The crooks, whores and liars who run the Olympic Games have a weakness for symbolism almost as powerful as their taste for cash.
They love their flag-raising ceremonies and their five-ring logos almost as much as they love bribery, and they go ape for big pots of fire. Most of all, they love the notion -- unsupported by any fact -- that the Olympics are an outpouring of global goodwill, that pole-vaulters from Kazakstan, archers from the Netherlands and boxers from the United States are predisposed to momentarily set aside their differences in the name of good, clean sport. Outgoing International Olympic Committee chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch, an old amigo of the late Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, was always spouting off about the "Olympic ideal" of nonpolitical, noncommercial, nondrugged, nonconfrontational athletic competition.
Wait 'til Chinese police start beating the crap out of people in hotel lobbies. And three or four Eastern European swim teams show up totally crazed by steroids. And the Nike swoosh starts materializing on the buttocks of the springboard divers. See how idealistic we feel then.
On Friday the Thirteenth, the overfed chieftains of the IOC, pockets stuffed with baksheesh, chose Beijing as the site of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Clearly, this reflected the new anti-American backlash prevalent in the so-called Olympic Movement. Just as clearly, the committee was paying off an old debt. When the first Chinese Olympic bid -- for the 2000 Games -- was rejected eight years ago in favor of Sydney, Australia, the mainland regime saw red and accused the usual American imperialist running dogs of sabotaging the effort for political ends. Now the IOC has given the People's Republic of China the prestige and the validation it has long craved. Beijing presented the strongest bid (Tant pis, Paris, and Cheerio, Toronto), the committee reported. By all accounts, Beijing also served up the biggest platter of roast duck. Little matter that President Jiang Zemin is the reigning gold medalist in dissident executions.
It's fruitless, of course, to look for logic, fairness or intelligence in any IOC decision. This is, after all, the body that awarded Germany the 1936 Summer Games and sat idly by as Hitler turned them into a showcase for Nazism. Three years later, the Führer's panzer divisions were running the 400-mile dash across Poland. This is the body that awarded Salt Lake City the 2002 Winter Games. Three months later, the city fathers were found to have plied committee delegates with a million bucks' worth of Dom Pérignon, brothel vouchers and college scholarships. This is the body that cloaks the Olympics in a mist of nonpartisan brotherhood, then endorses the crudest, loudest displays of nationalistic flag-waving and slogan-chanting this side of May Day in Moscow. This is the body that refuses to see the economic damage done by delaying Olympic TV broadcasts in the West (a 2008 inevitability), much less acknowledge appalling human-rights abuses in China.
By the way: Anyone notice what the Chinese did just three days after landing the games? They signed a "friendship" treaty with ex-KGB ideologue Vladimir Putin that, among other things, aligns the new Russia firmly behind China's specious territorial claim to Taiwan and rebukes NATO's efforts to stop the murder of civilians in war-torn regions like the Balkans. This is the first Sino-Russian pact since Mao and Stalin snuggled up during the Cold War, and the timing vis-a-vis the Olympic-bid triumph couldn't be more exquisite. Hey, 1.3 billion Chinese can't be wrong, especially when they're all rattling sabers.
The IOC's most urgent concern before anointing Beijing was the cloud of noxious yellow smog that envelops the city, making it the most polluted capital in the world. It didn't matter that Amnesty International reported "an execution frenzy" in which more than 1,800 Chinese prisoners have been put to death in just the last three months. It didn't matter that Jiang has ruthlessly persecuted members of the Fulan Gong religious sect, and it didn't matter that Beijing police roughed up an Agence France-Presse photographer who was taking pictures of a ticket scalper at an opera concert meant to promote the city's Olympic bid. At its recent Moscow meetings, the IOC ignored Tibetan protesters who waved "Olympic" flags in which the five rings had been replaced by blackened bullet holes. The committee didn't even protest very loudly when the Chinese government blithely proposed to stage Olympic volleyball in, of all places, Tiananmen Square, site of 1989's blood-soaked student protests.
As is their habit, the IOC's princes instead fell under the spell of symbolism and the efforts of the slick western PR agencies that China hired to sell its bid. When the regime promised a $20-billion environmental cleanup, the IOC dumbly nodded. When, in a masterpiece of socialist jargon, Beijing promised a massive "toilet revolution" in a city woefully short of the social amenities, the IOC followed orders and pulled down its pants. When the government claimed that the Olympics will open up China's oppressive system to global scrutiny, the IOC quickly agreed and hustled back to the banquet table.
In fact, the pro-Beijing argument holds that China will be in the spotlight for the next seven years and beyond, and that will force the world's most populous country to heed its reformers, clean up its act and join the family of civilized nations politically and economically. Well, maybe. But a shark doesn't immediately turn into a goldfish just because you shine a little light on the water. Closed societies always lie to themselves first, then to the outside world. That goes for Russia's new ally, China, and it goes for the corrupt knaves at the International Olympic Committee.
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So -- while the rest of the world waits for the People's Republic to utterly transform itself, nonpolitical, noncommercial, nondrugged Olympic glee awaits us next year in nearby Salt Lake City. Organizers there put everything short of the Book of Mormon on the auction block in their successful effort to capture the 2002 winter festivities, and fallout from the bribery scandal continues to hover over Utah. In the aftermath, the IOC purged ten delegates, but sponsor investment slowed to a trickle, nonetheless. Without the Mormon Church's huge investment, the Games might not have come off at all. Sales of $50 commemorative bricks in Salt Lake's Olympic Legacy Plaza have raised less than $500,000 (a similiar effort in Atlanta netted $10 million), and national advertisers continue to back off. Even the IOC's beloved Olympic flame was in danger for awhile. Amid hundreds of cutbacks necessitated by the scandal, the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee tried to trim the budget for a huge gas cauldron, where the flame was to burn, from $2 million to a paltry $450,000. Told by designers they couldn't do the job done for that sum, the committee panicked until an anonymous donor came up with the difference.
Talk about Olympic symbolism: Imagine the Games without their Guiding Light.
Meanwhile, two disgraced members of the Salt Lake committee, David Johnson and Tom Welch, go on trial in federal court July 30, on charges of fraud, conspiracy and racketeering. Welch is particularly adamant in insisting he committed no crime: If convicted of a felony, he would be obliged to give up his treasured gun collection.
The fireworks in Salt Lake City probably mean very little to the IOC's new president, Dr. Jacques Rogge. A prime mover in last year's Olympic success in Sydney, this surgeon from Belgium is less intent on looking at past abuses than in remaining above reproach in the future. He vows to eliminate doping (akin to saying you'll mop up the Titanic's decks and sail on) and to reduce the Games' rampant commercialization (comparable to telling Coke to get out of the soda business). In any event, the IOC has probably chosen the wrong man. If the committee were true to its principles, it would have waited a few more months to replace the ancient Señor Samaranch, waited for that little problem in The Hague to clear up, then installed Slobodan Milosevic as the new Lord of the Rings. For once, Olympic symbolism would have made sense.