When the Beijing Olympic Games begin in 32 days on Aug. 8, journalists expect to be covering both sports and hard news stories in China related to government repression, politics, protests and the environment.
“We’re prepared for anything,” said Christine Brennan, a sports columnist with USA Today, a commentator for ABC News and ESPN, and a contributor to NPR who will be in China covering her 13th Olympic Games.
Brennan spoke at a panel discussion Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival called “The Beijing Games: Balancing Sport, Politics, and Business.”
When the International Olympic Committee awarded China the summer games seven years ago, Brennan said there was a “quid pro quo” agreement that China would change, “that they would ease up on their dissidents, that they would potentially ease up on Tibet” and a myriad of other issues.
But Brennan said the international protests around the torch relay this spring was the world saying to the IOC and China: “You haven’t done it, you’ve blown it.”
Brennan was joined on the panel by John Walsh, an executive vice president and executive editor of ESPN Inc. and the ESPN Internet Group.
“It is the most interesting Olympics in I can’t remember how long because there are so many possible stories,” Walsh said. “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.”
The summer games will include 28 sports, 10,700 athletes, 31 competition venues in Beijing and six outside the city, 5,600 print journalists and photographers, 12,000 members of broadcast crews from around the globe and 70,000 volunteers.
NBC Sports is providing the official U.S. television coverage of the event and Brennan said that because the network is “in cohoots” with the Olympic organizers, it might be forced to limit the amount of coverage it devotes to hard news stories.
“NBC is a partner of the Beijing Olympics,” she said. “But what does NBC do if this absolutely blows up?”
Brennan asked, for example, what NBC will do if during a men’s swimming event a protest erupts in Tiananmen Square.
“Does NBC now continue to show the pretty pictures of the swimming venue, or do they go and show what’s going on in Tiananmen Square ... that the Chinese officials who they are contracted with, who they are in business with, do not want them to show?”
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and an expert on the economics of sports, was also on the panel and he doubted whether China will be able to show the world, like some other host countries have done in prior Olympics, that they are an open and modern society.
“China cannot do what Tokyo did in 1964 because it is not opening up,” Zimbalist said. “It is going to be a walled city. They are spending two billion dollars-plus on security and you are not going to be able to show the bustling Beijing life. You’re going to be able to show empty streets.”
Walsh was also critical of Beijing officials.
“They have made every wrong move in the last year,” he said. “Every step of the way — the arrests, the walling off, what their intentions are to do with the factories and the traffic during the games.”
China is a Communist country with a central government. On Saturday, the tone of Communism was evident in a press release issued by the government calling for all Chinese citizens “to improve their professional ethics and adopt good manners to create a sound social environment for the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games.”
“Local governments ... should step up their efforts in promoting civilized manners and social volunteering, according to the Publicity Department and the Office of the Spiritual Civilization Development Steering Commission of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee,” the statement said.
Also on the panel yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival was 84-year-old Harrison “Bones” Dillard, a track and field athlete who won two gold medals in the 1948 Olympics in London and two more in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
He is the only man to have won gold medals in both the 100-meter sprint and the 110-meter high hurdles event.
Dillard was asked by panel moderator Jeremy Schaap of ESPN if he expected to see boycotts of, or protests at, the Beijing games.
“I would not be surprised if somebody doesn’t do something,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see something.”