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Let the games begin

Olympics | The summer Olympics, set to open Aug. 8, are filled with inspirational athletes and great stories. But what many hoped would be the best Olympic story of all, the liberalizing of host nation China, hasn't happened yet

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

Cruel summer

Are the Olympic Games effecting change in China? Ask Federation House Church chairman Bike Zhang and his wife, after Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers forced them from their home July 6 and made them live on the streets, harassing and threatening any hotels or friends willing to offer shelter. According to reports from China Aid, government officials justify their actions as a response to Zhang having "met the Americans and destroyed the harmony of the Beijing Olympic Games."

That kind of totalitarian action hardly squares with the public face China is presenting to the visiting world. The Beijing Olympic organizing committee has opened the door for the free circulation of Bibles in the Olympic village. The British Bible Society in partnership with China-based Amity Printing Company has plans to distribute 50,000 Gospel booklets, 30,000 New Testaments, and 10,000 complete Bibles, an unprecedented allowance from a government that remains hostile to Chinese Christians.

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Organizations closely connected to the house-church movement in China call such religious freedom part of a government scheme to curry international favor and hide its repressive practices. The International Olympic Committee hoped to expose and remedy such behavior in awarding the Games to China. IOC president Jacques Rogge proclaimed that the Games will open a fifth of the world's population to the idea of Olympism and provide media pressure for China to clean up its human-rights abuses: "This will have a good effect for the evolution of China. We believe that the Games are a great catalyst for change."

But history may suggest otherwise. In 1936, United States Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage fiercely opposed all calls to boycott the Games in Hitler's Berlin. Two years later, the Avery Brundage Company received a contract to build the German embassy in the United States. That kind of backdoor business dealing has shrouded the Olympic Games ever since, according to IOC critic John Hoberman, who has spent 30 years studying the impact of so-called "Olympism" and emerged a cynic.

Masked in calls for inclusiveness and global unity, the Olympic Games, Hoberman contends, are more about big business than big ideals. The chair of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin says this year's Olympic Games represent the fifth time the IOC has gone into business with an authoritarian regime, never with the kind of positive results promised: "They flattered themselves that they and their Olympics would change China and now comes the backlash. All of the news coming out of the relationship between the IOC and China shows that the Chinese have been giving nothing and taking everything. They are using the purported terror threat and their -determination to control political life in China as reasons for cracking down rather than easing up."

Indeed, television news companies are concerned over tight restrictions on reporting from Beijing. An unnamed IOC commissioner recently admitted to The New York Times that had "those vested with the decision to award the host city contract known seven years ago that there would be severe restrictions on people being able to enter China simply to watch the Olympics, or that live broadcasting from Tiananmen Square would essentially be banned, or that reporters would be corralled at the whim of local security, then I seriously doubt whether Beijing would have been awarded the Olympics."

Hoberman believes that multi-national corporate pressure contributed to the IOC's decision. NBC, which paid $900 million for the broadcast rights to the Games, stands to ingratiate itself with the Chinese government, potentially leading to greater inroads and profits that would dwarf what it expects to make in Olympic advertising revenue. Companies like Nike and Adidas, the official sportswear providers for the Beijing Games, are using the Olympics to tap a booming market -second only to the United States.

When the two weeks of international competition and talk of global peace have run their course, what benefits of Olympism will remain for the Chinese people and those in Tibet longing for freedom from China's grip? The seeds of democracy? Or shoes?

Defenders of the Games' lofty ideals point to 1988 in Seoul, Korea, where the Olympics coincided with the emergence of a burgeoning democracy. Hoberman calls that turn of history a fortunate coincidence that the IOC could not have predicted when awarding the Games years earlier. He says IOC officials are well-intentioned but misguided about their role in international politics: "These people flatter themselves that they are global diplomats, that they can make history and bring the world together. They believe they have a mandate to be inclusive and universal the way the United Nations does. I think that's a canard."

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