TAKE A PHOTO OF SAID SEAFOOD, BECAUSE SCARY SECURITY WILL BUM-RUSH. I RAN FOR MY LIFE OUT THE STORE. NOT GOING DOWN FOR SEAFOOD PEEPING,) The interactions I had, seafood aside, seeing people leading their lives, meant everything. I felt connected to the real, and took a break from the artificial.
2022 is what China wanted. Sealed off, closed off, do not speak of the bad things. Just pretend the Olympics are normal, and create a spectacle for TV.
I did not envy NBC’s super sports anchor Mike Tirico having to act like a diplomat, trying to convey all the very bad, no good things while being gee-whiz about the Opening Ceremony. We’re supposed to get into the greatest show, and love it all. Tirico had to tell a version of the truth, and he did, but ultimately, NBC doesn’t want us so bummed out that we turn off the TV. Hard to veneer things like Russian President Vladimir Putin sitting next to China’s uber-leader Xi Jinping in the VIP section of the stadium. As a friend, who is in Beijing working the Olympics, texted me, “It was like seeing two Dark Sith Lords hanging out.”
SPOILER ALERT IF YOU ARE WAITING FOR TONIGHT’S REPLAY ON NBC.
OK, you know the bullshit meter hit new heights when IOC President Thomas Bach said the following to help open the Games:
“There – there will be no discrimination for any reason whatsoever.
In our fragile world, where division, conflict and mistrust are on the rise, we show the world: yes, it is possible to be fierce rivals, while at the same time living peacefully and respectfully together.
This is the mission of the Olympic Games: bringing us together in peaceful competition. Always building bridges, never erecting walls. Uniting humankind in all our diversity.”
Oh really. Cool. Did you look outside and see that your stadium is walled off from the world by a big, bad fence? Or that the Chinese are tracking you through the Olympic app? Or that the country you are in is hurting people on the daily?
Peak hypocrisy came in the final moments, with the torch relay inside of the stadium. Two lines of Chinese citizens formed a human tunnel, with each dressed in ethnic wear to show off their “diversity”. And then, cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, said by the Chinese Olympic officials to have Uighur heritage, helped light the snowflake that became the real flame.
Just a bit too on the nose. Or probably, a bop to the global nose from the Chinese.
I don't perceive much excitement about these Games. They're not must-see TV. I sense people wish the athletes well, but don't want to make it appointment viewing. It's a nightmare scenario for NBC, as they want us watching and firing up second screens. But we're not craving the Olympics. It's too soon after Tokyo, which was delayed from 2020 to last summer because of COVID, and the bad vibes around Beijing are real.
Best we can do is not fall for the lasers and hyperbole.
Which is more than the IOC can manage on their best day.
Open Court publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays, bringing you sports, life, and the stuff we need to talk about with author and sports journalist Joanne C. Gerstner.
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