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China’s Sporting Spirit

July 29, 2008

Beijing, the city where I live and work, is now in a period of frantic preparation for the opening of the Olympic Games on August 8. Perhaps because almost all sports bore me to tears, I look at the Olympics as a period of temporary madness that humans go through at precise four-year intervals, not unlike a U.S. election campaign. I can only agree with George Orwell, who in his essay “The Sporting Spirit” seemed baffled by

…nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.

A leafy sculpture of an Olympic cyclist in Beijing

A leafy sculpture of an Olympic cyclist in Beijing

China has worked itself not so much into a fury as into a lather of anticipation. In recent weeks, various Olympic-themed decorations have appeared (see photo), new subway lines have opened, and the informal streetside economy of pedlars and vegetable-sellers has been sharply curtailed. Canadians who visit Beijing for the Olympics will find a city that is tidier and more user-friendly than the one I’ve come to know since I moved here last October, but the bustling spontaneity of the place has suffered slightly as a result.

It’s easy to understand why Beijing is taking its role as host so seriously. This is China’s great chance to impress the world, following a long period of relative isolation. Equally, many activists in the west make no secret of their desire to spoil China’s party with disruptive protests. Some world leaders have been publicly agonising over whether or not to attend the opening ceremonies, balancing worries over Tibet and Darfur against friendship with China. (Stephen Harper will not be going, but then, Canadian Prime Ministers traditionally do not attend anyway.)

In my opinion, all the criticism is beginning to sound a bit mean-spirited. Of course there are areas of friction, but they should not overshadow China’s recent accomplishments. In the past 150 years, China has experienced extremes of brutality, humiliation and deprivation that would be difficult for many Canadians to imagine. To have risen above these historical vicissitudes to become an economic powerhouse with a credible space program is a spectacular achievement. In September we can go back to geopolitics as usual, but meanwhile China deserves a round of sincere and uncritical applause. The Olympics, trivial as they may seem to curmudgeons like myself, are an appropriate occasion.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott Y permalink
    August 6, 2008 5:37 pm

    In the NHL off-season, I couldn’t agree more with the Orwell quote, but as soon as the Canucks hit the ice, I still find myself roaring in anticipation. And I can only think that Orwell underestimated the power of sport in generating national (or at least regional/urban unity). Sport is more powerful as a metaphor than simply men and women in tights running around a grassy knoll.

    Anyway, on to the main event. I do agree that the Olympics have unfortunately become the fulcrum for anybody-who-has-a-grudge-against-anybody. Here in Vancouver, there are predictions of widespread protests, notably from the First Nations community.

    But in the end, I do agree with you Cor. This ought to be a celebration of the PRC’s achievements. There are 1.3 billion Chinese who see this as China’s coming-out party. They deserve a good party. I’m not suggesting for a second that we should forget the long road ahead that China has to walk and the truth is, many Chinese know their country isn’t perfect. But it seems to me that protesters are more concerned about getting their time on their soapbox during the Olympics (ie: 3 Americans protesting abortion in Tiananmen Square?!) than anything else.

    And to quote Trevor Phillips, quoting Rodney King: “the plaintive question that resounds in my mind is: “why can’t we just all get along?””

    Let China celebrate their Olympic Games, and let’s get back to the mudslinging in September.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    August 5, 2008 6:33 pm

    Hi Cor,
    Another iconoclastic piece – always worth the read – i was brought up a big fan of Dr. Norman Bethune and was pleased to see you reference some of China’s historical struggles. Look forward to your observations Aug.08 and beyond. R

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