The political power of the Olympic opening ceremony: Lessons from Beijing and Sochi
The decision by a number of countries to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing diplomatically has once again highlighted the political nature of the Olympics. In this analysis, Stanis Elsborg, senior analyst at Play the Game, shows how China and Russia used the international criticism prior to their hosting of the 2008 and 2014 Olympics politically in the opening ceremonies for the events.
In a few weeks, Beijing will host the winter edition of the Olympics which makes it the first city in modern history to host both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. However, this time around, there are no promises from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), National Olympic Committees, or sports leaders that the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will be a "force for good" and improve human rights in China as then-president of the IOC Jacque Rogge said before the Olympics in 2008.
In fact, the situation has worsened since 2008. In 2014, a year before China was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, China escalated crackdowns in the Xinjian region. In April 2021, Human Rights Watch published a report on the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in 2021, including mass arbitrary detention, torture, mass surveillance, cultural and religious erasure, separation of families, forced labour, and sexual violence and violations of reproductive rights against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the northwest region of Xinjiang.
The situation in Xinjiang has caused the U.S. to stage a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which is Chinese president Xi Jinping’s prestige project. When the Biden administration announced on 6 December 2021 that they would not send any official representatives to the Games, it once again demonstrated the highly political nature of the Olympics.
While a diplomatic boycott is a clear political statement, it can also be used politically and in favour of the host nation. And China has paid the IOC for one of the best public relations tools in the world: The opening ceremony of the Olympics with a reach of billions of viewers. In 2008, China showed their extraordinary ability to use the opening ceremony politically. The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing will be no different.
To demonstrate how useful the opening ceremony can be in terms of nationalic and political messaging, this analysis will provide examples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia which was also met with international criticism before the Games took place.
Politics or not?
In the days following the U.S. announcement of its diplomatic boycott, more countries joined. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the IOC issued a statement from president Thomas Bach, who said that "the presence of government officials is a purely political decision for each government … And also for this political decision, the principle of the political neutrality of the IOC applies."
China was quick to go down that road as well and in the following days they called Washington’s move a "self-directed political farce". In a statement, the spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the UN said that "the US just wants to politicize sports, create divisions and provoke confrontation."
Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department of the People's Republic of China, said that the U.S. was attempting to interfere with the Beijing Games "out of ideological prejudice and based on lies and rumours," and that the diplomatic boycott "seriously violates the principle of political neutrality of sports established by the Olympic Charter and runs counter to the Olympic motto ‘more united’."
The ruling Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection even issued a response on its website entitled "The Spirit of the Olympic Charter Cannot be Tarnished" saying that "some Western anti-China politicians" have shown a "defensive Cold War mentality aimed at politicizing sport," calling it a "clear violation of the Olympic spirit and a challenge to all people who love the Olympic movement."
Russian president Vladimir Putin who has said he will attend the 2022 Winter Olympics has also called the decision about a diplomatic boycott "unacceptable and erroneous", and "an attempt to curb China's growth."
Symbolic actions matter
The discussion about a diplomatic boycott has also raised the question of whether diplomatic boycotts have an effect or not. French president Emmanuel Macron has said that France will not join a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, calling such a move "insignificant" and "symbolic".
But symbolic actions matter in politics as political scientist Murray Edelman shows in his seminal work 'The Symbolic Uses of Politics' from 1964, where he explores the use of myths, rites, and other symbolic forms of communication in the formation of public opinion and policy. Edelman demonstrates that political symbolism can be used to influence the public. According to Edelman, most people do not pay close attention to the details of a certain policy, and for most people politics is a passing parade of abstract symbols. Therefore, leaders or political parties can deceive mass opinion through careful and thoughtful use of symbolic actions.
It is of course troubling for Xi and the Chinese state that the U.S. and other countries have decided to stage a diplomatic boycott of the Games. Because when it comes to the attendance of foreign heads of states at the Olympics, it is always a success criterion for the host nation that a foreign nation’s highest representatives show up and wave down to their national teams during the parade of nations. It symbolically shows that the top leaders of the world community accept the host nation as part of the international society.
Seeing U.S. president Biden on the stands would have been of great symbolic value for the Chinese president and leader of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP), Xi Jinping. And if Biden and other high-ranking leaders would have come, China would surely have used it politically as they did in 2008 where they highlighted how former U.S. president George Bush along with Vladimir Putin and French president Nicolas Sarkozy attended the Olympics. China was recognised by the most powerful presidents in the world.
Now that state representatives or diplomats from the U.S. and other nations have chosen to stay away in protest of China’s human rights issues, the CCP will use it in a kind of counter stigmatisation strategy, where the CCP will reject the stigma, accusations, and not least consider themselves superior to the stigmatisers. The Chinese state will use the diplomatic boycott strategically and politically by stigmatising the boycotters as the above rhetoric from key people close to Xi Jinping shows.
Staging the nation through the Olympic opening ceremony
Of course, all Olympic Games and especially their opening ceremonies function as a scene for the host nation to present a very specific and staged image of the nation. And for a one-party state with difficulties in respecting human rights, it is of great value to show a well-produced and staged image of the nation’s past and present through an Olympic opening ceremony with its rituals and semi-religious atmosphere in the name of harmony and respect between all people and ethnicities in the world.
Jackie Hogan, a professor of sociology and anthropology, describes the opening ceremony of the Olympics as a commercialised discourse of national identity. Hogan is inspired by the British cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall’s 'the narrative of nation', meaning "a set of stories, images, landscapes, scenarios, historical events, national symbols and rituals which stand for or represent the shared experiences, sorrows, and triumphs and disasters which give meaning to the nation."
This is similar to the core of the theory "imagined communities" coined in 1983 by political scientist Benedict Anderson in the book 'Imagined Communities'. The book explores how national cultures and nations are created when it is not possible for everyone to meet and interact with one another. In short, Anderson describes the nation and national identity as "imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."
It is through this lens that the following should be read as the opening ceremony is a picturesque "imagined community" of the host nation and how it wants to be portrayed and perceived not only by the foreign audience but also by the national population.
Geopolitical messages in the opening ceremony for Beijing 2008
Research has shown that at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as well as the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics there were two television versions of the opening ceremony: One version that was transmitted to the Chinese and Russian audiences, respectively, on state-owned TV, and one version for the foreign viewers. In both 2008 and 2014, there were significant differences between the two versions.
In the opening ceremony at the 2008 Olympics, there were about 100 clips that were different between the national and the international version. In the Chinese version of the ceremony, the cameras focused intensely on then Chinese head of state, Hu Jintao (2003-2013), the former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (1993-2003), and members of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China who were accompanied by monarchs and international heads of state. But above all, the camera was seeking Hu Jintao who appeared 23 times in the Chinese version against only seven times in the international version, which instead continued to show the actual artistic programme on stage.
The Chinese president was also used in a geopolitical manner. During the parade of nations, the Chinese version of the opening ceremony zoomed in on Hu Jintao when Hong Kong and 'Chinese Taipei', as Taiwan is called at the Olympics, entered the stadium. When Hu Jintao is shown in connection with Taiwan, it can be interpreted as a sign of China’s geopolitical aspirations over Taiwan.
The showing of Hu Jintao and Hong Kong at the same time can be seen as a signal to the Chinese people that Hong Kong - despite its independent Olympic status - has returned to the motherland. To further symbolise this, 'Hong Kong' was followed by 'China' on the official sign carried in front of the Hong Kong flag bearer.
With the current political tensions between China and Taiwan, and China’s mainland government’s tightened grip on Hong Kong, quashing the pro-democracy movement, it is likely that the organisers of the 2022 opening ceremony will stage something similar by focusing on Xi Jinping during their parade.
China – a unified multi-ethnic country
While the situation in the Xinjiang region is the main reason behind the diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the Uyghurs got less attention from international heads of states before the 2008 Beijing Olympics although Uighur groups already then accused the Chinese government of a heavy-handed crackdown in the region.
Instead, the political focus was on Tibet and the Tibetans who also faced brutal crackdowns before the 2008 Olympics. In response to the 2008 Tibetan Uprising where hundreds of Tibetans took the streets in the capital of Tibet, Lhasa, to protest Chinese repression, the CCP replied by sending in thousands of policemen and rifle-armed soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – the same army that contributed with 9,000 out of the 14,000 artists at the opening ceremony months later in Beijing. That did not contribute to the image of a peaceful nation that China hoped could be one of the outcomes from hosting the 2008 Olympics.
The Tibetan Uprising was not only a series of protests and demonstrations related to the Chinese government’s treatment and persecution of the Tibetans but also a protest of the government’s policy of letting more and more people from the absolute ethnic majority in China, the Han Chinese, settle in Tibet and ultimately become the majority. Before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, media and internet connections in Tibet were shut down and all foreigners were removed so outside eyewitness testimony was impossible.
Of course, the unrest in Xinjiang before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Tibetan Uprising was not highlighted during the opening ceremony. Instead, the Chinese organisers used the opportunity to send a message of ethnic integration in China.
Children in national costumes from the 56 different ethnic groups in China, including Tibetans and Uyghurs, carried the national flag into the stadium before handing it to Chinese military personnel who oversaw the hoisting of the flag. It later turned out that the children were not at all representatives from all the different ethnicities, but only from the ethnic group of Han Chinese, which makes up 92 per cent of the population. A little more than a year after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, CCP also tried to stage China as a unified multi-ethnic country focusing on ethnic integration and ethnic equality in China’s ethnic policy from 2009. It would not be a surprise if the 2022 Beijing opening ceremony would contain similar scenes.
Sochi 2014 – a call for patriotism
Six years after China had welcomed the world in Beijing, the Russian state invited everyone to the city of Sochi. As in Beijing, there were two versions of the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Ever since Russia had been awarded the Winter Olympics in 2007, the Olympic project was closely associated with the name of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and was often referred to as his 'pet idea'. The opening ceremony in 2014 not only gave the Russian state the opportunity to portray a desired image, but also gave Putin the opportunity to present himself at carefully selected times.
Contrary to the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin's image, which was tarnished by corruption, health problems, alcoholism, and problems with handling the state economy, a sporting image has been created of Putin, who often appears wearing his white judo kimono with a black belt. As an example of the personal worship of Putin, he was shown 40 times in the Russian version of the opening ceremony against only 16 times in the international version.
That was not the only difference in the versions of the opening ceremony in Sochi. The Russian flag was displayed 335 times in the Russian version of the opening ceremony and only 117 times in the international version. In the months leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin tabled a bill in parliament for wider use of state symbols such as the flag and national anthem saying "[Watching] the flying of the state flag and listening to the anthem will bring our citizens back... to patriotic feelings."
Sociologist Karen Cerulo emphasises the importance of national symbols: "National symbols – in particular, national anthems and flags – provide perhaps the strongest, clearest statement of national identity." National symbols thus become marks for the collective identity, creating legitimation and identification with the message of the nation’s past and future.
Gay rights versus family values
The Olympic Games are intended to take place in an atmosphere of tolerance and in the spirit of universalism, but not everything went as planned for the Russian authorities, as Putin’s regime faced international criticism for its increasingly strained relations with human rights since the parliamentary elections in 2011.
Above all, the federal law from 2013 banning the "promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors" showed that today's Russia in no way lives up to the traditional values of the Olympic Games, where everyone - regardless of sexual or religious orientation, nationality or ethnicity - can participate.
Putin's law came at a time when Great Britain and the United States were expanding gay rights, including the right to marry. The law against 'gay propaganda' as it often was referred to was closely linked to Putin's attempt to unite conservative anti-Western forces within Russia in support of his regime and in response to the 2011 protests related to his return as president in 2012.
Largely viewed as a response to Russia’s discriminatory anti-gay laws, U.S. president Barrack Obama decided to let former tennis player Billie Jean King, former hockey player Caitlin Cahow and Brian Boitano, who brought home Olympic gold as a figure skater in 1988, officially represent the United States at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Both Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow were openly gay, and two days after being asked by the president, Brian Boitano came out as gay. The no-show from Obama and other high-ranking politicians from the U.S. could also be viewed as some sort of diplomatic boycott trying to stress the U.S. dissatisfaction and attempt to distance itself from Putin’s newly introduced law.
But Putin had paid lots of billions to host the Winter Olympics which also includes a three hour highly orchestrated opening ceremony.
And in the opening ceremony, a response from the Russian state to the West’s critique of Putin’s homophobic law came alive in an artistic segment that highlighted the traditional nuclear family based on the marriage between man and woman. Parents with children were honoured in an ode to the future where all the performers formed a circle around prams and meanwhile words like ‘kids’ and ‘children are the future’ could be seen on the stadium floor.
With this highly staged segment in the ceremony, Putin not only sent a clear message to the Western critics, but he also used it as a part of a more general attempt to get the Russians to give birth to more children, where homosexuals can very easily become scapegoats and get blamed for the declining Russian birth rate because they do not reproduce with each other.
It was also a symbol of how Russia has invested heavily in various initiatives that reward the traditional family and limit alternative ways of living. The Russian anti-gay law from 2013 was accompanied by an anti-adoption law and a serious increase in divorce tax from 400 rubles to as much as 30,000 rubles.
The scene ultimately became an example of biopolitics defined by Andrey Makarychev and Sergei Medvedev as "the deployment by the authorities of local forms of biopower: managing health, hygiene, nutrition, birth, sexuality (…) life becomes a matter of government, no longer of private affair but an object of policy. From the right to take life, the state assumes the power to administer life."
So, Russia was stigmatised by the U.S. and Western critics for the law on 'gay propaganda', but instead of rejecting the stigma, the Russian state – with inspiration from Erving Goffman’s terminology – turned it into an emblem of pride, considering themselves superior to the stigmatisers.
The Russian Orthodox Church has also played a key role in the crackdown on gay rights in Russia. In August 2013, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia declared same sex marriage to be a sign of the impending apocalypse and urged people to do more to combat the rise of gay rights.
The close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state in Putin’s Russia were also staged in the opening ceremony in Sochi 2014. In an introductory video sequence that kicked of the ceremony, the Church was portrayed in the form of the St. Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square under the letter 'Ы', which means 'we'. The St. Basil’s Cathedral with its characteristic onion domes was shown alongside the main character of the opening ceremony, a little girl called Lubov, meaning'love', and the Kremlin buildings which houses president Putin and his administration.
It could be seen as a symbol that the 'we' of Russia today is building on a unit of Putin’s Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The St. Basil’s Cathedral is even more apparent later in the opening ceremony under the section called 'Festivity', where a balloon-like St. Basil’s Cathedral is built - a manifestation of the mutual relationship between church and state in Russia under Putin's rule.
China-Russian relations on display
As Obama did not turn up at the opening ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the ceremony instead provided a good insight into the diplomatic relations between China and Russia. The ties between the two great powers were illustrated by a much greater focus on the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. In the Russian version of the opening ceremony, he was shown nine times against only two times in the international version.
The relationship was further symbolised during the parade of nations, where the Chinese and Japanese athletes were the only teams that carried both their own and the Russian flag: Sports diplomacy via the body.
Something similar could happen at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. While some Western countries are diplomatically boycotting the 2022 Olympics, leaders of India, Russia and France are supporting China’s hosting of the Games and defy calls for a political boycott.
President Putin and president Xi have already said that they look forward to meeting in person at the Olympics. During a virtual meeting in December 2021, Xi told Putin that he expects to have deeper exchanges with the Russian president on bilateral ties and international issues. China and Russia are also set to host the event 'Year of Sports Exchanges' in 2022 and 2023, which Xi has said will be used as an opportunity to build bridges and bonds between the countries and enhance their mutual understanding and friendship.
The diplomatic boycott by the U.S. and others is a clear political statement that might get some political momentum in some Western societies, but as demonstrated it can also be used politically by the host nation. The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics also reveals another political battle that has entered the sporting arena: A rising war on values between democratic and authoritarian states. The big question will be: Who has the greater appeal in the long run?
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