Maybe it’s because of the rampant commercialism now associated with the event. In ancient times, the Greeks held the Olympic games (in a place called Olympia) to honor the gods on Mount Olympus. Today’s Olympics seem to be more interested in honoring the great god Mammon. While there have been many wonderful athletic achievements – such as Michael Phelps, his eight gold medals and his 12,000 calorie daily diet – the latest story I saw about Phelps was about how he’s poised to strike it rich with endorsements.
Beijing, China, 2007Conversely, a front page photo in the NY Times of the injured Chinese track star Liu Xiang had a caption informing readers of how much of a goldmine he’s likely to lose out on by not competing. It would seem that the modern Olympic mission of “going for the gold” (for some, anyway) involves going for the pot of gold rather than just a medal.
I actually feel that there’s a connection of sorts between the games and amateur photographers like me. The modern Olympics began, as I understand it, as a way to honor amateur athletes: men and women who engaged in their sport of choice out of love for that sport. People whose goal was not necessarily monetary but who aimed for a personal sense of achievement and satisfaction – and yes, with perhaps a little bit of glory if they were successful. In a way, I liken myself to those amateur Olympic competitors of yore – I do my photography in my spare time not for money but for a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. (Of course, the old system was never fair, with the Soviet bloc countries entering athletes who may not have been technically pros but effectively were. As I used to say, they weren’t professionals; they only earned their living at it. The system needed to be changed, but the “dream teams” of millionaire pro athletes who compete now don’t appeal to me, either.)
Tsedang, Tibet, 2007
Still, there are probably other reasons why I haven’t been watching: I’ve been busy developing film and scanning negatives; the Mets are doing well this year so I’ve been watching baseball instead; a friend of mine told me that the Olympic coverage on TV here has gone from an international focus to an American focus since the NBC network took over from ABC; and I figure that a lot of events are tape delayed rather than being broadcast live.
There is also, I think, a much bigger reason: I just can’t get excited over watching these games knowing that the communist Chinese government got away with pulling a big fast one. The Chinese people are the heirs to a very ancient and very rich culture, and they certainly deserve their spotlight on the world stage. In order to be awarded the games, the government made certain promises about allowing more freedoms at home and giving journalists open access to talk to people, etc. From what I’ve read, very little of these promises have been kept – in good measure because the International Olympic Committee and the games’ corporate sponsors let them get away with it. I guess they were ultimately just interested in the money rather than what some would call ‘Olympic ideals.’ Beijing, China, 2007
The government in Beijing has been making a great effort to project the face of a happy, perfect country to the world (replacing a little girl to sing the national anthem because she wasn’t considered to be cute enough, for example). I suppose that every country hosting an event wants to do that, but in the current case, the Chinese government also seems intent on making us forget what else it’s been up to. You know – thing like supporting murderous governments abroad such as in Sudan (i.e. Darfur), Burma (i.e. the military junta) and Zimbabwe (i.e. Robert Mugabe), in addition to its appalling human rights record at home.
For example, two Chinese women, ages 77 and 79, were recently sentenced to one year of “patriotic re-education through labor.” Their crimes? These two elderly women had the audacity to apply for permits to protest the demolition of their homes to make way for development. The Chinese government set up three areas in public parks in which people can hold protests, but a permit to protest is needed – and not only have no such permits been issued, people applying for them have apparently been arrested, too!
No country is perfect, of course. As a U.S. citizen, I am not exactly proud of the Bush administration’s record, either, but as I've seen written recently, however bad Bush and company may be, they’re choir boys compared to the likes of the Chinese and the Russians.
Lhasa, Tibet, 2007
Then, of course, there’s Tibet. (You knew Id’ be getting there eventually, didn’t you?) As a photographer, I don’t consider myself to be a photojournalist – at least not in the sense of one who covers political events. My interest is in culture and people. Like the Chinese, the Tibetans also have a very old, unique culture that should be celebrated and preserved – but it’s the current policies of the Chinese in Tibet that put that culture at risk.
Still, there may yet be some hope. Some recent pieces in the NY Times written by Nicholas Kristof indicate that the Tibetan’s leader in exile, the Dalai Lama, has said openly that he’s willing to accept Tibet as part of Communist China. Kristof wrote that in return, the Chinese need to put an end to their policies that put Tibetan culture at risk, such as high-scale immigration from China into Tibet. Apparently there’s some talk about the Dalai Lama visiting China for the first time since 1959 to attend ceremonies marking six months since the occurence of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Right now, he wrote, it’s up to the Chinese to take this offer seriously or to continue doing things as they are. One way has the possibility of being an an equitable, workable solution to the Tibet problem. The other way is – well, we know that way already, don’t we?
(Note: After writing the last two paragraphs, I read Kristof’s latest comments on the Times website. The Chinese have made their first comments on the issue, and while he wrote that the Chinese comments about the Dalai Lama have not been as venomous as they usually are, their negative tone is very disappointing.)