Beijing Olympics will be the most politicized since 1936
By Richard Halloran
To most people outside of China and Taiwan, a dispute over the name of Taiwan's Olympic team might seem petty, but the argument has underscored an elemental point: The games that open Friday in Beijing may be the most politicized since the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, sought to enlist the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as evidence of Aryan racial superiority.
Moreover, President Bush, who plans to attend the opening ceremony, will be part of that highly charged political event as the first U.S. president ever to go abroad to the Olympics.
His decision has been mildly controversial: On one hand, it gives the president an opportunity to engage Chinese leaders; on the other, it may be seen as reinforcing the oppressive rule of China's communist regime.
The president jumped into Olympic politics this week by welcoming five Chinese dissidents to the White House.
A Chinese spokesman responded by contending the president had "rudely interfered in China's internal affairs." Later, the president told a Chinese TV interviewer "I'm coming to China as the president and as a friend."
Several weeks ago, authorities of the People's Republic of China in Beijing suggested that the team from Taiwan compete under the name of "Taipei, China." The proposal caused an uproar in Taiwan because that name, "Chungkuo Taipei" in Chinese, implied that Taiwan was part of China, like Hong Kong or Macau.
Instead, Taiwan's leaders, Olympic committee and press insisted that their team be called "Chinese Taipei," or "Chunghua Taipei."
That form was devised in the 1980s when China demanded that international organizations not allow Taiwan to use that name or the Republic of China, its formal name. "Chinese Taipei" indicated that Taiwan was Chinese in culture but detached from China in politics.
In the argument with Beijing, Taiwan even threatened to withdraw from the games, a warning that had teeth. Earlier, the Beijing Olympic Committee planned to have the Olympic torch carried through Taiwan on the way to Beijing. The route made it look as if Taiwan was part of China. Taiwan promptly refused. Beijing evidently decided that, after being criticized for several other issues, more bad publicity would not be helpful.
Although political leaders, Olympic committees and athletes everywhere have decried efforts to embroil the Olympics in politics, that has often been the case — and never more so than in China now.
Orville Schell, a scholar of China writing in Newsweek, says the Beijing Olympics are intended to mark the emergence of China from its "national inferiority complex" that began with China's defeat by Britain in the Opium War of 1839-42. There followed two centuries when the "Chinese melon" was sliced up by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Portugal, the United States and Japan.
Today, educated Chinese constantly remind themselves — and anyone else who will listen — that they come from a nation with a 5,000-year history, and they contend their nation is due the respect of a global leader.
Perhaps more than ending China's sense of inferiority, however, the Beijing Olympics may be that first step in the Chinese saying: "A journey of a thousand li (a measure of distance, nowadays about 1,640 feet) begins with but a single step."
For China appears bent on regaining its place as the Middle Kingdom, a concept formed in the Han dynasty of about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. In that scheme, China is the center of the world and its neighbors are vassals who pay court and make no move of consequence without Beijing's permission. Other nations, particularly those of the West, are barbarians to be fended off.
Politicizing the Olympics has a long history. Tokyo, in the first games in Asia, marked Japan's recovery from World War II; the lad who lit the Olympic flame had been born in Hiroshima the day it was hit with the first atomic bomb.
The 1972 Olympics in Munich saw Palestinian terrorists kill 11 Israelis. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In revenge, the Soviet Union and 14 satellites boycotted the Los Angeles games in 1984.
South Korea turned the 1988 Olympics into a showcase for its economic achievements. Another terrorist attack took one life and injured 110 others in Atlanta in 1996.
Sometimes, however, Olympic politics backfire. Hitler had his vaunted Aryan superiority thrown in his face by an African-American sprinter and long jumper named Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the Berlin Olympics.
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.