Winning an Olympic bid brings prestige, and possibly commercial
lucre, to the newly crowned host city.
But if Paris or Toronto lose or win the 2008 summer Games - a
decision that comes tomorrow - the influence on national pride and
on the future politics of those countries is likely to be mild.
This is not the case in China. Here, frontrunner Beijing's
Olympic bid is of great national moment, a decision that will empty
the streets as it is watched on TV.
Moreover, the success or failure of Beijing's bid plays directly
into a pattern of power politics here. After a crushing loss of the
2000 Games in 1993, tomorrow's outcome will not only influence how
China deals with what is still called "the outside world" on issues
such as human rights and Taiwan, but is likely to alter the climate
in which China's crucial leadership succession decisions are made
in coming months, experts say.
"In the shape of things today, the Olympic bid may be the most
important issue," says Cheng Li, author of a new book on China's
leaders. "If China doesn't win, it will be seen as a great failure,
useable by [President] Jiang Zemin's opponents, and it could bring a
domestic crisis. If China wins, it will be a tremendous foreign-
Sports in China are not seen only as recreation. Since the
opening to the West after the Cultural Revolution, sports are a
powerful lens through which Chinese weigh themselves on the
international stage. Getting the Games, a project China has labored
at for years - and may spend tens of billions on if it wins - is
first an identity issue, one that carries a high-octane mixture of
personal and national feeling, experts say.
Certainly important externals like international prestige are
behind Beijing's bid. For more than a decade, China has wanted the
Games to solidify its emergence as a rising modern power. But on
the street, and among many newly elite Chinese, one also hears a
deeper variation on that theme: a collective desire for
confirmation by the rest of the world that China is worthy of
"The main issue is not the horse race between Beijing and the
other cities [which also include Istanbul, Turkey, and Osaka,
Japan], says a Western diplomat. "The issue is the larger effect of
the outcome on Friday. Cab drivers in Paris or Toronto are not
going to get up on their cars and scream and yell if those cities
don't get the Games. Here in Beijing, feelings can run deeper."
In the mid-1980s, for example, well ahead of the Tiananmen Square
tragedy, student demonstrations swept across Beijing. The issue:
China's failure to qualify in the soccer World Cup qualifying
matches for the Asian region. Those protests were a prime reason
then-leader Deng Xiaoping removed protege Hu Yaobang as party
secretary. "Those protests were not political, they reflected a
collective dismay," says one Chinese professor who lived through
them. "Today, especially having failed once, winning the Olympics
is extremely important in the Chinese national psyche."
Official versions of Chinese foreign policy also illustrate this
potent mixture of sports and nationalism. Current TV programs show
Mao Zedong's summit with Richard Nixon in 1972 and Deng Xiaoping's
1979 visit to Washington, segueing straight into China's women's
volleyball world championship in 1981 as key moments in
To be sure, while there is a quiet mood of confidence here,
China's leaders have carefully ratcheted down public expectations.
In 1993, the Olympic bid committee acted as if the Games were
already "in the bag" prior to the vote. This year, posters that
splattered the city are gone. Top officials at the influential
People's Daily are currently preparing two editorials, just in
But for at least 20 months, the "New Beijing, Great Olympics"
campaign, as it is known, has been sold to the Chinese as a
collective endeavor that every citizen has a stake in - the kind of
national sales job, reminiscent of Soviet-era persuasion, that is
possible only in a state with a centrally run government and media. …