PtG Article 26.06.2007

The Olympic Games as a force for social change

Since China was awarded the Olympic Games in 2008, human rights organisations and politicians have applied pressure on the International Olympic Committee to use the Games as a lever to improve China’s human rights record. But what is the rationale for regarding the Olympics as a source for political and social change?

Susan Brownell, a professor at the University of Missouri and expert on Olympic politics in China, points out that we still lack a good scientific understanding of the Olympic Movement as a movement that is capable of effecting social change.

In the article “The Beijing Effect” she predicts that the greatest legacy of the Beijing Games will be human and cultural. Hosting the Olympic Games will require China to link up to international standards and accellerate a process that began over 100 years ago.

Crucial, however, for Brownell is that “the changes that occur will not be forced upon China by others but it will be those that China voluntarily seeks out so that it may play a key role in the global society of the 21st century.”

Russell Leigh Moses, an American scholar teaching future diplomats at the People's University in Beijing, is also quite sceptical that the Olympic Games will lead to sweeping political and social changes in China. If anything, China has wanted to use the Olympics to show that its one-party state and ancient civilization deserve, at long last, some respect, he believes.

"Beijing is spending as much effort on controlling the environment for the Olympics as it is on construction. For the sports authority this is about gaining as much gold as possible. For the party, it is about the greatness of their rule. For the construction team, it is about image and showcase," he told the Christian Science Monitor in an interview.

The world-is-watching effect

But the Olympic Games is much more than 16 days of elite sports competitions. It is the celebration of a set of fundamental and universal values in the practice of sport but it is also a billion dollar industry that ensures that the host city and host nation will be the focus of the entire media world.

And precisely the media attention is a pivotal point in the belief that Beijing’s hosting of the Olympic Games will have a positive impact on the human rights situation in China and the social standard in general.

In an e-mail discussion under the auspices of the organisation Human Rights In China, Gao Zhan, a researcher at American University specialising in Chinese politics, was asked about her view on the possible impact of the 2008 Olympics on the human rights situation in China.

Gao Zhan said that China has politicized its hosting of the Olympics to such an extent that it will use every possible means to ensure success. In Zhan’s view this will force China to loosen its grip on some media outlets.

“Merely for the sake of showing the world that he Chinese do enjoy some basic freedoms, China will gradually lift some website blocks, allow in more foreign press, and tolerate to a certain extent the flow of information from outside of China as it prepares for the event,” she wrote.

As a consequence the Chinese people will enlighten themselves with information from the Western media and a process of furthering the self-reflection of the single Chinese will be initiated. And as Gao Zhan concluded: “A well-informed and enlightened nation will not be suppressed for too long.”

Other critics also support the expected ’the world will be watching effect’ that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has put its faith in from the moment Beijing was awarded the games. When 20-25,000 international journalists are let out in Beijing and other local regions in China it will be difficult for the government to keep control with dissidents and critics of the state apparatus.

The role of the IOC

In theory, the International Olympic Committee could also play a role in promoting social change in a host nation during the preparatory phases.

When the IOC awards the Olympic games to a host city, both parties enter into a certain Host City Contract with mutual demands and obligations. According to Susan Brownell, the IOC does not impose any political requests in the Host City Contract. It concentrates solely on technical matters directly concerning the infrastructure and the Olympic venues.

In the above mentioned e-mail discussion it was suggested by Andrew McLaughlin, Senior Adviser to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, that the IOC could establish an office responsible for monitoring China’s human rights environment. As he states: “A quarterly report from a monitoring office would help to maintain steady pressure on the Chinese authorities to keep their promises”.

The suggestion never came to fruition. The IOC maintains that it is a sports organisation and that it does not have the knowledge or expertise the keep the Chinese political system under surveillance. Immediately after the decision to award the Olympic Games to Beijing in 2008,

IOC executive director Francois Carrard told reporters that the Olympic movement was “taking the bet” that China would reform in the lead-up to the Games.

The bet assumes that the task of organising the Games will make China consider changes on its own, not because it experiences direct pressure from the IOC. Representatives of the IOC have repeatedly stated that the IOC will not pressure China on human rights or other political issues in the leadup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"We are not in a position that we can give instructions to governments as to how they ought to behave," Hein Verbruggen, head of the IOC's coordination commission for the Beijing Game, said in April 2007 when he was asked specifically about calls for a boycott to pressure China to do more to stop the violence in the Sudanese region of Darfur.

"We don't want to be, as the IOC, involved in any political issues," he said. "It's not our task. We are here for organising the Games."

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