Beckham on the Bus: Reporting the Beijing Olympics

All Olympic Games raise predictable questions of knowledge control, and generate fiery exchanges among journalists and cultural critics and commentators about access. Things are a far cry from the provision of a few telephone and telegraph lines at the local post office, which was all that Amsterdam needed to provide 60 years before Beijing’s Olympic summer. At Sydney 2000 around IOC-accredited media people were in town, and a further 5,000 or so media personnel were accredited by the host city. This scale of media presence was exceeded in Beijing, where the IOC accredited 21,600 media professionals: 5,600 of these were for the written and photographic press, writing the millions of words of unused or killed copy that the Olympics always spawns, as well as everyday copy on their own countrymen/women’s sporting and competitive highs and lows. But the Olympics are not merely about sport: host cities have their wider messages and Beijing’s use of the world media spotlight is part of a wider project to remake the image of China. The media challenge at the Beijing Games has been to operate not just in the Olympic cocoon, but to place the event in this wider context – one made still more complex by the issue of Tibet and the tragedy of the Chinese earthquake. IOC President Jacques Rogge had said consistently in the build-up to the Games that the Olympic Games could change China itself: a bold claim, reiterated in his later statement that ‘the proof is in the eating – these Games will change this country but also the perception of the world towards this country’. At the beginning of the Games journalists, and then Rogge himself, had successfully challenged Beijing’s control over media access (to websites such as Amnesty International) and it is true that normal Chinese restraints on communication and information were loosened for the duration of the event. But how long would this be for? As Rogge and his committees and sponsors left the city and the country, what substantial changes were really accomplished?

Such issues framed a fascinating event staged at the University of Westminster, London, England, at the end of May. The launch event of the London Asian Cultural Studies Network, The Race is On – Trailing the Beijing Olympics featured five talks from Asian Studies specialists homing in on the Olympic theme. Anthropologist Susan Brownell, in Beijing on a Fulbright scholarship, was both observing and participating in the educational side of the Olympic event. She had been working with intellectuals and professionals collaborating with Central China and Beijing City governments ‘to shape the next generation of Chinese people through “Olympic Education”’. Her main theme was the underlying hostility of the West to the Beijing project, which she presented as a collaboration of unprecedented proportions between not just the intellectuals and the politicians, but the international community and non-communist parties. Brownell described her position – adviser to the IOC education committee – as a cultural bridge between China and the outside world: in the USA, Brownell’s become the insider outsider for the event, particularly before the media pack arrived in Beijing. She noted how, given her unusual level of access (and anthropological expertise on China), journalists had been using her ‘in desperation’ as a stand-in for real Chinese people. Desperation indeed – picture this: one American anthropologist speaking for the largest human population on the planet. In a realistically positive, but far from idealist or naive way, Brownell conceded that ‘the Olympics alone will not change China for better or worse’, but could certainly ‘open up spaces’ for cultural and political exchange and understanding. Kevin Latham talked on the new media and identity, linking the Olympics to China’s strategy to achieve national ‘informatization’, and to amend or reshape Chinese national identities: how would mediated events of the Beijing Olympics feed into ‘the construction of new Chinese social, political, and cultural identities’? In some ways the answer’s quite clear. Coming out on top, widely praised for planning, organisation and administration, the Chinese people – whatever that means – would be told just how great the country is, its culture and civilization now better understood by the world, its national prestige more than intact. But Latham warned against an over-simplification here, noting that in China the portable television currently has more consequences than the internet, that the media world is a very fragmented one, making it difficult to judge general impacts. Latham and his research colleagues were in Beijing undertaking fieldwork to try and see just how this fragmented media world was making sense to Chinese people themselves. Mark Harrison looked at television-news reporting of the Beijing Olympics, detecting a ‘deep anxiety about China’ in media discourses focusing in recurrent ways upon the ‘rise of China’ and its consequences. Citing examples from Channel 4 News, BBC 24 and Sky News, Latham’s clips showed the Western media’s simultaneous trivialisation and almost demonisation of the Beijing project. Veteran China journalist John Gittings looked at the Tibet context, asking whether the issue could provide a lesson for foreign journalists and for the Chinese state and media on how to adequately tackle ‘similar “off-track” stories’. His main argument was that the coverage of the Tibetan situation lacked any ‘complete picture or analysis of why this was happening’. Gittings’s remarks were very sobering: the quick in-and-out of journalists at the time of and during a news event or cultural event is hardly a thorough preparation for grasping the detail underlying complex historical, political and cultural issues. The earthquake had effected a 180degree change in the state authorities’ approach to the world media, what Gittings called an ‘amazing change’ and an opportunity for media people and journalists to say ‘open the door’ still more. But would there be any sustained ‘openness’ when the Games (and the Paralympic Games) were over, after and beyond October 1st? The final presentation by Bingchun Meng, picked up the topical theme of the Olympic torch relay. In the ‘midst of the torch relay turmoil’ in April, a newspaper at the University of Maryland, USA, published a cartoon of the Beijing Olympic logo, re-presenting and transforming the design (representing human harmony and co-operation) as a bloodstain. Chinese students at the university were enraged by this, and the episode illuminated the complex cultural dynamics at the heart of Olympic iconography. Much of the discussion at the Westminster event centred on control and access, core themes in any analysis of the cultural and political significance, and potential, of the media. Such themes were also prominent in the book Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the new China (University Michigan Press, 2008, edited by Monroe E. Price and Daniel Dyan), published too in the run-up to the Games. As Price himself put it in his essay ‘”One World, Different Dreams”: The contest to define the Beijing Olympics’, the issue is ‘who has what degree of control over the narratives that define our lives’. Price talks of ‘the jurisprudence of platforms’ in relation to how representations of China have been constructed in the drama of the Beijing narratives: who constructs these, and has access to them; who controls and/or defends these constructions; what are the modes of ‘seeking access’? The Guardian’s Marina Hyde (Saturday August 16th) reminded us that only 40% of the tickets for the Games were available to the general public, so took a look at the state media provision on China Central State Television (acronym,in English, CCTV): unsurprisingly, pro-Tibet protesters abseiling down the side of CCTV’s head office didn’t make it onto the screen. Rather, the channel replayed Olympic ditties welcoming you to Beijing, and thousands of locals singing ‘Beijing I love you; and focused, as most national broadcasters do, on its own, on Chinese Olympians, but with little detail on the individual athlete’s story: ‘It is as if the only narrative that matters is that of China’s. Hence endless focus on the medal table’. Hyde’s observations provide on-site testimony to the perspicacity of Price’s agenda. The contributors to the Westminster event also pointed usefully to some beginnings towards answering these crucial questions.

In the week before the Games BBC radio correspondent Mihir Bose got more realistic than the idealists, noting that the change agent in this story could well be not the Olympics itself, but the host: China showing the USA’s national Olympic committee (NOC) and the established sponsors that their cosy partnerships might be questionable. Why, if Beijing staged such an acclaimed show, should the US NOC get a disproportionate share of Olympic revenues, circulating these monies back into the economy from which much of it came? The Beijing Olympics confirmed the (albeit limited) transnational power of bodies like the IOC to transcend normal regulations and procedures – Bose noted that his laminated Olympic card got him into China, without the elaborate visa bureaucracy that would normally be essential for entry. Sport events do this regularly: UEFA effects such deals regularly for the one-off occasions of Champions League finals. But a laminated card for a few weeks in a single year isn’t going to change history. As the Olympics dissembled the sport journalists left for other patches. The political stories had faded anyway, as Michael Phelps eclipsed Mark Spitz, Usain Bolt shattered Michael Johnson’s record, journalists from the UK lauded Team GB’s medal haul, and an unknown young woman from Mansfield, England, broke swimming’s longest-standing world record: Rebecca Adlington’s first response to her new superstar status was to hunger after a McDonald’s (the contract’s in the post Rebecca). This was a long way from Tibet and earthquakes: when the whistle goes, or the flame is lit, the attention switches to the stadium. Beijing and China won’t have been fundamentally changed by the glow of success; the country’s position atop the medals table simply confirms its body politic, national prestige and international ambitions. The IOC will go its predictable way to London 2012 and beyond, and after the wonders of the Water Cube and the thrills of the Bird’s Nest, the five-ring circus just moves on. Beckham on the bus began the journey away from Beijing: no doubt President Rogge was happy to hitch a ride on the double-decker, and chug towards a simpler set of questions and issues than the political agenda plaguing the 2008 Games.

© Alan Tomlinson August 21st/24th 2008

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