China’s deadly earthquake may have saved the Beijing Olympics.
Just a few weeks ago, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge described the games as “in crisis.” They were being battered by pro-Tibet protests, health concerns about Beijing’s noxious pollution, and calls for boycotts tied to China’s support for Sudan.
The May 12 earthquake changed everything.
“I’m sorry to say it, but this has turned things around,” said Gerhard Heiberg, a member of the IOC’s executive board member and its marketing director.
After the tragedy in Sichuan province, the games are now riding a wave of goodwill — a feeling that the government’s propaganda machine had failed for months to generate.
Of course, 11 weeks remain before the Olympics begin on Aug. 8, and another unexpected event could change everything. Politics still loom, and some athletes are still expected to use the games to speak out on political issues like Darfur and Tibet.
“What the earthquake has done ... it has essentially pushed the coverage of the preparations for the Olympics to the margins, temporarily,” said Phelim Kine, Hong-Kong based Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But that coverage and focus will quickly return in the days and weeks ahead.
“The media will move on from this immediate focus on the humanitarian tragedy in Sichuan, and there will be space for other stories and other coverage,” he said.
At a track and field event that opened Thursday at the 91,000-seat National Stadium — the games’ centerpiece known as the “Bird’s Nest” — donation boxes for quake victims dotted the venue, and people were using them.
Activist groups grudgingly acknowledge that China’s state-controlled media — by allowing uncharacteristic openness in 24-hour earthquake coverage — have shaped the news agenda and gained sympathy for a catastrophe that has killed more than 55,000 people. Instead of criticism, China is receiving wide-ranging praise for its quick earthquake response.
Known for its secrecy, the government has let earthquake coverage flow more freely, with less censorship in an era of quick-moving text messages and the Internet.
State-controlled China Central Television has produced nonstop coverage of the disaster. The government initially allowed more aggressive news reporting, most dealing with the government’s rapid response, heroic rescues and grieving.
“Maybe the Chinese government hasn’t had time to think about it, but later it may come to realize that, compared with the state-controlled media, the words from the ordinary people at the grass roots are more convincing and influential,” said Luo Qing, who teaches at Beijing’s Communication University of China.
Hoping to carry the momentum into August, the government has sent high-profile former Olympic gold medalists Gao Ming (diving), Yang Yang (speedskating) and Deng Yaping (table tennis) into Sichuan province to boost the morale for thousands of orphaned children surviving in tents.
Trained in China’s high-powered sports schools, the superstars have also shown formidable psychological skill, visiting the injured in field hospitals, or leading pep rallies for those displaced people taking shelter in tented camps.
“We really don’t see that we have been outmaneuvered by the government,” said Matt Whitticase, a spokesman for the Free Tibet Campaign. “Obviously, the earthquake has been awful, an act of God that no one could have predicted.”
Other Olympics have been run principally by the host city. The Beijing Olympics are directed by China’s communist government, and they’ve been designed to be colossal — a statement about the country’s rising economic power.
IOC officials met this week in Beijing and entertained ideas about some kind earthquake commemoration during the opening ceremony. Athletes and citizens seem to favor it. One such commemoration took place at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics when the flag from the World Trade Center was displayed.
“The protocol for an IOC ceremony is very strict and formal, and it has to be,” said Kevan Gosper, a senior IOC member and vice chairman of the IOC coordination commission, which works with the Beijing organizers. “On such an issue that has affected a host country, I believe that the president of the IOC would have a very open mind and listen to the advice coming from Beijing organizers.”
He said an eventual tribute would have to be agreed to by the IOC and local organizers.
Gosper said China’s earthquake disaster may be recognized during the opening ceremony, but he cautioned that the IOC “in principle tried to avoid ceremonial events referring to tragedies around the world.” He said there were too many, and some group always feels left out.
Beijing organizers have declined to talk openly about specific changes they might make to the Olympics. Several top organizing officials declined interviews on the subject, but newspaper editorials and bloggers have been suggesting that a commemoration for the dead would help set the tone for the 17-day games. Some has even suggested that a quake survivor should light the Olympic cauldron on Aug. 8.
“I think it would be great if there were some program about the earthquake during the opening ceremony,” said Mo Yingbin, a speaking on the street in central Shanghai. “It’s very good to let the world know about the pain, the love and the tragedy the earthquake brought to us.”
Following a three-day mourning period, the Olympic torch relay resumed Thursday in Ningbo, an eastern port city that greeted the restart with a minute of silence. Organizers also announced a rejigged relay. Instead of mid-June, the torch will pass through earthquake-ravaged Sichuan province on Aug. 3-5 — just days before the opening ceremony.
“Frankly, few people care about the torch relay these days,” said Jiang Dongfang of Shanghai.
“The earthquake killed so many people and caused so much damage. I think it should be a part of the Olympic opening ceremony,” she said.