Mulling The Beijing Games

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Scott Simon reflects this week on China's hosting of the Olympics — including the lush opening ceremony — while excluding former Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek.


There are lots of tyrannies in the world. China is a rich tyranny. That makes a difference. It would be unthinkable for the International Olympic Committee to hold the games in a bankrupt tyranny like North Korea, or maybe, given history of the IOC, which awarded the 1936 Olympic Games to Nazi Germany and refused to suspend the 1972 Munich Games when 11 Israeli athletes were slaughtered, I should say, it would have been unthinkable for even the IOC. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In 1931, when the IOC made its decision, Germany was a democracy; Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists came to power two years later.]

China was chosen to host the Olympics because it is rich. It's an amazing and brilliant nation eager to display its mastery of so much to the world. It has athletes of accomplishment and distinction and a proven record of completing massive and imposing civic projects, including last night's spectacular opening ceremonies. Of course, it is easier to operate on a grand scale when you can use what many would consider slave labor. But China is rich, maybe the preeminent economic engine in the world right now, and countries and companies all over the world want to do business there. The Olympics are a way of making connections.

And you have to be careful with analogies. 2008 is not 1936. Beijing is not Berlin. But it is hard to see the extraordinary opening ceremonies from Beijing last night, that gorgeous, gargantuan globe decorated with daring dancers dangling from wires, and not be reminded of Berlin's spectacular opening ceremonies in 1936. See Leni Riefenstahl's film "Olympia."

Many people thought that bringing the world to Berlin then would open up Germany to new and wider influences. But consider history before you venture such a hope for China and mark what they did this week to Joey Cheek. Mr. Cheek is the 2006 Olympic speed skating medalist who famously donated his bonus of more than 25,000 dollars for winning those medals to the relief of famine in Darfur. He's continued to be an advocate for Darfur and this week the Chinese declined to give him a visa to attend the Olympic Games.

Chinese rulers are not Nazis. Mr. Cheek is not being kept out because of his race or religion but because he outspokenly opposes Chinese policies in Darfur. Makes you wonder, what did they think he would do? Smuggle in drugs or weapons? Organize mass demonstrations? Mr. Cheek would probably just give a lot of interviews. But the exclusion of a man who is an Olympic champion in every sense, after the Chinese government agreed to welcome visitors from all over the world, they suggest that they believe in the free flow of trade, just not ideas.

Last night's show was amazing, moving and thrilling for the Chinese and the world. But we might remind ourselves that authoritarian governments learn how to drape dark corners with lights and dazzle.

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Correction Aug. 11, 2008

The story said the International Olympic Committee "awarded the 1936 Olympic Games to Nazi Germany." In 1931, when the IOC made its decision, Germany was a democracy; Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists came to power two years later.



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