Deborah Orr: If we can keep politics out of the Olympic Games, it will be a first

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The Independent Online

I'm not sure that I can wholeheartedly go along with the spirit of the claim in this week's New Statesman that "Bjork's cry of 'Tibet, Tibet' at a concert in Shanghai pre-empted the riots in Lhasa". The implication is that the two events were intimately connected, and even Bjork herself isn't convinced of that.

"I see what I did as a tiny act. With the Olympics coming up, this was one of a hundred rehearsals for the Chinese people to get communicating with the Western world, one example of how there are going to be misunderstandings. I'm very curious to see how the Olympic thing is going to happen. I mean, hundreds of thousands of athletes and journalists will be coming and writing about it. What I did is nothing compared to that."

I'm very curious to see how the Olympic thing is going to happen myself, though no doubt happen it will in some uncomfortable form or another. All the talk of boycotts, after all, has come a little too late. It's been some years now since the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Beijing, and until now Western politicians have been just as craven about this expression of acceptance of China's free-market totalitarianism as they have all of the others. Few politicians are in a position to stray too far from the exhortation of the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang, who argues that "the world should follow the Olympic spirit and not politicise the Games".

Yet, whether coming from the Chinese government, or from Colin Moynihan, the former Olympic silver medallist and Conservative sports minister who is now chairman of the British Olympic Association, the idea that the "Olympic spirit" keeps sport and politics separate, is absurd.

The modern Olympics have never been anything except a giant political football, with competing national interests played out on the pitch of self-promotion. My childhood understanding of the Olympics was that it was a proxy battlefield in the Cold War, with any competitor who wasn't from the US or the USSR there simply to supply a wild card or two. Looking back, I don't consider it an early impression I need to correct. The Olympics also taught me, graphically and horrifically, that there were people who called themselves Palestinians, and that there was a little bit more to Israel than lovely kibbutzim.

Why any nation suffering "local difficulty" ever imagines it can host the Olympics without igniting simmering resentment is testament only to humanity's belief in the power of hubris. For any such nation, and there are very few without one or two nasty open secrets, the gamble is always that sheer grandiosity, peppered as it so often is with self-pity, can dwarf anyone who cares to step out of line. When the Chinese accuse the rest of the world of false reporting on Tibet, and condemn the Dalai Lama as the brains behind "a violent, secessionist incident", they probably, to some degree, believe the story of their own unjust victimhood.

I do, however, like the accusations that China is just like Nazi Germany in its acquisition of the Games for the purpose of "self-aggrandisement". (Which Qin Gang describes as "an insult to the Chinese and world people".) What city has ever put in a bid to host the Olympics out of a desire for self-effacement? Certainly not London, which triumphed in its pitch due to the deployment of the sort of marketing skills that might in less sophisticated language be more accurately described as "lying".

The Olympic spirit might beat in the breasts of one or two sportspeople. But it's not about them now, if it ever was. For every country that plays host to the event, it is an opportunity to show off its technological and organisational brilliance. The Chinese are far from alone in being unable to resist this temptation, and whatever nightmares their ambitions have unleashed, they are unlikely at this stage to succumb to such a modest reaction as regret.

* The British Airports Authority is widely regarded as being in the flying game in order to attract a bored captive audience for retail filleting. So you could argue that in one respect at least the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow has been something of a success. Certainly it is diverting to muse on how British Airways could have been so complacent about its latest debut. Yet it is even more mystifying to consider how on earth all those people could have persuaded themselves that an early take-off from the £4.3bn terminal could possibly be anything except a horror to be avoided at any cost.

Man falls pregnant!

We may wring our hands over the decline of marriage. Yet no one seems keen to acknowledge the dedication to the wedded state that has been displayed by 34-year-old Thomas Beatie.

He claims that he underwent gender reassignment surgery in order to marry his lesbian girlfriend, Nancy Roberts, because same-sex marriage is banned in Hawaii, where they then lived. Nancy had had a hysterectomy, though, and, with just one womb between them (like any other married couple), the pair decided that Tom's abandoned old primary sexual organs ought to be dusted off and pressed into service.

Now Tom claims to be a five-month pregnant man, full of joy at the life pulsing in his belly. Some suggest that this is an elaborate prank for April Fool's Day, though I don't really get the joke.

Poor old Beatie simply isn't a man at all, whatever his legal status. He's just a medically engineered hermaphrodite, and therefore no one to get too fussed over just because of a little artificial insemination. Back off, world media. What do you think this is? A freak show?

* Hot on the heels of Flat Earth News, the book in which Nick Davies accuses the media of endlessly rewriting its own copy in the creation of "churnalism", comes Born Yesterday, the book in which Gordon Burn conducts a peroration on last year's media preoccupations, and gives birth to "churnafiction". The latter is as instructive as the former, in its eerie way, and a lot more fun to read.

Born Yesterday is a novel of a kind, and offers a fictionalised version of Burn, himself a writer and journalist of some distinction, as he meditates on the figures who cross the media stage and gently speculates about how accurate the picture he has assembled can really be.

Gradually, subtly, he develops an uncontrived awareness that the themes in the news that most interest him are largely subjective, and relate intimately to himself and his own past and present preoccupations.

All of Burn's novels are in some way concerned with the effect of celebrity, or at least of media attention, on the psyche. In this novel he goes further, exploring the effect on the psyche of the consumption of the media attention some people receive.

In its way, it's a literary version of the fad for films in which people binge drink for a month, or diet down to size zero. Its sheer intensity explains much about how news saturation shapes a culture. As a novel, it's truly experimental, not least in its confirmation that however you cut it, truth just keeps on asserting itself as stranger than most of the stuff we call fiction. Or maybe it's the other way round.

Short memories

David Cameron, in his speech yesterday outlining Tory economic strategy, must have made Gordon Brown squirm a little. Yet not all of his claims add up. I was particularly taken by Cameron's assertion: "Manufacturing has flatlined over the last decade – one million manufacturing jobs have been lost." I'm not certain that the decline in British industry did start in 1997, and I'm sure I can dig up one or two families "who haven't worked for several generations" in support of my suspicions.

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