The Dragon And The Bird’s Nest: The Clash Of Sport And Politics At The Olympics

Just before 8:00pm on the 8th day of the 8th month of 2008, 2,008 drummers silently stood in neat, dark rows at the heart of China’s National ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium. As the countdown to the opening of the 29th Olympic Games began, counted simultaneously in western and Mandarin figures, the pounding roll of the drums began to rise. From less than a whisper the drums swelled to a deafening roar in an ancient rhythmic ritual designed to evoke the ancestral spirits of China.

The sea of drummers banging in unison heralded-in the padding footsteps of some invisible giant from across Beijing. Outlined in perfectly engineered and carefully mapped fireworks, these huge footsteps made their way through the city to the huge stadium. When they arrived, the Bird’s Nest erupted into a concert of dazzling pyrotechnics that burnt and fizzed and left, in white ash, the five rings, the mark of the Olympics, spread out on the centre of the stadium floor.

Mesmerising, romantic and perfectly executed, the opening ceremony was certainly a powerful spectacle. But beneath the pomp and the decadence stands China, its 5000 year history, the Communist regime, Tibet, Darfur, Taiwan, fossil fuels and air pollution. With the world turning up to marvel and then participate, what does this say about the way we view their foreign policy, human rights record and climate change agenda? Can the remainder of the International Community face China in the gymnasium and on the running track and not in the embassies and seats of government of the world?

Or is that simply missing the point? With the world turning to focus on China, scrutinising their every move and turning up to compete with them in a fair and dignified playing field, are we by design integrating the country with the rest of the International Community?

Of course this is not the first time the Olympics have attracted furious political debate. Most famously, the games held in 1936 in Berlin, was the seat of immense controversy. Held under the jurisdiction of the Nazi Party, many nations expressed stern reservations about the Third Reich’s inherent fascist and anti-semetic policies. Though black and Jewish athletes from other nations were offered all the social freedoms that whites could enjoy, German-Jewish athletes were banned from competing for their country.

These games were, of course, the games where the black American runner and long jump competitor Jesse Owens picked up four gold medals. Famously neglected by the German oligarchy, many fans and other athletes cheered and supported him. In fact, Owens forged a lifelong friendship with German athlete Luz Long, who helped coach Owens during the games in Berlin. The snubbing of Owens’ achievement by Hitler is certainly famous and utterly reprehensible, but it might be worth noting that, as an American athlete in Berlin, he was allowed to use the same bars, restaurants and public transport as everyone else. In the then racially segregated USA, this was not a luxury he was afforded at home.

The single-party socialist government that control China may not be amongst the most popular administrations in the world, but then neither is it the most deplorable.

The speedy and efficient response to the earthquake in Sichuan province has been described as being far more organised and intense than President Bush’s treatment of the hurricane in New Orleans. What’s more, though China is condemned for being inherently closed and secretive, the administration under Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao is arguably far freer, both economically and in terms of its interior media, than it has possibly ever been.

I suppose your attitude to participation in the Olympics in Beijing rests on whether or not you consider a boycott to be an effective avenue of protest. Refusing to compete in the games definitely sends a stern message to the host nation. However, by choosing to avoid the spectacle, you could be seen to be shutting yourself off from comment. Wouldn’t it be better to use the publicity of the games to express reservations with any present nations in a dignified and diplomatic fashion?

What’s more, at times of such international focus, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on our own nation’s behaviour: the Iraq War, rising knife crime, binge drinking, social neglect of the elderly and a thousand other civil problems that Britain is heir to. In that vain, perhaps the disgraceful treatment of ethnic minorities in Nazi Germany would have prompted the unravelling of the evils of racial segregation in America. In short, through the camaraderie and competition of sport we learn more about each other and, possibly more importantly, we learn more about ourselves.

Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here Mamma Mia! and Show and Stay.

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