Beijing Olympics Coverage: Just About The Sports? The International Olympics Committee has taken the stance that the Olympics is a sporting event that should not be mixed up with politics. Correspondents discuss whether a line should drawn between reporting on sporting events and covering the human rights issues that have surfaced in the run up to the games.
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Beijing Olympics Coverage: Just About The Sports?

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Beijing Olympics Coverage: Just About The Sports?

Beijing Olympics Coverage: Just About The Sports?

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary sitting in for Neal Conan. We are broadcasting today from the Knight Studio at the Newseum, Washington, D.C.'s newest museum.

(Soundbite of applause)

NEARY: This is a museum devoted to journalism and to the news business, and it's great to have everybody here in the audience, and out in our listening audience as well, our radio audience. This week, thousands of journalists from around the world will descend on Beijing to cover the 2008 Olympic Games. It will be difficult, of course, to cover all 28 sports, all 302 events, but there are other challenges to covering these games because of where they are.

News organizations have fought with the Chinese government about access, where they can film, when they can film. Will they be able to report on Chinese foreign policy? On its history of human-rights abuses? If there are protests or demonstrations, will they be free to report on them? Seven years ago when China was bidding for the games, the country promised the International Olympic Committee, also known as the IOC, that journalists would have complete freedom to report, including open access to the Internet. The country, it seems, has gone back on that promise.

In a few minutes, we'll be speaking with reporters and editors who will be in Beijing to cover the games. We'll ask them if they plan to report on sports and politics, and if they think they'll be able to do both. And we want to hear from you. Starting on August 8th, do you want to read, hear, and see new stories about China? Or do you just care about the diving, the swimming, and the gymnastics? What should news organizations cover? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also comment on our blog. It's at

Later in the hour, another blow to college financing, but first, covering the Olympic Games in Beijing. And joining us now from our bureau in our Beijing is NPR's correspondent Anthony Kuhn, and he kindly agreed to wake up at three o'clock in the morning, Beijing time, to talk with us...

ANTHONY KUHN: Boy, you guys are awful quiet down there...

NEARY: Anthony, thanks so much for being with us.

Are you there? I am not hearing Anthony.

We don't have Anthony?

All right. I think we have another guest standing by, Jonathan Paterson. And Jonathan is the - an editor at the BBC in London, and he has planned a lot of the BBC's coverage of the games. And hopefully he's going to join us now from a studio at the BBC in London. Jonathan Paterson, are you there?

Mr. JONATHAN PATERSON (Assignment Editor, BBC News): Good afternoon.

NEARY: Jonathan, I'm very happy to hear your voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, first of all, just give us a sense of what the BBC's operation in Beijing is going to be like during the games.

Mr. PATERSON: This is undoubtedly one of the largest operations that BBC has ever mounted. We've got about 450 people going to the Olympic Games, a small army of presenters, reporters, technicians, and engineers. The BBC is obviously a very large organization, and we are one of the rights holders of the Olympics, so we can broadcast most of the Olympic sports to the U.K. So, it's quite a big investment for us.

If you're interested in sport, whatever sport you want to watch, if you're a fan of badminton, gymnastics, BMX cycling, you can watch it on the BBC. It will be there. We've also got a very significant news presence there, our news team. We have a long-established bureau who've been in Beijing for more than 30 years, actually. But we're bolstering that with extra resources from London and from around the world, because obviously this is a unique moment in China's history, and we want to be there to observe it.

NEARY: So, you have both a sports team and a news team, and they're sort of separate? You view them as complete...

Mr. PATERSON: Well, I mean, obviously we have a sports team who are there to cover the sports, sporting events, and to give you the results. I'm in charge of the news team. I also have under me news journalists who specialize in sport. So, if there are issues around, say, drug testing, or the success of the Chinese athletics team, or individual personality stories, we will be bringing those to our news audiences as well as the stories about the Chinese economic boom, Chinese media freedom, all those sort of things that are very important part of our coverage. Sports news is a very big deal in the U.K., as it is in the U.S. So, half of our team is dedicated, yes, to bringing you live sport as it happens. The rest is dedicated to bringing you news events, whether they be sports or news.

NEARY: How concerned are you about the kind of access that you will be able to get to news events, if protests occur, that kind of thing?

Mr. PATERSON: Well, it's been a very interesting period for us. Undoubtedly, it's a very interesting period in China, and undoubtedly. We have had greater access to parts of China than we have ever had before. By way of example, you will remember the problems with the toys that were contaminated with lead paint. When that story happened, we sent a reporter down to a factory there and interviewing people in the factories, filming the toys as they were being made. That was unprecedented access that we'd never have had two years ago.

Just today, I heard a reporter talking to gay rights activists in China. So, that sense of freedom of movement around the country seems to be going very well. In terms of reporting in Beijing, we're not really sure how that's going to go. We've had a lot of - it's been a frustrating period where dealing with the authorities has been a long and torturous process that still hasn't reached a conclusion just before the games. Olympic venues, they tend to be OK.

But if we want to be in Tiananmen Square, or if we want to be in - outside the Great Wall, we can't - it's not entirely clear whether we'll have all the permissions that we need to broadcast from these places. And often, we're talking about quite innocuous broadcasts. I mean, we've actually been refused permission this week to do a live a broadcast from a food market. This is the food market we've been to many occasions before, and we've actually done live broadcasting from before. And on this occasion, we've been turned down.

Now, that doesn't really fit with the idea or freedom of openness which we have about in terms of moving around the country. So, it's a really difficult time for us, and we're just treating each sort of case, each sort of little thing, as it comes along. Clearly when there's protests, if there are protests in Beijing, we're going to have to see how that goes, because that's sort of something which hasn't really been tested yet.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take a call now from Talia. Talia is calling from Reno, Nevada. Hi, Talia.

TALIA (Caller): Hi. How are you doing, you guys?

NEARY: Very good, thanks. Go ahead.

TALIA: My comment was, he was saying that, you know, in America and the U.K., they are able to have teams that focus just on sports and just on politics. But I think if you are a smaller organization, or you don't have that kind of manpower because you're already going to the expense of going to another country, I think it's almost - in terms of China, I think it's almost impossible to go to a place like the Olympics, with all these controversies surrounding it, to divide it. Because as human beings, especially - not just - I'm not talking about corruption. I'm talking about human rights violations. To that extent, I think it's impossible to separate it. I don't see how you could consciously not report that. You see what I'm saying? I think it's a moral issue.

NEARY: I'm not sure that's what you were saying, Jonathan, that you were not going to report it. It's just that you have certain reporters that have certain areas of specialty and that this - is that right?

Mr. PATERSON: Absolutely. And you know, if there are protests inside the stadiums, we will of course cover them, and they will be featured as part of our live sports coverage. I mean, we've made a conscious decision that if there are significant protests inside the stadium, then our live programming will show that and will reflect that, because clearly that's part of the story, but...

TALIA: Well, you're - I'm talking about smaller newspaper organizations, or I'm talking about smaller groups that go over there, because it depends how large it is, if you do have the manpower, you know, you have people who are dedicated to this or dedicated to that...

NEARY: Right. Right.

TALIA: Great.

NEARY: And in every news organization - thanks so much for your call, by the way, Talia - and I just want to say that, you know, in every news organization, people have areas of specialty, and I think probably the smaller it is, however, the more you may have to cover. It's going to be difficult for those smaller organizations to cover everything, because there's going to be so much going on. But again, thanks so much for your call. And I do believe that we have our NPR correspondent in Beijing, Anthony Kuhn, on the line now, and I think he can hear me. Is that right, Anthony?

KUHN: Yes, I can.

NEARY: Oh, that's great. Thanks so much. And thanks so much for joining us, because I know it is three o'clock in the morning there, so not easy for you to be up at that time. Anthony, I wanted to ask you, you know, because there's news coming out of Beijing today about what's going on with press coverage. The Olympic Village Press Center opened on Friday, and reporters are complaining that their access to the Internet is restricted. They're having a hard time getting to sites like Amnesty International's website, Radio Free Asia's website. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

KUHN: Yes. Well, when reporters moved in to the village and they saw these sites were blocked, they asked the International Olympic Committee about it. And the IOC said they would investigate, and they got back today. And the IOC press chief Kevan Gosper said, well, in fact, the Beijing Games Organizing Committee had announced that there would be censorship of the Internet within not just China, but within the Olympic Village as well.

And the bombshell for some people was that the IOC negotiated this outcome. They were in on it all along, even though the International Olympic Committee chief, Jacques Rogge, was trumpeting the fact that, you know, China had promised full access to report not just on the games but on the rest of China. In fact, the IOC knew all along that that would not be the case. They had been in on negotiations with the Chinese government, and the Chinese government said the freedom will essentially only extend to the games themselves. Today...

NEARY: What's the reaction of the press corps there? I mean, is there any sense that journalists can protest this? Or is this just a fait accompli at this point?

KUHN: Well, I think Gosper and other IOC officials are probably hammering out these details late tonight. But it's very - I think it's doubtful that - it shows how little leverage the IOC has over the Chinese government, and I doubt China will budge on it.

NEARY: And as somebody who's been reporting from China for awhile, how surprised are you by this kind of news about the restrictions that are in place?

KUHN: Well, we've known all along that it's going to be a very bumpy ride for the foreign journalists here, that China is not ready in this regard, that many people still do not get it about the Western media and how they operate. What is surprising, I think - one, of course, is the IOC's involvement and complicity in all these, but also, the fact that the more enlightened Chinese officials say, we know you're not Chinese Communist Party reporters, you're not people's daily reporters, and we're not going to treat you that way. And so, you know, there's a sense that they differentiate between foreigners and Chinese. And when you stay in a foreign-run hotel, a Sheraton or a Hilton in China, you can watch the BBC, but that's not true for Chinese people. So, they're not differentiating here where it's just like any other censorship that goes on in China.

NEARY: The Olympic Games are a little over a week away. We're talking about the challenges of covering those games in Beijing, and we're taking your questions at 800-989-8255, or send us an email to I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary, broadcasting live from the Knight Studio inside the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of applause)

NEARY: The Beijing Olympic Games are right around the corner. Journalists are packing their bags, reading up on the athletes, and preparing for any obstacles that might come up, despite China's promise to give reporters full freedom. I'm talking with NPR's Beijing correspondent, Anthony Kuhn, as well as Jonathan Paterson. He is the assignment editor planning the BBC's Olympic coverage.

And we'd like to hear from you. Do you want to read, hear and see news stories about China? Or do you just care about the diving, the swimming, the gymnastics? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. And our email address is You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog. That's at

And I should say that we asked a representative of the International Olympic Committee to join us on today's program. The IOC declined our invitation. The organization did issue a statement to NPR and you can read that at our blog as well. And again, that blog is Jonathan Paterson of the BBC, are you surprised by this news that we have been talking about, that the IOC has agreed or has complied with the Chinese government about restricting Internet access for the media?

Mr. PATERSON: It doesn't surprise me. I think that all along, on many different levels, the IOC have been quite determined not to cause too much fuss with the Chinese. And I think that they're quite keen now just to get these games underway and get them over. I think there are many different levels, not just on media censorship, but just in the workings of the Olympics, I think there's a certain amount of frustration within the IOC that the plans have changed, have been altered, and I think they just want to get it over with.

NEARY: Anthony Kuhn, I'm just wondering, let's go back to when China was bidding to become the host city for these Olympics. What did the government say exactly about how they would allow the media to report on these games? What was promised?

KUHN: Well, when the deal was done in 2001, it was done behind closed doors. So, we are not privy to the contents of the deal. It was not transparent. We were told afterwards, however, a number of things. First of all, that we'd have free access to report, not just on the games, but on China itself, and that new rules would go into effect for the period of the Olympics, freeing up foreign journalists to report around the country without having to get official permission.

And all along, we've had all sorts of difficulties with that. Essentially, the rules have not been implemented at the grassroots level. We go out into the countryside and run into all sorts of problems. I've been detained in the fields several times since these new rules came into effect. So, I think it's very telling about how much people have expected China to change because of the Olympics, and in fact, it's the other way around. It's China that's changing the Olympics.

NEARY: I have an email here from Mary Ann in St. Louis and she writes, in Mexico, there was no mention of the massacre of students, perhaps more than 100, just prior to the Olympics. What coverage was there of local politics in Los Angeles, treatment of aboriginal suppression in Sydney, polygamy in Utah? I could go on. So, I wonder, both Anthony and Jonathan, you know, politics - there's often politics shadowing the Olympics. Even though it is an incredible sporting event, politics are very often part of the games. What's different...

Mr. PATERSON: Very, very much so.

NEARY: Yeah. Jonathan?

Mr. PATERSON: Very much so. I mean, sport and politics are inextricably linked. The Chinese know that, and the IOC know that. It's not a big secret. I mean, I appreciate that your listener there was talking about incidents that weren't covered or at least didn't receive big international attention. But we can, you know, go back to 1936, of course, with the Berlin Olympics, Moscow, where there was the boycott by the West, L.A., where there was the boycott by Russia.

You know, it's inextricably linked, and we're there to cover that and to cover those aspects of the Olympics, the effects that deal with politics, and clearly, there were a lot of those at these Olympics. But it's not the first time that that's happened. And you know, there may well be issues to come up with London in 2012. I don't know what they are yet. But the whole issue of sport and politics and the Olympics in particular is inextricably linked and - are inextricably linked.

NEARY: Anthony, do you have anything to add to that?

KUHN: Well, I think people - there are many, many people, I think polls show, who would like the Olympic Games to be separated from politics. And that's been China's line all along. Don't mix the two up. Don't sully the noble aspirations of the games. But in fact, they have tried to reap great political benefits from the holding of the games. They've tried to use it to legitimize their rule, to show off the best side of China's development, to unite the country, and sort of fortify their historical narrative of the past hundred years. So, it's actually quite political here now.

NEARY: Well, I want to bring in another guest now. Terry McDonell is the managing editor of Sports Illustrated. He and many of the magazine's writers and editors will be in Beijing for the games, and he joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Good to have you with us, Terry.

Mr. TERRY MCDONELL (Managing Editor, Sports Illustrated): It's a pleasure to be here. I love this show.

NEARY: Good. We always like to hear that. So, what do you think your readers are expecting from your coverage of the Olympics? We think of Sports Illustrated as being really just about sports. Do you - will you get into the politics at all?

Mr. MCDONELL: Really? That's what you think?

NEARY: I - well, I can't say that I read Sports Illustrated (unintelligible)...

Mr. MCDONELL: Because since the beginning of Sports Illustrated, it's been - just as it's covered sports, it's covered race relations and the growth of civil rights, which - a direct line from the '50s now in sports. Everything that we do takes the context into account. It's not just about the number of medals, ever.

NEARY: So, how have you been preparing for these games? What have you been doing?

Mr. MCDONELL: Specifically back in 2006, I went to Beijing and made a deal to publish Sports Illustrated in China. So, we have SI China now, which is published in Mandarin, and that - the hope was that would link us into the culture in a way that would help us better cover it when the time came.

NEARY: What kind of access are you going to have? Are you having any trouble with getting the kind of access that you want or need?

Mr. MCDONELL: Well, as everyone said before, this could get very bumpy. Unlike rights holders, however, we're in a slightly different situation. We don't really - we're not really as directly connected to the IOC and the Chinese, so we're just sort of at large there to find what we can, and that's our intention.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take some questions now, and I think that a member of the audience, Valerie, is standing by at the mike. Hi, Valerie.

VALERIE (Audience Member): Hi. My name is Valerie. I'm from Los Angeles, California. My question involves the designated protest areas that will be in Beijing. In this case, there are three designated public parks. I know that in past Olympics, there have also been designated protest areas. In this case, it's getting some news press because there are certainly expected to be protests. Do you, Jonathan, or Anthony, or anybody, believe that the protests will in fact be limited to these areas? And how much coverage do you plan to have over at these parks?

NEARY: Anthony, you want to take that first?

KUHN: Sure. Well, first of all, it's something they have never done here before, so I think we've got to say it sends a positive signal that they want to channel dissent rather than just stifle it. I think it's - you know, they've spent a lot of the past few weeks getting rid of protesters, particularly petitioners who have come from the outside provinces to Beijing.

They've made it clear, though, that under Chinese law, any protests have to have official approval first. You have to submit an application, and they're usually not approved. So, it's hard to say whether there'll be anything different here. Also, we know that a lot of rights groups, for example, that might like to hold protests - Tibet groups, human rights groups, and such - are not going to get visas to come into China in the first place. So, it remains to be seen whether they're lighten up at all or whether these little protest pens will be quite empty.

NEARY: Anybody else want to add to that? Jonathan or Terry?

Mr. PATERSON: Well, I mean, we will clearly cover protests, whether they're in the stadium or in public areas of Beijing, or the protest pens. I believe that we haven't yet been shown these protest pens. Although I do understand that they were part of the IOC's agreement with Beijing, as they have been with other Olympics. I had some colleagues who were in Athens who said that they became sort of rather a side show for all the other things that were going on. Whether we'll actually cover the protests in those pens or not, or whether we'll be covering other things, I - you know, remains to be seen.

Mr. MCDONELL: The Olympic charter, which goes back to 1894, I think, has in it a rule - it's called, I think, 51.3 - that outlines the fact, according to them, that no protests are allowed at the Olympics. So, the fact that these pens exist is sort of an interesting challenge to their own rule. But what is more interesting, at least to us, is what will happen if someone on a victory stand produces and lifts a flag of Tibet?


Mr. MCDONELL: We saw this in 1968 in Mexico City, when Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Power salute on the victory stand. They were reprimanded and sent home, but they were allowed to keep their medals. I think there are a lot of people in China now thinking about Rule 51.3.

NEARY: Yeah. And that's - there's a pretty good - do you think there's a pretty good possibility that that might happen, Terry? That something like that might happen?

Mr. MCDONELL: You know, I don't know. You know, I know that the athletes that I have known, you know, over the years that I've covered sports, fall pretty much in the two categories. Some are apolitical, but those that aren't tend to be very, very political.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call now. We're going to Don - sorry, Don. Don is calling from Detroit, Michigan. Hi, Don.

DON (Caller): My statement is, one, I'm a true blue American. I have a daughter in the military, and I almost feel like a traitor stating that I agree with China. I believe that the Olympics should stay about the Olympics. I don't watch the Super Bowl to find out anything that's not politically correct going on at that particular city. I don't agree with China's policies, but I want to watch the Olympics. And I believe that when something comes on TV that - about their inhumane treatment of their prisoners or whatever, I'm going to turn the channel.

NEARY: You just want to see the - you just want to see the events, the games.

DON: I'm sorry, I'm losing you.

NEARY: Oh, I'm sorry. OK. Well, thanks very much for call...

DON: Here we go.

NEARY: We'll go back to our guests. Terry McDonell, I would like to hear you respond to that because you were saying about your magazine, Sports Illustrated, that that - you were talking about the fact that politics and sports have been mixed from - all throughout time, I guess, you know?

Mr. MCDONELL: Sure, of course. I mean, you think about - I mean, it's interesting to think about what the Super Bowl actually is. And then think for a moment about 9/11. After we were hurt so bad, and the country after had to come back together, where did it come back together? It came back together in its football stadiums. That's where we were when we began to feel that we had the strength and the courage to come back. It's almost palpable sometimes the way sports can make a person feel, because it's not just about, as I said before, the winning and the losing. It's stories about our values. It's about how we tell each other who we are. How we win and how we lose, that's so important.

NEARY: We are talking about covering the Olympics, and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Thanks so much for that call, Jonathan. And here's kind of a very different perspective on this from Madeleine. And she writes, if the media had the courage of their convictions, they would not report anything at all from the Olympics until the Chinese government makes good on their promise of total access. This kind of bait and switch is unconscionable. I would rather hear nothing of the games than support suppression of the truth. Completely opposite point of view. Jonathan Paterson, what's your reaction to that?

Mr. PATERSON: Well, I think we've - you know, we think we should be there, we should be there reporting on the games. This is a unique opportunity to have a look at China and to see what changes have happened in China. I think we have a responsibility to the world to tell people about what's going on in China. And look at that story today that's come out about the blocking of the Internet access. That has been one of the top stories, certainly in the U.K., explaining about the restrictions.

I think, you know, we're prepared to go out there and challenge the Chinese authorities when we feel that we are not getting what we've been promised or human rights are not being observed. We're very clear on that. But we also have responsibility to tell the story to the world about what's going on in China beyond the Olympics. And this is a unique opportunity to do that.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call from Melody, who's calling from Willows, California. Hi, Melody.

MELODY (Caller): Hello?

NEARY: Go ahead.

MELODY: This is Melody from Willows, California.


MELODY: Yeah, thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I am just wondering what kind of repercussions are there for China if the IOC says, you've got to be open, but they're not being open? I mean, what kind of repercussions can happen?

NEARY: Anthony Kuhn?

KUHN: I don't think the repercussions are going to be very severe, and I think the fact that China has stuck to this position that it is going to sensor the Internet shows that international opinion is not all that important to it, and it may have underestimated the kickback. But I think it may indicate that, you know, they consider the domestic reaction more important.

Again, I think it shows the lack of leverage that the IOC have. And they've said all along that we cannot get involved in the politics of a sovereign nation this way. And so, you know, instead of thinking - I think it will force a lot of people to think, you know, was this the right decision for the IOC to award the games to China? People will also have to think about, you know, how much they expect the games to change China and vice versa.

MELODY: Exactly.

NEARY: I was just wondering also, Anthony, if - in terms of domestic coverage, what's happening? What are the people in China seeing in terms of the news coverage or in terms of the coverage of the Olympics?

KUHN: Well, the story broke kind of late in the day here in China, so it's a - I doubt very much that they will report on this controversy.

NEARY: Are they getting a very different perspective on the games, I guess, is what I'm asking, in general, then we might be getting in this country or other the countries around the world?

KUHN: Yes. Yes. The Chinese media is under great pressure to produce positive stories about the Olympics. And they've been, you know, revving up for many months, and you know, there's been no mention of the intrusions of the security measures, all the difficulties it's put Beijingers to. You've only heard about how willing everybody is to do it. There's been very little mention of the silencing of dissent, the very tough security measures in Tibet and far western Xinxiang Province that's just not in the reporting of the Chinese media.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you.

NEARY: Anthony Kuhn is the Beijing correspondent for NPR. We were also joined by Jonathan Paterson, the BBC assignment editor, planning Olympic coverage for the BBC. Thanks, Jonathan.

Mr. PATERSON: Thank you.

NEARY: And Terry McDonell, managing editor for Sports Illustrated, and thanks to you as well, Terry.

Mr. MCDONELL: My pleasure.

NEARY: Coming up, new obstacles in the soft economy for college students trying to finance their education. That's next. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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