Force for Good
The Statesman[Friday, August 08, 2008 13:09]
The Spirit Of The Games And China’s Backward Progress

By Claude Arpi

Even before the Olympic Games have started, the People’s Republic of China has earned the top place on one podium, while the United States will have to be satisfied with the Silver. It is the Internet podium. The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) recently published its latest statistics: more than 253 million Chinese were online in June. During the same period, an estimated 223 million of Americans were net-surfing.

Though the Internet penetration in the US is 71 per cent compared to 19 per cent only in China, the growth is phenomenal in China, a staggering 56 per cent in one year. According to projections, 490 million Chinese will be on-line by 2012. More significantly, 95 per cent of the Chinese internauts have broadband connections. The online economy brought China $5.9 billion in revenue in 2007. But China is a land of contradictions. While the country topped the world in terms of users, it has one of the most abysmal records when it comes to freedom of expression. Further, all the promises given to the Olympic Committee in 2001 have been broken.

Rights violations

At the time that Beijing was awarded the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games, many human rights campaigners across the globe had expressed their surprise as Beijing had always been credited with dreadful human rights violations and heavy censorship of the press and Internet. In 2001, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Executive Director, François Carrard was quick to defend the choice of Beijing. He announced that the Games would be a ‘force for good.’

The IOC’s president, Jacques Rogge, confirmed: “We are convinced that the Olympic Games will improve human rights in China”. Today, seven years later, the ‘force for good’ has not brought any tangible progress and the Games’ Spirit seems to be fading by the day.

Last week, the French daily Le Monde editorialised on China’s backward progress. It affirmed: “A week before the opening of the Olympic Games which are perceived by the regime in Beijing as a grand rendezvous with history, one is forced to notice that the promises made have not been implemented. For months, arrests and condemnations of human rights supporters, activists and journalists have occurred at a frightening rhythm”.

Even for the Internet, the International Olympic Committee had to acknowledge that China has not allowed free access to thousands of journalists who will cover the Olympics and this, despite repeated promises that the foreign news media could ‘report freely’ during the Games. Last month only, Rogge had told Agence France-Presse: “For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet.”

But the facts are different: in the Olympic Village press center, reporters are unable to access hundreds of web pages. All sites related to the Tibetan issue, Taiwanese independence, the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square as well as the sites of Radio Free Asia and several of Hong Kong are forbidden.

A high-ranking Olympic committee official explained that China had to continue to censor these sites as they contain “propaganda harmful to national security and social stability of the People’s Republic”. Beijing confirmed that they “would not allow foreign journalists to visit websites that violated Chinese laws”. But this was not the rule of the Olympics when Beijing was awarded the hosting of the Games in July 2001.

The highest human ideals enunciated by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Games in 1896, have long been forgotten. Money has reigned supreme over the organisation of this world event.

As the Games are going to be declared opened, a question comes immediately to mind: “Where have all the lofty ideals gone?”

It is very unfortunate that the spirit which presided over the revival of the ancient Olympics Games seem to belong to a bygone era.

Wherever one looks, Coubertin’s words seem to have been forgotten. Take the Olympic Motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, which has recently taken an unexpected significance. Mr Qin Yizhi, the Communist Party boss in Lhasa declared: “Encouraged by the Olympic spirit of faster, higher, stronger, Lhasa people of all nationalities will... resolutely smash the Dalai clique’s scheme to destabilize Tibet.”

The motto selected for the Games by Courbertin had a different meaning.

Fortius (stronger) referred to the field of sport. The body had to be trained by repeated exercises to become healthier and stronger.

Citius (swifter) was connected with literary and scientific studies and the domain of the mind in general which had to be constantly educated like the body.

Altius (higher) had a deeper meaning connected with the sacred, with the soul or God, whatever name one gives it.

In other words, the motto meant ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’ aspiring to the highest values men can think of. Today, the Chinese leaders want to show the world that they are economically the strongest nation and that they can smash any dissidence without any world leader objecting to it.

Paradoxically, the man credited with the restoration of the Olympic Games remains a famous unknown. Pierre de Coubertin was not an ordinary man; he has been described as an organizer, a pedagogue, a historian, a sportsman, a writer, an aesthete, and more than anything else a visionary, a man of action and a great humanist.

One of his biographers, described him thus: “Small in stature, with lively eyes and a high-pitched and reedy voice, smiling mischievously behind his large moustache, Coubertin was an idealist who succeeded in putting a great number of his ideas into action.”

His work consists of more than 12,000 printed pages, comprising 1,350 books, brochures and articles. He liked to call himself a ‘rebel’. Though very few understood his revolutionary vision, in 1894 he began the process to restore the ancient quadrennial Olympic Games by founding the IOC at a function at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Two years later, the first Games of the modern era were held in Athens. Till 1925, Coubertin would remain the president of the IOC.

Main objective

But the Baron was first and foremost a pedagogue; his main objective, through the Games and other projects was to “build men”.

His four principles of Olympism were: Olympism was a religion which adheres to an ideal of a superior life and aspires for perfection; it had to represent the moral qualities of chivalry in a totally egalitarian way; it had to institute a world truce during the quadrennial ‘human spring’; and finally to glorify beauty through another event, the Games of Arts and Thoughts.

Unfortunately ‘superior life’ and ‘moral chivalry’ have today been replaced by commercialism and utilitarianism. Who remembers today that during the ancient Olympic Games the prizes were olive wreaths, palm branches and woolen ribbons? In 1931, at the age of 69, Coubertin published his “unfinished symphony” or Olympic Memoirs in which he emphasized the intellectual, moral and philosophical nature of the Olympic Movement. His idea was to confer to the IOC a much larger role than just a sports events’ organizer; the Olympic Games were be a part of larger design to use sport as a radical new means of revolutionizing education and humanity. But how many in India, in China or elsewhere understand this today?

As with the Internet, China may grab a large number of medals, but one medal Beijing will certainly not get is the Medal for Olympism.

The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of The Fate of Tibet