The Nationalism Olympics

Much of the coverage of Russia’s first Olympic Games as an independent state has been critical, with corruption, LGBT rights and apparently repressive government policies overshadowing the opening of Sochi 2014. Here, Yuexin Rachel Lin argues that by comparing Sochi with Beijing 2008, the differences are smaller than we might imagine.

The coverage of the Sochi Winter Games seems to imply that the Olympics are less about sporting achievement than about social approval. Headlines are dominated less by the athletes involved than by the now-familiar litany of corruption, gay rights, animal cruelty and exotic toilet facilities. Even the opening ceremony – every host country’s big chance to put its best face forward to the world – did not escape scrutiny. Set against the celebration of Russian culture and history were the failure of the fifth Olympic ring to open and a racist tweet by flame lighter Irina Rodnina.

In this sense, it is instructive to compare the Sochi experience to that of another recent, controversy-ridden Games: Beijing 2008. A study by the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change on the coverage of the Beijing Olympics revealed that treatment of the Games in China was largely favourable. The spectacle of the Opening Ceremony dominated the front pages. All this despite vocal protest before the Games on China’s human rights record, air pollution and the March riots in Tibet.

Beijing versus Sochi

How did China emerge from the Beijing Games with its media cachet in the black? The most obvious answer is that China got some things right which Russia got wrong. Beijing 2008’s price tag came to $43 billion, but involved the construction of a new airport terminal, new subway lines and a light railway – not to mention the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium. Of course, not all of Beijing’s new sports venues have paid off and many now stand empty and decrepit. But these infrastructure projects, located in the Chinese capital, have had immense and diffuse benefits which accrue even after the 2008 Games.

Contrast this with an article by Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynuyk, which compared the $51 billion Sochi project to Khrushchev’s scheme to plant corn in the Arctic. Nemtsov and Martynyuk estimated that corruption accounted for $25-30 billion, or more than half, of the sum total. This vast graft extended not only to the construction of sporting facilities, but to infrastructure projects as well, including the airport, the Dzhubga-Sochi gas pipeline and the $9 billion Adler-Krasnaya Polyana highway. Dismal photographs of Sochi hotels – not to mention toilets – have also been making the rounds of social media, casting further ridicule on the Games’ massive price tag.

Nevertheless, it would be misleading to say that China’s positive media coverage was the result of its “outperforming” the Russians in Sochi. The Beijing Games were far from corruption-free. Vice-mayor of Beijing, Liu Zhihua, was given a suspended death sentence for taking $1 million in bribes over Olympic contracts. The Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions estimates that 1.5 million people were relocated for China’s Olympics projects. Given Chinese media restrictions, however, it is difficult to assess the exact social impact of the 2008 Games, or the scale of corruption involved.

A softer power

Where Beijing has succeeded is in its exercise of soft power which, after all, is what the Olympics are all about. Both China and Russia looked to the Olympics to rehabilitate their global images. Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Russian Olympics Organising Committee, said that Sochi was “our chance to show the entire world the best that our country is proud of.” His words were an almost perfect echo of Zhang Jigang’s, the deputy director of the Beijing Opening Ceremony: “I really hope that the people of the world can get to know China, to understand China, to love China and to desire China.”

China and Russia, however, went about this in different ways. David Bond has called Sochi “Putin’s Games”, an apt reflection of the muscular Russian nationalism that has rubbed Western observers the wrong way. Most clearly, this has taken the form of the anti-gay propaganda laws, the defenders of which have used tough language to justify themselves. And the image of Putin himself has been ubiquitous, shirtlessly gracing hotel rooms and dominating the Russian media. In a documentary aired after the Opening Ceremony, Putin declares that he had personally chosen the site of the Games.

The velvet is somewhat thicker around China’s mailed fist. Beijing 2008’s mission was to show the world a friendly side of China, one calculated to be unthreatening. Costumes were changed from black to green to appear less ominous, performers were specifically instructed to smile. Even the scandal surrounding the lip-synching girl at the Opening Ceremony is revealing: The real singer was withdrawn because she wasn’t cute enough. Zhang Yimou, the mastermind of the Opening Ceremony, is widely perceived as a “sellout” in China for his Western-friendly, Party-approved films.

Closing ranks

Intra-national soft power, however, is a different story. International opprobrium of both China and Russia have led not so much to deep soul-searching, but to national solidarity. Threats of a boycott of Beijing 2008 over Tibet led many Chinese – including overseas Chinese – to close ranks. A similar thing is happening over Sochi, where misguided criticism and the emphasis on gay rights has prompted a backlash among Russians. By focusing on Tibet and gay rights respectively, the international media has prompted renewed solidarity over nationalist values and assumptions which may not have happened if Western critics had focused more on, say, corruption or press freedom.

The jury is still out on Sochi, which will end on 23 February. So far, however, the international media has devoted more broadcast hours to Sochi than to Beijing 2008, and it seems as if China’s international soft power strategy has paid off more than Russia’s. But it is likely that the real winner of both Olympic events will be Chinese and Russian nationalism.


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