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Olympic-Sized Headache

08/06/08 7:55AM By Olin Robison
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(HOST) For atheletes, the summer Olympics is an Olympic-sized opportunity, but for the Chinese government, commentator Olin Robison says it may be more like an Olympic-sized headache.

(ROBISON) The Olympics begin shortly in Beijing and most of us will be watching.  Back in 2001, when the International Olympics Committee (or the IOC) decided to award the 2008 Summer Games to China, the decision was hailed in China as an enormous achievement.  The official Chinese news agency called the decision "another milestone in China's rising international status as a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation."

Alas, it has, for the Chinese, turned to ashes despite the building of 19 new sporting venues at a cost of 40 billion dollars.  No less a magazine than Foreign Affairs has called what has happened since 2001 a "public relations nightmare."

The global trip planned for the Olympic torch has been repeatedly marred by protesters who have seen to it that the Olympic torch is and has been seen worldwide as The Chinese Torch.  This, in turn, has brought out a new kind of Chinese nationalism, as many ethnic Chinese have seen the protests as disrespect for their country.

My guess is that there are now those in the Chinese leadership who are wishing they had never gotten into this.  They have discovered the hard way that they simply cannot control behavior outside their own country and that appeals to other governments to stop the protests have gone unheeded.  It is a big lesson but one which comes too late for them.

The Olympics generally and the torch in particular have provided the vehicle for individuals around the globe to call to account in a highly public way Chinese behavior in Tibet, Sudan, and even in China.

I have no privileged information about all this, but my guess is that they did not see  the uncontrollable public relations part coming.

They - the Chinese leadership - have even taken to vilifying the Dalai Lama, calling him a wolf in sheep's clothing and all sorts of terrible names.  I have had opportunity to spend time with the Dalai Lama, and it is my opinion that this is sheer nonsense.  I also suspect that most people in the world who are paying attention will see this pretty much as I do.

Throughout history the Chinese have specialized in grand projects that can be achieved through strong top-down management (think The Great Wall).  The current leadership in Beijing simply thought they could do it again and the world would applaud.

Unfortunately for them, we now live in a world where almost everything is interconnected.  Big time sports is no longer just athletes competing.  The Chinese leadership thought they could use the Olmpics for political advantage, and it backfired on them.

The Chinese leadership has of course long known that image matters, but they made a mistake in thinking that staging the Olympics in Beijing could and would bring them a legitimacy that has otherwise eluded them.  Instead, it has shown them to be authoritarian and stubborn.  This, to say the least, is not what they intended.

Stay tuned everyone.  This isn't over yet.
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