In ancient times the Olympics were a time when all nations – all Greek nations, anyway – would put away their differences and compete in almost every human activity, from poetry to the ferocious, no-holds barred combat sport called pankration. Being the very best that humans could be was seen as the best way to honour the gods of Olympus.
Though we’ve dropped the poetry and the blood sports (not to mention the nudity), our modern Olympics retain much of the spirit of those games. No longer religious in nature, they nevertheless still have relevance. It’s a relevance that’s changed over time: from the internationalism that inspired de Coubertin, to its opposite, fascism, as exemplified by the 1936 Berlin games, and the Cold-War-by-proxy of the later 20th Century, the Olympics have always meant something.
This summer’s Beijing Olympics will be no different, and governments, journalists and activists have already begun trying to determine just what they will mean. For some, this will be the Olympics of new media: NBC, the network with American broadcast rights to the games, has stated that they will use the event as a “billion-dollar research lab” to experiment with different media platforms. For NBC, the Olympics represent an opportunity to establish what they call a Total Audience Measurement Index, which will determine how the viewership is divided between a variety of media such as streaming online video, mobile phones and of course TV screens. If successful, the TAMI may be adopted for use in measuring total viewership of TV shows and other content that is split between different platforms.
Of course, once people are online there’s no reason they have to go to NBC to get their Olympic coverage. NHK in Japan and CCTV in China will also be putting Olympic footage online, providing a wide variety of options for audiences. It’s a safe bet that much of this will wind up on YouTube and file-sharing sites, perhaps making the time difference between China and audiences in Europe and North America less of an issue. As well, this promises to be the first program-your-own Olympics: “Modern technology has the ability to deliver results or feeds of what people want to see, rather than the viewer seeing only what the broadcaster decides you want to see,” Danyll Wills, a Hong Kong-based technology consultant, told Agence France-Presse.
The choice of Beijing for the 2008 games was a controversial one, and this remains a part of both the news coverage and the games themselves. The most prominent story on this subject was the series of protests that accompanied the journey of the Olympic torch, aimed at drawing attention to China’s occupation of Tibet. This, too, points to the new-media aspects of these games: the protests were organized using tools such as social networks and text messaging, and footage of the protests were distributed on YouTube and Flickr. Despite the protests, however, China has cracked down more heavily on Tibetans leading up to the Olympics, not to mention other groups such as Uighurs and the religious movement Falun Gong. For the Western media, these events provide an extra angle to their Olympic coverage, beyond the games themselves. As John Walsh, an executive vice president of the American sports network ESPN, told the Aspen Daily News, “It is the most interesting Olympics in I can’t remember how long because there are so many possible stories. You have human rights versus sportsmanship, you have … the people who are sponsoring, or putting up the dollars for the Olympics, and what will be their statement about human rights and China, and what will the story be outside of the venue.”
It’s worth asking, though, how much coverage of such topics reporters will be allowed to do given China’s poor record of press freedom. The Organizing Committee has promised a “zero refusal policy” for media interviews, according to The China Post, but foreign journalists were denied access to part of the torch’s route that past through Xinjiang and Tibet. Melinda Liu, a reporter for Newsweek, received death threats for her coverage of the Tibetan riots in March, and Reuters correspondent Chris Buckley was beaten and robbed while investigating a citizen protest in Beijing.
In China, meanwhile, there are increasing signs that people are finding a voice online. Global Voices, a Web site that samples and translates blogs from around the world, has been publishing excerpts of Chinese opinion about the Olympics. These show a diversity of voices that may be surprising considering the prevalence of censorship in China. Despite a ban on unlicensed blogging about Olympic events, for instance, several citizen journalists have promised to provide coverage of the events. Other bloggers have reported on the forced evictions of Beijing residents in order to make room for various Olympic facilities.
What proved too much for the Chinese government, though, was the suggestion that there might be a curse associated with the five Olympic mascots, or fuwas: each of the images was thought to have heralded some disaster or crisis – the torch, protests around the Olympic torch; a Tibetan antelope, riots in Tibet; the panda, earthquakes in Sichuan (associated with pandas); and torrential rains associated with the final fuwa, a fish. These posts, however, quickly disappeared from the Chinese blogosphere, as censors moved to delete any suggestions that the games might be ill-omened.
While it’s too early yet to say how these games will be remembered, it’s safe to say that these will not be among those lost to history: whatever happens, these Olympics will mean something.