All that glitters is not gold, as China continues to teach the world this week in Beijing. Sometimes the shiny stuff is neither gold nor silver, or even bronze. Only brass.
The XXIX Olympiad was the Middle Kingdom’s big chance to show everyone that the party hacks and hooligans running the world’s largest capitalist enterprise are cleaned up and housebroken, finally ready to be embraced as model citizens who would never cheat, steal or bear false witness. They might cheat the Tibetans out of their country and millions of Chinese out of their basic freedoms, even steal their rivals’ military secrets, but would never cheat with ball, bat or bar.
On display is a remarkably modern capital, unrecognizable to anyone who visited China even a decade ago. The skyline rivals that of Chicago or Los Angeles. The streets are smooth, the sidewalks clean, the parks manicured, the Olympics venues spectacular, the children well behaved and the hospitality of the Chinese people warm and friendly.
But the glitter of brass deceives. The hand of brutal government lies heavy on ordinary Chinese. The usual suspects are hounded and harassed; the lucky ones are just ordered out of town. Chao Chanqing, a Chinese journalist in exile whose blog is widely read in China on the days the government doesn’t block it, accuses Zhang Yimou, who directed the opening-night spectacular that wowed the world, of trying to eclipse Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the Berlin Olympics of 1936 celebrating Herr Hitler and the Nazis.
Everything about the Beijing Olympics, except the athletic events, is mercilessly sanitized, often counterfeited and sometimes faked, from the opening-night fireworks by software, to sold-out arenas half-emptied to avoid assemblies of ordinary Chinese who might get ideas, to the cruelty to the little girl with the sweet voice and bad teeth, deemed too plain to show to the public, and required to step aside for a cherub’s face while she sang unseen somewhere offstage. This could be a useful precedent for sparing the public the sight of fat, wrinkled party hacks, waiting for their funerals, who hog the cameras on state occasions.
China leads the race to accumulate the most gold medals in the XXIX Olympiad, but this might not be enough. Many of these gold medals were won in the “girlie” sports, gymnastics and diving and such. The “manly” prizes are in soccer, basketball, baseball and above all, track and field. When Liu Xiang, China’s sports superstar whose face is familiar on television screens and billboards across the country, was disqualified after a false start in the 110-meter hurdles, his coach blamed “excessive pressure and training.”
“I am saddened by Liu Xiang’s exit,” the coach said. “I think it is because of the intense training. I have experienced in the past the great pressure that government officials exert on the athletes as well as the coach, that they demand a gold medal; otherwise, it is meaningless. Liu Xiang has been put under a bit too much expectation.”
“Too much expectation” has blemished nearly every Olympics since the games were revived in 1896 in Athens, where the Olympics began as a tribute to Zeus 700 years before the birth of Christ. Politics often has intruded on the games, marked by boycotts (Moscow in 1980, Los Angeles in 1984) and mass murder (at Munich in 1972).
Once upon a time, the emphasis was on individual achievement - the traditional motto is “Swifter, higher, stronger” - but the individual winners eagerly wrap themselves, usually literally, in their nations’ flags. This occasionally startles pretenders to sophistication. When Kobe Bryant, the basketball superstar, told NBC’s Cris Collinsworth that he got “goose bumps” when he first saw his Olympics uniform, it reminded him that “our country is the best.”
Mr. Collinsworth chided him: “Is that a cool thing to say in this day and age?”
Mr. Bryant chided back: “It’s a cool thing for me to say. I feel great about it, and I’m not ashamed to say it.”
Zeus would salute.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.