- Tuesday August 05 2008 20:30 BST
Web page: When protesters by the thousands hit the streets of London and Paris earlier this year, denouncing China and trying to snuff the Olympic torch, it appeared games were losing their mythic appeal. But with the opening ceremony this Friday, it's back to business as usual for Olympics – with business the operative word.
In March, after anti-Beijing riots in Tibet left dozens dead and sparked a crackdown by the Chinese military, the world appeared ready to turn its back on Beijing. Protests along the Olympic torch relay route put the spotlight on China's occupation of Tibet, its war on Tibetan culture and its dismal human rights record at home and even beyond, as enabler-in-chief for Sudan's genocide in Dafur and arms merchant to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The torch relay fiasco also underlined the International Olympic Committee's failure honour its promise to use the games to leverage greater freedom in China.
Upon winning the right to host the Olympics seven years ago, China pledged to improve its human rights performance. Last week provided evidence, however, of how little China and IOC value that promise. Chinese authorities won't even live up to an explicit pledge to permit unfettered access to the internet for reporters at the Olympic media centre. Separately, a report from Amnesty International outlines how, rather than encourage greater freedom, the Olympics have given China a pretext to strike harder against dissent.
Amnesty cites expansion of the "re-education through labour" programme to "clean up" Beijing ahead of the games, taking dissidents into custody and shipping them out of town to avoid embarrassing disruptions during the Olympics. Amnesty also reports that Shanghai activists have been put on a tighter leash, barred from leaving the city during the Olympic period and warned against talking to foreigners.
In recent years, China's standard reply to challenges over its human rights record has been to assert that its double-digit economic growth improves human rights. In that, China echoes the true Olympic spirit: global business. At the nub, today's Olympics aren't about puffed up athletes or puffed up nationalism as much as they are about the money.
The real gold in the Olympics is reserved for the IOC and its sponsors. The IOC reported income from sponsorships, broadcast rights, ticket sales and licensing of $4.2bn during the 2001-2004 Olympic quadrennium (pdf), the last accounting period for which the IOC published full records, and that's certain to rise in this Olympic cycle. Income for its global sponsorship programme, The Olympic Partners (TOP), alone has increased from $663m to $866m from 12 global corporate marketing rights purchasers. Domestic sponsorships specific to the host country usually exceed the TOP take, and that should be especially true for the 2008 games when the host country is the world's largest and most coveted emerging consumer market.
When the IOC and world leaders like George Bush contended after the protests that politics have no place in the Olympics – a ridiculous notion for an event where participants compete under national flags – they were really saying: don't let moral concerns interfere with big business.
Olympic sponsors – who won't get any free publicity here – are spending an estimated $2bn to be associated with the games, not because they love sports, but because they want to sell computers and hamburgers and fizzy drinks and cars and phones and watches and shoes all over the world, particularly to 1.3bn Chinese. These games are an affirmation from the sponsors that Chinese consumers are sufficiently advanced to buy their products and from the Beijing authorities that their disciples are sufficiently free to indulge themselves with these trinkets every bit as unnecessary as an Olympic pin.
Today's true Olympic moment won't be some pituitary case setting a world record in a sport that's ignored throughout the four years between Olympics, then sweating out a drug test. It will be a Chinese yuppie plunking down two months salary for one of the sponsors' mobile phones.
What we're seeing in Beijing isn't China's coming out party, as some pundits brand it, but a coming in party. The house that Mao Zedong built is entering the big leagues of global consumerism. That this spectacle unfolds under skies as soiled and obscured as the Olympic ideals, in venues as hideous as the Bird's Nest and the Watercube, tempts belief that there's a truly Olympian presence, a five ring version of Mao's picture staring out from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and like the Great Helmsman, it cannot be pleased with what it is seeing.