A New Kind of Spectacle: How China Changed the Olympics

The world went into the 2008 games asking whether the Olympics would change China, but maybe it was the other way around.

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Construction teams work at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing. (AP)

Anthropologist Susan Brownell has written many books about sports and the Olympics in China. Her monographTraining the Body for Chinais one of the few books about sports and China, and she is also the author of an book on China and the Olympics, and an edited book (with Bill Kelly) on Olympics in East Asia. In addition, four years ago Brownell contributed a string of insightful posts for The China Beaton sports, spectacle and the People's Republic of China, some of which were then reprinted in the book China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance.

One of your main points in 2008 was that people often focused on the wrong question about the Beijing Games. Instead of putting so much stress on how the Olympics were likely to "change China," you argued, we also needed to pay attention to how China might "change the Olympics." Looking back four years on, what do you think the biggest impact China's role as host country has had on the Olympics as a sporting event, as spectacle, or both?

My question, "will the Olympics change China, or will China change the Olympics?" was really an attempt to prod my audiences to think about the bigger question of the implications for the developed West of China's rise, because Westerners seemed so concerned about the question of whether hosting the Olympics would push China toward Western-style political reforms, and no one seemed concerned about the question of whether, instead of us changing China, China might actually change us. I felt that many of my Western listeners needed to be awakened out of their self-centeredness.

China did change the Olympic Games, and since the Olympic Games are a thoroughly global event, those changes reflect the changes that China has instigated in the world order. The world financial crisis hit right after the Beijing Games, in large part due to the fact that the integration of China into the global economy, which the Olympics marked, had tipped it off balance. It should give us pause that in the midst of this crisis, Olympic broadcast and sponsorship revenues have increased astronomically from the 2006-2008 cycle (Torino and Beijing) to the 2010-2012 cycle (Vancouver and London). Chinese Central Television paid $99.5 million for the 2010-2012 broadcast rights, while it had not even bought individual broadcasting rights for 2008, but was part of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union that had paid a mere $17.5 million. That is one measure of the rapid growth of the Chinese economy in the past decade. Both global sponsorship and broadcast revenues are set to break records in the 2014-2016 cycle. So if the Olympic Games are any indication, the global economy seems alive and well, and China is now a major player.

While we Americans are lamenting the sad state of our economy and fearing that we will be eclipsed by China, it is instructive to note that in 2008 the number of American sponsors in the IOC's global TOP program reached an all-time low of 5 out of the 12, while Lenovo became China's first TOP sponsor. Four years later, the IOC was only able to sign up 11 TOP sponsors, but six of them are American, none is Chinese, and one is Taiwanese (Acer). Furthermore, NBC paid an astounding $4.38 billion for the television broadcast rights from 2014 through 2020, apparently betting that the cost will continue to rise. So the view from the peak of the Olympic Games makes it seem that the American economy is doing fine, too -- and that we still dominate the global economy. Nevertheless, a pro-Obama super-PAC is planning to broadcast a TV ad spoofing the Olympic parade of nations, in which presidential candidate Mitt Romney is credited with outsourcing U.S. jobs to the nations -- most prominently China -- whose delegations parade by.

Did China change the Olympics? Yes -- since the Chinese leadership invested the Olympics with so much significance, the economic and political powers-that-be in the developed West took them more seriously as well. Romney, whose career got a boost when he was hired to navigate the Salt Lake City Olympic committee through its bribery scandal, will be attending the opening ceremony in London, as will Michelle Obama. The pundits seem to agree that no one will be able to match the ceremonies in Beijing -- because of the "unlimited" resources that can be commanded by an authoritarian government -- but if London fails to organize an event that is outstanding in other ways, it will be interesting to see what kind of discussion it initiates about the strengths and weaknesses of liberal democracy.

Another legacy of Beijing was to empower transnational society (see my article in the June issue of the British Journal of Sociology). Last January the U.N. sent a special rapporteur on adequate housing to Rio de Janeiro to report on Olympics-related evictions there, something it did not do in the lead-up to Beijing; perhaps it had not wanted to test its tentative relationship with the IOC before the Beijing Games -- but when IOC President Rogge stated in exasperation that monitoring human rights was the U.N.'s job and not the IOC's, he provided the U.N. with an entrée. Amnesty International protested the naming of Dow Chemical as a TOP sponsor, resulting in the resignation of the chair of the London "Sustainability Commission" in January. Human Rights Watch pressured the IOC to compel Saudi Arabia to send its first woman to the Olympic Games; it was just announced that the Saudis, as well as the other two holdouts (Brunei and Qatar) would send their first female athletes.

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