A guide to Olympics

In reality, the Summer Olympics that open on August 8 create three different categories of events. It's important to understand this. The first event is the one that observers on the ground in China will see, the second is the event that the rest of the world will see, and the third is the event or events no one may ever see.

By Tom Plate (Pacific Perspectives)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Sat 2 Aug 2008, 10:25 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

On the mainland of China itself, there are the actual competitive sporting events taking place in real time. Some will unfold in the architecturally magnificent "Bird's Nest" stadium, others in various spanking-new venues in greater metropolitan Beijing and the environs. Many people — and multinational corporations — have already bought tickets to see these events with their own eyes, assuming the region's onerous smog blankets and summer temperature inversions don't effectively blur their vision.

The second categorically different event is absolutely guaranteed to blur the clarity of your vision, no doubt about it: This is the media event. The televisation of the Summer Olympics is not a pure sporting event but a carefully engineered commercial reality.

Commercial reality and artistic or athletic integrity rarely overlap much. "Inasmuch as the production of the televised image of this spectacle is a prop for advertising," wrote the late, great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, "the televised event is a commercial, marketable product that must be designed to reach the largest audience and hold onto it the longest."

Bourdieu concludes in his classic work "On Television" that "it follows that the relative importance of the different sports (as ranked by the international sports organisations in advance of the Games, and then by TV, during the Games, especially as regards "prime time" scheduling) increasingly depends on their television popularity and the correlated financial return they promise."

But beyond this two-step social construction — first the staging of the sports event, then the production of the media event — is a third major event. This is the political reality within China itself during the Olympic Games this August.

To be sure, if China's political authorities have it their way, these Olympics will remain but a two-step event. They have no desire to let us see or know about any political demonstrations, violence, unrest or even pollution, whether in prime-time or not. This is understandable, of course.

But this will not be an ordinary month for China. There will be an unprecedented amount of electronic media and foreign reporters on the mainland. Outsider eyes will be on the ground, and outsiders everywhere around the world will be peeking into the mainland via the media's eye.

The intent of the organisers and the government is to have everyone's eyes focused on the sporting events. But the media, as Bourdieu has famously observed, have the ability to re-arrange reality like a magnet to a pile of iron filings when they enter any arena, creating an overall pattern for simpler observation.

This is why the month of August is both a fabulous and scary time for Beijing. They get the Olympics, for which they worked so hard. But they also get the gigantic international media magnet, which will change events and their appearances even as they purport to report on them through a totally objective lens.

Will the renewed Muslim resistance from the western end of China suddenly appear around the capital to the east? Will the media magnet lure Xinjiang separatists — some of whom clearly are terrorists, and some perhaps suicide ones — into the spotlight, simply because the spotlight is now there, planted in eastern China like an alien spaceship, lowering the drawbridge to invite everyone in?

And how about the widespread unemployment created by economic injustice, not to mention the demographic dislocation triggered by the intensive Olympic-related construction? If it is not suppressed by police and security, will the media's eye catch a glimpse of it for the world? Or, instead, will Beijing authorities prefer to clamp down on the international media, not to mention the dissenters looking for attention?

No matter how dense the air pollution — said to be untamed, even at this late date — it can't possibly be thick enough to block out all political reality from the camera's eye.

No country of 1.3 billion is easily governed even under the best of circumstances. China's economic condition has greatly improved from the striking and commendable reforms started two decades ago. But, as everywhere in the world, the reality of China is still less than ideal, maybe even more so than in other places. No one in their right mind should wish China anything other than the most grandiose and happy of Olympic Games. But in taking on this great honour, China may have bitten off more than it can chew. I hope I am wrong, but I wish it had waited four or even eight more years. It's that third Olympics that has me really worried.

Prof. Tom Plate, on leave from UCLA to write a book on Asia, is a syndicated columnist and author of Confessions of an American Media Man

More news from