Monday, April 07, 2008

Sacred flame, sacred fire

“How many London tour guides, one wonders, will be speaking Mandarin in 2012?”
Jonathan Clements, Beijing – The Biography of a City, pp. 146-7.

Thus speaks my friend Jonathan of the extraordinary transformation being wrought on Beijing in the lead-up to this summer’s Olympic Games. He’s a witty, energetic guide on what’s a break-neck walking guide through merely several millennia. And since this guide at least speaks Mandarin, we’re privy to all kinds of additional insights about what the locals are saying.

It’s not just the massive programme of learning English that concerns Jonathan; he addresses the contraversial building programme that’s demolishing people’s homes in favour of Olympic hotels and facilities. He connects this to how the country has always demolished its past – the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the ebb and flow of different kingdoms and dynasties, built on each other’s ruins. There’s a particularly good story about the fall of the last emperor, and his family’s name being mothballed… But you’ll have to read the book.

It’s an often bloody story, full of tyrants, their spectacular and costly follies and of failed assassins. But Jonathan – as you’d know if you’d employed him – constantly makes bright connections between the most disparate elements. The brutal grand narrative is peppered with wry observance and top fact. Mulan, for example, was actually a Mongol and went home to her parents by camel.

It’s a fascinating if brisk journey, from the cave in which were discovered the teeth of Peking Man to the aftermath of the student protest in Tiananmen Square. And key to that protest was the students’ understanding of compelling, iconographic imagery – their makeshift Goddess of Liberty being dismantled by police; one man and his shopping bag against a tank. Images that lit up the whole world.

And of course today and yesterday Beijing has again been the subject of potent and embarrassing images. The Olympic flame surrounded by concentric rings of burly security in London, and snuffed out in Paris today.
“One wonders who in the Chinese politburo had the clever idea of sending police into Tibet heavy handedly in the first place, because without that most assuredly the protests would have been much smaller. And whoever remembers now that Steven Spielberg resigned from the Beijing Olympics not because of Tibet but because of Darfur.”
Jon Snow, Snowmail, 7 April 2008.

Jonathan says the Chinese hoped to pour luck on the Beijing Games by beginning them at 8 minutes past 8 on the 8th day of the 8th month – 8 being thought a lucky number. And yet, given there are subjects they really don’t want addressed (Tibet, Darfur, HIV, human rights, a free media…), they’ve rather shot themselves in the foot with even their own logo.

“The city has not one but five mascots … a menagerie of Chinese creatures, conceived as ‘collectable’ for all those capitalist visitors whose children should pester them to bring back not one cuddly toy, or action figure,or key chain, but five. … Foreign visitors can collect the entire set as if they are Pokémon or some other consumerist craze, form the ubiquitous panda and the predicatble fish (for water sports) to a politically sensitive Tibetan antelope.”
Clements, pp. 145-6

The protests don’t merely raise attention to Tibet; they mock the heftily corporate image of the Olympics themselves. As well as gazing in amazement as Konnie Huq got mauled on telly last night, the Dr berated the footage of the Athenian ceremony where the Olympic flame first got lit. No, the ancient Athenians wouldn’t have employed any gracefully moving, toga’d women. The birthplace of democracy didn’t include women in the vote until as late as 1952. If you want to be authentic, the Dr explained in all sobriety, you’d want lots of naked, oilly boys.

And yet I think the Olympic Games can serve an important purpose. The 1936 Olympic Games were famously held in Berlin by the relatively new Nazi regime. Goebbels introduced such fun things as the logo of overlapping rings and the chase with the Olympic flame. And there were many protests and demonstrations against what these co-opted Games might stand for.

Yet two things. First, the Nazis had to applaud Jesse Owens winning his gold medals – proving very publically the falseness of their ideas about racial superiority. And also, for fear of offending foreign visitors, the persecution of Jewish people and industry was damped down while the Games were going on. I don’t think even the Nazis knew to what terrible extremes their racial policies would lead over the next decade. And yet even at this relatively early stage, they knew that what they were doing was wrong.

That’s certainly not to say that there shouldn’t be protests; rather that that protests can have very real effects. Sport can expose the contradictions of politics, because it’s at heart about fair play and equal chances. The playing field is a great leveller. The Olympic Games holds that principle sacred, which is why – I would argue – its such a powerful stick with which to beat a host nation.

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