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.
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."
But for all his criticisms, Hoberman is not unlike most Americans: unable to take his eyes off the competition.
On the run for fun
This year's slate of American runners, leapers, and throwers offers plenty worth watching. From sprinters Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix to decathlete Bryan Clay, the chance for U.S. gold is strong. But at least one American athlete on the track will press viewers to ponder more than elite sport. The final 1,500-meter leg of Lopez Lomong's long journey from Sudan to Olympic glory promises to pack all the emotion and memories of his gut-wrenching story into 3½ minutes.
In 1991, a government-backed militia abducted Lomong and other children in the south Sudanese village of Kimotong. Just 6 years old, he remained in custody for three weeks, watching others dying around him of dehydration and disease. Three teenagers who knew Lomong's family helped him escape to a Kenyan refugee camp, where he spent the next 10 years among the "Lost Boys" of Sudan.
In 2001, Lomong wrote a letter detailing his story and plans should he be among the several thousand selected for a resettlement program in America. The letter landed him in the household of an adopted family in upstate New York. Six years later, this past Christmas, having captured three high-school state running titles and an NCAA crown in the 1500, Lomong received assistance from the HBO program Real Sports to return to Sudan and reunite with his biological family.
On July 6, he raced to third in the 1500 meters at the U.S. trials in Eugene, Ore., qualifying for the Olympic team. "I came a long way, for sure," he said, "from running through the wilderness to save my life, and now I am doing this for fun."
American speed skater Joey Cheek is heading to Beijing for the Olympic Games this month. But he isn't confused about the season-nor is he mistaken in donning the colors of Team Darfur. Everything Cheek has done since winning an Olympic gold medal in Turin, Italy, two years ago has smacked of intentionality-the more than $1 million raised from fellow athletes, the creation of a multinational nonprofit, the open letter to the Chinese government, and now the call for an Olympic truce in Darfur.
With almost 400 world-class athletes behind him, 72 of whom are competing in Beijing, Cheek intends to parlay every last bit of international attention surrounding the Olympic Games into greater awareness and action against the genocide in Western Sudan. Many of the athletes connected to his Team Darfur organization plan to speak out in Beijing, calling on China to suspend all weapons trade with Sudan, rescind interest-free loans, suspend debt forgiveness, and use its large oil investments to pressure the government in Khartoum to disarm militias and adhere to ceasefire agreements.
Such demands are unlikely to engender much movement on the part of the Chinese government, but Cheek is optimistic that his efforts will kick-start broader international pressure on China. He's likewise hopeful about his group's proposal that the Sudanese government and rebel groups honor a longstanding tradition of laying down arms during Olympic competition. "Despite the fact that this may be a bit of a long shot, I think there's some chance, and I think it's something worth fighting for," he said. "To me, nothing seems more fitting and more of an ideal way to live up to the potential of the Olympic Games."
Cheek is sensitive to the reality that for many athletes, competing in the Games is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. He does not view Olympic competition as solely political. Nor would he shame any athlete for declining to speak out on political issues. Even some members of Team Darfur, while happy to let the group use their names, have no plans to address Chinese connections with Sudan in interviews or press conferences.
For those athletes who do plan to make political comments, Team Darfur is careful to avoid anything that might violate IOC rules or codes of conduct. "We tell the athletes, 'You've spent your whole career doing this. We are the last people who want you to jeopardize that by breaking a rule or wearing something that you're not allowed to,'" Cheek said. Restrictions on organized dissent could prove prohibitive as the Beijing Olympic organizing committee has recently established protest zones several miles away from any athletic venues.
Still, Tracy Mattes, a former hurdler and modern pentathlete traveling to Beijing with Team Darfur, views the Games in China as an opportunity to effect change, not a misguided gift to a reprehensible government. "All the talk about boycott, that's never the answer," she said. "The whole concept behind the Games is to bring people together. That's the idea behind the Olympic truce, that people would lay down their weapons and battle it out on a playfield."
Trouble is, none of the Sudanese militia men or Chinese government officials are planning to suit up come game day.
Behind some olympic stories of endurance, inspiration, and grit there are stories of strong faith in Christ. Stories like that of Ryan Hall, who at age 25 is already the fastest American-born marathoner ever and the best hope for U.S. gold in the men's race since Frank Shorter won the event in 1972.
Hall's tale begins on the lonely highways of Big Bear Lake, Calif., a mountain town 100 miles east of Los Angeles. It was there at 7,000 feet that the two-time high-school state cross-country champion logged the thousands of miles necessary to become a world-class distance runner.
Connoisseurs of the sport took notice on Oct. 8, 2006, when Hall broke the American 20 kilometer record by 48 seconds. And the racing world double-took three months later when he became the first American ever to crack one hour in a half marathon.
By April 2007, the soft-spoken athlete had generated considerable buzz heading into the prestigious Flora London Marathon, his first try at the 26.2-mile distance. His time of 2:08:24, a mark faster than any Olympic gold medal run in history, launched Hall to stardom and sparked whispers of American resurgence in an event long dominated by Africans and Europeans.
Such success brought more attention and a platform to speak. Hall was ready: "It isn't the records, championships, or medals that make life fulfilling. It's the life of following Christ."
That vision, one birthed from the painful lessons of disappointment at having missed the U.S. Olympic trials due to injury in 2004, pressed Hall to train and compete differently. In the run-up to last November's trials in New York City, the reborn athlete posted a video online of a recent training run with voiceovers of his testimony. He spoke honestly of his struggle to keep running in perspective as a means of worship, not the object of it.
"Now as I prepare for my first Olympic trials, I feel God calling me to run free, to run free from having to make the team, free from the worries of needing to prove myself, free from the riches of this world, free to run with a heart full of passion and praise for God, free to pour myself out for Him, not for me."
That freedom proved evident Nov. 3 over the final miles of the Central Park course as Hall pumped his fists and pointed to the sky en route to a winning time of 2:09:02, a U.S. trials record. Five months later in April of this year, he returned to London and scorched the pavement with a personal best of 2:06:17, less than two minutes off the world record. On Aug. 24, Hall will compete in the final event of the Olympic Games, chasing a gold medal in just the fourth marathon of his young career.
Worth a look Opening ceremonies: Will any athletes make protest statements, a potentially disqualifying offense? (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC) August 9
Don't miss Swimming: American Michael Phelps begins his quest for a record eight gold medals with the 400 meter IM final. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Don't miss Swimming: The men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay is among the most exciting events at the Games. (7 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Worth a look Equestrian: New Zealander Mark Todd, 52, returns after eight years in retirement to compete in the humidity of Hong Kong. (6-8 p.m., Oxygen)
Don't miss Gymnastics: The U.S. women's team is a heavy favorite to win gold. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Don't miss Gymnastics: With defending gold medal winner Paul Hamm out due to injury, the U.S. team will have its hands full trying to upset China's Yang Wei. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Don't miss Gymnastics: Shawn Johnson, 16, looks to become the next American darling to grab gold in the women's all-around. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Don't miss Track and Field: American Tyson Gay meets Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell in a 100-meter race for the ages. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Don't miss Swimming: Phelps takes his last shot at gold in the 4x100 m medley relay. (7:30 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Worth a look Swimming: American Dara Torres, 41, swims for a medal in her fifth Olympic Games. (7:30 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Worth a look Rowing: American Anna Mickelson and company look to improve on their silver medal in Athens. (7 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Worth a look Table Tennis: The Chinese team is out to prove its dominance to the home crowd. (2 a.m.-noon, USA)
Don't miss Diving: American Troy Dumais goes for gold in his third Olympic Games against a powerful team of Chinese divers. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Don't miss Beach Volleyball: Americans Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh seek to defend their Athens gold and perhaps exit the sport on top. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Worth a look Track and Field: Gay goes for gold in the 200 meters. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Don't miss Track and Field: American Allyson Felix looks to improve on her silver medal finish in Athens in the 200 meters. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Worth a look Track and Field: American Jeremy Wariner looks to defend his gold from Athens in the 400 meters. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Worth a look Track and Field: American Brian Clay competes for the title of best athlete on earth in the men's decathlon. (8 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Don't miss Marathon: American Ryan Hall chases a medal in just the fourth marathon of his young career. (7:30 p.m.-midnight, NBC)
Worth a look Basketball: Team USA looks to avoid embarrassment and capture gold with a roster of NBA stars, including Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. (12:30-5 a.m., NBC)
Worth a look Closing ceremony: One last chance for protest. (7-11 p.m., NBC)