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Partners In Grime

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By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

BEIJING

You only have to breathe the air to understand that these Olympics aren't about sport. They're about corporate profit, a propaganda stage for the Chinese government, and the moral collapse of the Olympic movement, but the very last thing they're about is excellence or the well-being of the athletes. The real interests, the real priorities, are in the air.

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A haze the color of dishwater hangs over the billion-dollar advertising billboards of profiteers such as General Electric and Visa. The miasma that forms over the vaunted futuristic Beijing skyline makes the industrial-aesthetic high-rises look like nuclear cooling towers. A smoke curtain lifts and falls, occasionally parting to reveal blue sky, as well as the workings of Chinese state power: Despite the fog, the China Daily said that it was "clear" Monday , and that the city is "green and beautiful." Very well then. It smells like roses.

Beijing has its splendors: ambrosial pear juice and duck skin in coarse sugar, ancient gnarled cypresses, bending willow trees, palaces with concealed courts, and sprawling districts in which nationalities blend into a worldly sauntering crowd. But the air is not one of those splendors. In fact, depending on which way the wind blows, it can seem as if the countryside is burning, or as if you are standing behind the tailpipe of a bus.

Athletes are threatening to skip the Opening Ceremonies because they're afraid the environment of the host city will sicken them or compromise their medal chances, and distance runner Haile Gebrselassie dropped out of the marathon because the fumes are too heavy for him to run that distance. The Chinese government has labored for years to clear the air in Beijing, with some success. But in the meantime the Games themselves have become polluted. No governing body truly interested in peak physical performance, in helping athletes to be swifter, higher or stronger, would have awarded the Games to a venue in which you can see the poisons in the air. According to Greenpeace's local director, Lo Sze Ping: "Beijing's air quality is not up to what the world is expecting from an Olympic host city. The sports teams have reason to be concerned."

So what is this Olympics really about? It's about 12 major corporations and their panting ambitions to tap into China's 1.3 billion consumers, the world's third-largest economy. Understand this: The International Olympic Committee is nothing more than a puppet for its corporate "partners," without whom there would be no Games. These major sponsors pay the IOC's bills for staging the Olympics to the tune of $7 billion per cycle. Without them, and their designs on the China market, Beijing probably would not have won the right to host the Summer Games.

Seven years ago, in controversially awarding the Games to the Chinese regime, the IOC assured us that a Beijing Games would be both beneficial and benevolent, and promote a more open society. Chinese officials, too, vowed that the Games would not only foster their economy but "enhance all social conditions, including education, health and human rights."

The clouded air is just the most observable sign of the many unfulfilled promises since then. If the society has opened somewhat, there has also been a specific crackdown on dissidents as a direct result of the Olympics. Thousands of people have been rounded up and jailed for expressing dissent -- right now a man named Hu Jia is in a prison just outside Beijing for "inciting subversion" because he testified via Webcam before the European Union that the Chinese government wasn't living up to its Olympic commitments. Hu is ill with hepatitis B and undergoing "reform" in Chaobai prison, while his family is under constant surveillance. The crackdown continued this week with the jailing of several farmers, and efforts to censor the Olympic media. Amnesty International estimates that half a million people are being held without charges here.

Anyone who believed the Chinese government would use the Olympics as an opportunity to become a human rights beacon and environmental model was either softheaded, or lying. Capitalism is not the same thing as democracy. China's interest then and now was the consolidation of state power via economics. The government is merely behaving as it always has.

But the bad air here has shown the IOC and its commercial sponsors in an especially ugly and damning light. They have been conspicuous cowards in dealing with Chinese officials, and maybe even outright collaborators, on every issue from human rights to the environment to censorship. The silence of IOC President Jacques Rogge in the face of the continuing dissident sweeps amounts to complicity. "In view of my responsibilities, I have lost some of my freedom of speech," he said last week. Rogge's idea of a solution to the thorny problems of these Games is to hope "the magic" will take over once they begin.

Most disgraceful of all is the fact that six of the 12 worldwide Olympic partners are American companies. This has to heart-sicken any patriot. These companies will reap the full exposure of the Summer Games, swathing themselves in the flag, and rationalizing that their business is helping uplift the Chinese people. Don't buy it -- or them. You should know exactly who they are: General Electric (which owns NBC), Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald's, Kodak, and Johnson & Johnson. (The others are Canadian-based Manulife Financial; Lenovo, the Chinese personal computer maker; the French information technology services company Atos Origin; the Swiss watch manufacturer Omega; Panasonic; and Samsung.) When these acquiesced to the Chinese government's crackdown, and effectively accepted the censorship of the press during these Games, they fell into a special category of profiteers that Franklin Delano Roosevelt described in his "Four Freedoms" speech.

"We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests," Roosevelt said.

It's plain that the Chinese people have worked mightily to create a beautiful Beijing Games, from the elegantly manicured gardens to the whisked-clean streets, and that they are a source of immense national pride. No one could wish to injure that pride, and every one wishes them a successful Games. But the Olympics are not solely about the host, they are about all the participating nations, and the common goal of "preservation of human dignity." The moment it became apparent that the Beijing Olympics was causing a crackdown, and that basic Olympic values were being constricted rather than expanded, these Olympic partners should have spoken out, and threatened to withdraw if abuses didn't halt. When they didn't, it cast a permanent pall over these Games. Like the air here, the Olympic movement is struggling for a clean breath.


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