Saturday, August 09, 2008

Open Season on the Beijing Olympics: A Morning-After Quickie

Thomas Boswell sees the choice of “Lopez Lomong, one of the ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan who is a member of Team Darfur, to carry their colors” as “a far-from-subtle commentary on China's dismal record on human rights at home and abroad.”

Mr. Boswell sympathizes with the US athletes who made the choice, yet closes the article with the reserve and sense of balance that makes him a rarity among sports writers, if not all journalists:

In the months of prelude to these Games, America has, through its protesters, its feisty press and even its choice of flag bearer, presumed to judge China, or at least its government. And with cause, no doubt.

However, now that the Olympic flame has been lit and the smoggy Beijing sky streaked with joyous rockets, perhaps that emphasis can start to shift. As this night's spectacle reminds us, there's 5,000 years of culture here to learn and 1.3 billion people whose vast progress deserves respect.

Okay, maybe the ending is a little weak. But how many sportswriters or food critics can pull this off?

The Japanese media missed the political message on Darfur, but caught the more significant one, this time from the Chinese side, in the surprise choice of Li Ning, the Gold-medalist-turned-entrepreneur (think, Michael Jordan literally owning Nike) to light the Olympic fire at the opening ceremonies. Li Ning is one of 18 million Zhuangs, the largest minority ethnic group among the 1.3 billion Chinese. This reminds me of Jin Yong’s wuxia sagas, where so many of the heroes and their friends have non-Han backgrounds yet fight for China, sometimes against their own kinfolk. The Western media seems to have completely missed this one—so far.

The Japanese delegation sent their own message of Care-Bear love with their choice of Ai Fukuhara, the table tennis player, as flag bearer. Ms. Fukuhara is the overwhelmingly most popular Japanese athlete in China, partly because she is cute as a button, as your grandparents used to say, but also because she played two years in the top pro league in China and speaks Chinese very fluently.

But that’s public diplomacy. The real political exchange came in Prime Minister Fukuda’s meetings with President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Mr. Fukuda brought up the Chinese dumplings with both Chinese leaders, while he reserved the beatings that two Japanese journalists received at the hands of the Chinese security police in Xinjiang at the site of the terrorist attack that killed 16 policemen.

And that’s only the beginning. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen so much political coverage during any of the past Olympics. In today’s morning Yomiuri, there are approximately five full pages on and around the Olympics outside of the sports pages. The opening ceremonies take up a third of the front page featuring a large photo of the Japanese delegation—advertisements and the masthead take up half; the remainder is shared by Mr. Fukuda’s meetings with his Chinese counterparts and the battle between Georgian and Russian forces in South Ossetia. The national team takes up two-thirds of the penultimate page, where the best human interest stories (murders, etc.) usually wind up, ads taking up most of the remainder except for an Olympics-related airliner bomb threat in Japan—and a crappy cartoon. Otherwise, the Yomiuri carries stories that have at least some element of criticism; ethnic minorities (one headline reads “Tibet ‘We Can’t Welcome Olympics’ チベット「五輪歓迎できぬ」 ), political repression (“’Ceremony of Peace under a Dictatorship 独裁下の「平和の祭典」” —yes, that’s the real headline), R-E-S-P-E-C-T (“The Greatest Olympics Diplomacy in History 史上最大の五輪外交”—yes, bigger than… 1936… kidding), Security threats and food contamination (“Special Menus for Both Food and Security 食事も警備も特別メニュー”), authoritarian regime on the run (“Controls Eroding, Hu Regime Fearful ほころぶ統制、恐れる胡政権”), slagging Europe (“‘Gold Medal for Hypocrisy’ 「偽善の金メダル」”—to flip-flopping Sarkozy for going to the opening ceremonies). I could go on, but you get the idea.

I may have more to say later, but only if the Nadeshiko Japan, hanging on by their cleats after barely tying their opening soccer match against unheralded New Zealand, kick Yanqui ass this afternoon.

The men’s soccer team just about bombed out before the opening ceremonies by losing to the U.S. side, so the big story there was Tadanari Lee, a forward who subbed in at 64 minutes and didn't score. His human interest angle? Mr. Lee is a third-generation Korean in Japan who became a Japanese citizen last year to hopefully play on the Japanese national teams. (He hadn’t enjoyed his experience when South Korea called him up for an U-19 training camp.) He professes genuine love for both nations, a story that Shinzo Abe would have loved, had he remained Prime Minister.

No comments: