Caught in the Spotlight: Media Themes in the Build-Up to the Beijing Olympic Games

By Whannel, Garry | Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Caught in the Spotlight: Media Themes in the Build-Up to the Beijing Olympic Games


Whannel, Garry, Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research


The Modern Olympic Games symbolize the struggle between man's ideals and the reality within which he must live. (1)

The torch took about a year to design to the specifications that would keep it burning on its varied journey around the world, said David Hill, vice president of corporate identity and design for Lenovo, the computer manufacturing firm that designed the torch and a main sponsor of the torch relay. (2)

The torch relay and its representation in the media offers an invaluable focused case study through which to examine politics and journalism. As the global mega event par excellence, the Olympic Games command attention around the world, not just in the two weeks of the Games themselves but for several months beforehand. Two media themes are often prominent during the build up: the view (often justified) that the Games cost far too much and the fear (usually unwarranted) that the facilities will not be ready. Often, too, other global political themes--environmental concerns, regional tensions, treatment of indigenous minorities, disparities of wealth, human rights--become condensed onto coverage of the Olympic Games. This period of months before the Games begin is often a challenging one for the press office of the Organising Committee.

The context in which these developments occur has shifted during the last few decades. The Olympic Games provide ground on which symbolic struggle takes place between nations, and images of power and competence are at stake. From 1948 to 1988, this symbolic struggle was dominated by Cold War politics. Since 1988, the city has challenged the nation as the symbolic focal point. The Olympic Games, like other mega events, have been utilised as a means of advertising a city as a modern dynamic venue for business and as a an attractive and exotic destination for tourists. These goals may or may not fit neatly with the political priorities of the host nation. For example, the balance of tradition and modernity, stability and change, heritage and innovation, may well be cast differently at city and at state levels.

The formation of the news agenda, gate keeping, agenda setting, framing and constructing the news have been extensively examined by media analysts for decades are well known to be complex processes in which power and influence are unevenly distributed. The rise of digital communications media and the Internet is seen by some as allowing a more heterogeneous range of voices to be heard; yet, existing media organisations remain clearly dominant. News is the site of a continuing struggle over meaning, perspective, and interpretation. In the case of Beijing, many groups and individuals will be seeking to push the issue of human rights to the forefront of the agenda. Motives will vary, some caring passionately about sport, some disinterested; some engaged in the future of China, others simply anti-communist by conviction; some campaigners on human rights around the world, others focusing exclusively on China. As in the case of previous Games such as Moscow in 1980, some had been campaigning for a boycott as soon as the site was chosen, in advance of any specific issue such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Given that many nations, including the USA and UK, can be accused of some human rights violations, and that comparisons need to take size and history into account, the issue is not as simple as it may appear. The human rights issue will, however, be a significant part of the symbolic battle around the build up to the Olympic Games.

The first site of struggle in the build up to an Olympic Games is often the very concept of "politics" and its relevance to sport. The insistence that politics should be kept out of sport varies in intensity according to circumstances--the very people who thought the anti-apartheid movement was illegitimately bringing politics in sport, were prominent among those calling for a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games. …

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