It seemed like a good idea at the time. President Bush’s decision, that is, to score a historical footnote and be the first sitting US president to attend an overseas Olympic Games, in this case the August Games in Beijing. Like many of Bush’s “good ideas,” however, this one is another big mistake.
It is hard to imagine a more politicized pageant than the Olympics.
The vile Nazi theatrics of the 1936 Berlin Games are now the stuff of history books.
Closer to the world’s collective memory are the 1968 Mexico City Games, which began with that nation’s government forcefully dispersing thousands of protesters, shooting down and killing perhaps 300 (the estimates vary) in the process.
Four years later, Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes in Munich.
In 1980 the US boycotted the Moscow Games in protest of the Soviets’ 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. In 1984 the Soviets and 13 Eastern Bloc nations and allies returned the favor, shunning the Los Angeles Games, at which even saber-rattling President Ronald Reagan kept a low profile to keep international tensions within acceptable bounds.
And in 1996 — one year after America-born terrorists bombed the Oklahoma City federal court house — a bomb killed one person and wounded others in Atlanta, sparking what, by post-9/11 standards, now seems like a “manageable” panic.
In every instance, the Games went on. Dead bodies were and are beside the point. Political repression, international terror, and geopolitics do not register with the curiously obtuse, corporately fueled ethic of industrialized sport that is the Olympics.
If the grand masters of the Olympics were truly interested in depoliticizing the Games, why not settle on a permanent home in more neutral settings, say, Switzerland or Sweden for the winter sports and Greece, the Games’ historic home, for summer sports?
The answer is simple: cash. Ever-changing locations allow the Olympics a steady stream of funding from would-be hosts who trip over themselves to pay to hold the Games. The cost to China this year has been estimated at $20 billion and counting.
There is also, of course, television. Static sites might be less politically charged, but rotating host cities provide the sort of backdrops that the television industry needs to justify its huge investment in broadcast rights. NBC paid a combined $1.5 billion for the 2006 Winter Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Games, and will be charging as much as $750,000 for a 30-second spot to recoup.
And finally there are corporate sponsorships from the likes of McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, and General Electric (NBC’s corporate parent). Total corporate support for the Beijing Games is tough to pin down, but thought to be clearly in the hundreds of millions.
Where does outrage for the Chinese-funded genocide in Islamic Sudan figure in all of this? Or concern for the plight of Tibet? Or any sense of solidarity with democracy activists in China, fighting for freedom of religion and political expression there?
For President Bush it just does not register. If ever there was a leader in tune with the cold-blooded corporate ethic of the Olympics, it is Bush. Hey, after all, it is one heck of a spectacle.