The following post is by Victor Cha, the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and associate professor of government in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming Beyond the Final Score.
This is my first blog entry on the Olympics. The thoughts here do not come out of the forthcoming book, Beyond the Final Score, but they are certainly informed by them. So here we are on day 6 of Olympic competitions, and thus far these Games have lived up to their billing. The opening ceremonies were almost unanimously praised as the most spectacular ever in Olympic history. Eighty-six heads of state were in attendance, unprecedented in the modern era of these Games. President Bush’s decision way back in September 2007 to attend, for better or worse, gave cover to all of the other leaders to attend. And so they sat there in the stultifying still humid stadium, jetlagged and perspiring through the four-hour plus ceremony. Why didn’t Sarkozy take off his jacket? The sweat was turning his powder blue shirt collar into a dark blue!
The Chinese need to hit four marks for these Games to work. First their athletes need to win a lot of medals. It will probably be between them and the U.S. for the gold medal and overall medal count totals. The pressure on the Chinese teams and athletes must be enormous. Second, they need to host the Games well in terms of logistics. The standard the Chinese aspire to surpass is that of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, which were widely regarded as one of the most well-hosted Games. Unfortunately, the standard the Chinese do not want to meet are those of Atlanta in 1996 which did not go down in history as one of the better Games. Third, the Chinese need clean air. And fourth, they need to marginalize the political protests as best as they can.
Suprisingly, the Chinese appear to be doing okay on all of these marks. But then again, it is only day 6, so there is still lots of time for things to go wrong. Personally I am surprised at how the spectacle of the opening ceremonies and the start of the events have drowned out much of the political activism and protest. There have already been enough medal ceremonies shown to the public where the athletes are so happy for their achievement that a display of political protest by an athlete now would probably elicit more criticism than empathy (imagine a silver or bronze medalist standing next to US swimmer Michael Phelps suddenly unfurling a protest banner on the medal stand – don’t think there would be much empathy). I am not surprised by how the environment has not been an issue through the first three days – this is because the expectations were set so low in the run-up to the Games that anything short of a pea-soup air day would have been considered a victory.
Some interesting notes:
NBC’s coverage has been noticeably apolitical. The network has come under criticism in the past by academics and China sympathizers for “biased” broadcasting. NBC did well to add a “substance” guy to complement Bob Costas and Matt Lauer during the opening ceremony commentary. Joshua Ramo offered a interesting diversions from the otherwise straight forward commentary by the other pair.
INDIA: Of all the delegations, did anyone notice how small the Indian delegation was? One of the biggest countries in the world, but such a tiny delegation. It was nice to see their rifleman Bindra win India’s first individual gold medal ever on Tuesday.
SOUTH KOREA: The South Korean swimmer Park Tae-hwan’s gold and silver medals are a pleasant surprise. Apparently he is Korean-born and trained unlike many of the Korean LPGA golfers who are Korean-born and American-trained. But you know what this means. Every parent in Korea is going to start their kids on swimming programs – so watch out Phelps!