Leading article: Sporting greatness and political repression

Share
Related Topics

We have reached the halfway point in what already seem likely to be remembered as the most grandiose and spectacular Olympic Games yet staged. As a sporting spectacle, the action in Beijing over the past week has been of the first order. The performance of Michael Phelps in the pool has naturally been the biggest story. We have watched the American swimmer become the most decorated Olympian of all time. It is astonishing to reflect that if Phelps were a country he would be sixth in the national medal table. But hundreds of other athletes – including a healthy number of British swimmers and cyclists – have also combined to make these Games a thrilling exhibition of sporting achievement.

The hosts will also be relieved that proceedings have not been disfigured by any major drugs scandals. The authorities seem to have been rigorous on the testing front, to the extent that some athletes are beginning to complain of being continuously pestered for samples. If such tactics are what it takes to clean up the image of the Games, they are entirely welcome.

Indeed, the whole event has been run with a formidable efficiency by its Beijing hosts. Events have begun and finished on time. The facilities have been generously praised by athletes. This is hardly surprising, of course. No one doubted the Chinese regime's ability to mobilise vast human and economic resources to put on a good show. Which other nation could summarily close down entire industries, or ban cars on half of its capital city's roads, as China has?

So the Games themselves seem on course to be a success. But a question mark still hangs over what they will mean for the political future of China. There was a lot of optimistic talk in the years running up to these games of China "opening up" to the world in 2008. The International Olympic Committee has always been keen to push this line to justify its controversial award of the games to Beijing in 2001. And in the extravagant opening ceremony, the Chinese regime dutifully trotted out the usual homage to the games as an affirmation of international peace and brotherhood.

But the strong suspicion remains that the Chinese government regards these Games more as an opportunity to assert the resurrection of China as a world power, as opposed to anything more altruistic. And as far as extending the freedoms of the Chinese people goes, the Olympics have actually given the regime a chance to step up its repression. The Beijing authorities, citing the threat of a terrorist attack, have imposed a suffocating security cordon around the city. Journalists might have been given more freedom to travel around the country and internet access widened, but ordinary Chinese have been subject to much more stringent controls on their movement than they have become accustomed to. Look beyond the smiles that the Beijing police have been instructed to wear for the duration of the Games and one can still discern the familiar snarl of repression.

It is vital not to allow the modernity and sophistication of the sporting facilities to distract us from the fact that China's political system remains barely reformed from the totalitarian model that brought such misery to its people in the last century. The Chinese government is still a corrupt, self-interested elite. Political freedoms in the country are virtually non-existent. And it would be naive to ignore the fact that one of the main purposes of these Games, from the perspective of the regime, is to impress upon the Chinese people that its rulers are accepted as legitimate by the wider world and, even more significantly, that they are not going anywhere.

Yet the law of unintended consequences might come into play. The international spotlight that fell on the Soviet Union in the 1980 Moscow Olympics encouraged some of the forces that eventually led to the downfall of communism a decade later. It is hard to see the same story unfolding in China, mainly because the regime has granted its people more economic freedom than the old Soviet Union ever did. China has a pressure release valve in commerce. But it is not impossible that when the Games are over, the burgeoning middle classes of China's cities will feel emboldened to demand a greater say in their nation's political destiny. Hosting the world, even for just a fortnight, can affect a country in unpredictable ways.

There is another, more parochial, question hanging in the air as these Games reach their halfway point: how does Britain follow this in 2012? The answer is, of course, that we cannot. Despite the £9bn budget for London 2012, Britain cannot hope to spend as much as the Chinese state. And more to the point, we should not even try to match Beijing for scale and expense. There is no reason why London's Games should not be just as successful, but on a less grandiose scale. China's inability to fill stadiums over the past week should send a message to the organisers of 2012 that bigger does not always mean better. Britain should not be ashamed to bring its own style – not to mention its democratic values – to the Olympic party in four years' time.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The demise of a Sixties monster

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A CCTV camera is seen in front of a large poster opposite in central London  

Home Office is creating more powers to turn everyone into suspects – but leave us no safer

Shami Chakrabarti
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?