Friday, August 08, 2008


The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics arrived today toting enough moral ambiguity to fill a full season of "The Sopranos" with ethical dilemmas aplenty left over to service the needs of "Dexter" and "Mad Men" to boot.

OlympicHandcuffsBigHuman Rights abuses, Environmental Chaos, Censorship, Slave labor camps, Darfur, Tibet, Government corruption, Religious repression, Organ harvesting and Counterfeit goods, just to name a few...

Juxtaposing those repugnant realities, we have the Olympic movement's professed "celebration of the Human Spirit and the highest Ideals of Humanity" not to mention that basic TV viewer's desire to watch some of the best athletes on the planet do some really cool shit.

So what is the television audience to do -- boycott the games or set their values and sense of right and wrong aside for a couple of weeks, joining in the celebration of nationality and corporate excess?

Maybe there's another option -- watching the Olympics with your eyes fully open for a change. Yes, there will be a lot of spectacle, pageantry and physical prowess. Enjoy and be impressed by that. These are real people doing exceptional things.

But look past all that and think beyond the narrow "either or" parameters the media and pundits have defined for you.

Boycotting the 2008 Olympics is pointless because they're going ahead whether they offend your sensibilities or not. And getting grouchy about the whole thing will be taken as an insult by the Chinese people, the vast majority of whom have no more control over how their country is run than you do. Like any other nation chosen to host the Olympics, they are justifiably proud of having this moment in the sun and anxious to be appreciated, respected and embraced by the rest of us.

C'mon, give our Asian buddies a hug. God knows a lot of them are down a quart. And you might learn something about them in the process.

I'll never forget an opening night party I attended in honor of the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia's (aptly named) Surfer's Paradise. As the spectacle unfolded on television, I must've been asked a hundred times if some aspect of the ceremony was "too much", "over the top" or "embarrassing". At a similar closing night event, the hostess cornered me to apologize for a ceremony peopled with Rock Geezers like "Midnight Oil" and "Men At Work" . She insisted that most Aussies were far more sophisticated than that.

I couldn't have been more pleased. For the first time on my sojourn there, I got to see past their national trait of insistent independence and knew they were just like the rest of us.

If the world snubs China over the next two weeks or tries to embarrass her, it won't be seen by the average citizen as a wake up call to change what's going on in their country. It'll just prove that what their disreputable leaders have told them about us is true.

Likewise, there's no point berating the athletes for not protesting or for turning up to compete. They didn't get a vote about where the games were going to be held either.

Past Olympians have had to deal with competing at altitude or after making an arduous trek to the other side of the planet with a body clock completely out of balance. This year's crop will have to deal with intense security and air that's barely breathable.

If you want to take your anger out on somebody for what's happening, go after the real culprits; the IOC and their corporate enablers, so anxious for access to the Chinese market, that they set aside their principles (if they had any) and paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fees to get this shameful show on the road.

Muhtar Kent, President and CEO of Coca-Cola knows the Chinese government are funding the atrocities in Darfur and apparently doesn't care. Bubba and Skeeter, who live in the trailer parks ringing his corporate home in Atlanta, are having trouble finding work these days and they're not buying as many of his beverages. So he has to dig up new customers. Why should a few hundred thousand raped or butchered African farmers be allowed to interfere with that?

Likewise. Ralph Alvarez, President and COO of McDonald's has Happy Meals to unload. He didn't get where he is by not reading the newspapers. So he likely knows that the Chinese government regularly executes prisoners (China executes more people than the whole rest of the world combined) and often executes criminals (or political dissidents or the followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement) to order to provide transplant organs.

Perhaps Ralph sees that practise as an asset to his core business. Some of those organs might come in handy replacing the clogged arteries he's assisted his North American customers in acquiring.

Over at Canada's Manulife, CEO Dominic D'Alessandro may be salivating at the prospect of selling Life insurance in China. Although I'm sure he's cautioned his sales force to avoid Tibet, where life expectancy of the residents is less reliable. I also suspect his Flexcare options over there won't cover respiratory illnesses.

You can find a whole list of the companies hoping to profit from cozying up to the IOC and Chinese government here. And the Toronto Star's John Hoberman has a remarkably insightful expose of the truth behind the noble claims of the Olympic sponsors here.

But we must add to this list of morally suspect corporations, those who shelled out Billions to become "Official Broadcasters" of the Games in their home countries.

I know for a fact that all of the television executives who negotiated those deals watch their own nightly news reports religiously. It's part of their jobs. So from the moment the IOC announced that Beijing would host these games, they, more than anyone, knew they would be walking over corpses to deliver their programming. But that didn't stop them.

Perhaps the worst offender is our own CBC, less dependent on corporate profit than many of the others and formerly at the forefront of exposing Human Rights abuses.

But in the last year, the CBC has edited documentaries so as not to offend the Chinese Government. Sportscaster Ron MacLean (regularly bullied and cowed by Don Cherry, so I'm sure he wasn't a problem for the Chinese police) did a cheery series of vignettes leading up to the Games which included a walk across "historic" Tiananmen Square, all the while neglecting to mention the 1989 slaughter for which it is most widely known.

But then the CBC also kept its Olympic mouth shut in 1968 when Mexico City police and the Mexican army were machine gunning hundreds of protesters to death right outside their downtown hotel rooms.

It's been enlightening to see how swiftly CBC journalists have segued from passionately reporting on Tibet to gushing over how gosh darn chipper and helpful all those Olympic volunteers are.

Wake up Sluggo -- they have no choice!   

I hope George Stroumboulopoulos and Jian Ghomeshi will spare us any future thoughtful discourse about Tibet, Darfur or Human Rights. Their show budgets this season will be covered at the expense of a lot of broken bodies. Don't pretend you didn't know or aren't part of the problem, fellas.

And after all the carping about the lack of Internet access it's correspondents are getting, it'll be interesting to see just how free the National broadcasters are with their own coverage. I'm thinking some of them can see an upside to this censorship and limited access thing.

There has always been a dark side to the Olympic Games, from cities winning bids through bribes to corrupt judging and doping. But now we appear to have entered an era where corporate greed may make all that seem like amateur league stuff. How vile is a crooked boxing official or basketball referee in comparison with the corporate whitewash of genocide and brutality by companies from democratic countries?

If nothing else, the 2008 Olympics reflect the reality that the celebration of human ability places a distant second to the celebration of profit. Who cares if the venues were built by slaves or that the athletes can't breathe if it means sales spike on Samsung phones and Lenovo notebooks.

I'll be watching the Olympics, but likely not seeing that many new Olympic or World records in an atmosphere where Soccer players are reporting being "winded" after climbing a flight of stairs and our Olympic rowers are already bemoaning not getting pre-approval to use Asthma inhalers.

I'm hoping that the shots of smog blanketed Beijing will finally wake us up to the fact that the Kyoto Accord and Carbon taxes are a joke in the face of a nation 10,000 times the size of our own that's doing nothing. Hopefully, it will spur us to make real change that actually might make a difference to the planet.

I'll also be taking this Olympic lemon and making real lemonade instead of reaching for a Coke. I'll be removing my name from the list at my local Bell Mobility store to buy the almost available Samsung iPhone killer. And I'll be watching all those heartwarming commercials for Olympic sponsors knowing that no real heart was involved in their creation.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died last week, once wrote "Violence does not live alone...It is necessarily woven with falsehood. The role of the writer is to penetrate the guard by refusing to participate in the falsehood -- by telling the truth and only the truth, leaving violence helpless to persist in the world."

Those of us who call ourselves writers need to start living that way and encouraging those around us to do the same.


Clint Johnson said...

Sure, the politicians are going along to further their personal careers and the companies are jumping on to make a buck... but I can't see that it is anymore forgivable that the athletes are going along with it so that they can play games rather than get real jobs?

Juniper said...

Nicely written Jim.

After living in the country for almost a year, I hold China and the chinese people dear to my heart. I truly felt welcomed and made several great friends.

So while I'm watching with my eyes open, I also feel excited for my friends.... I'm sure they are all glued to the community t.v.