Beijing sets the bar for Olympian effort

2012-07-11Asia Times

BEIJING - The Olympics, despite the widely held belief, are no games. Four years ago, China impressed the world with its newly acquired wealth and power by erasing for a few months the pollution that had been clogging its air for over a decade, drumming up thousands of People's Liberation Army servicemen in a hyper-Hollywoodesque opening ceremony and scooping up scores of medals in almost every discipline.

Now it is clear that London, the capital of the old, still not-quite-defunct British Empire, will have to measure up to the standards set by Beijing. We all know that if the gauge were grandeur, London would have already failed. Four years ago in Beijing, China proved it was a world power, ready to be as good as – or even better than - the old powers. What does London want to achieve this month?

Great Britain is the only country that will have hosted the Olympics three times. The first time was in 1908 and almost by accident. The Olympics were supposed to be staged in Rome, but a sudden eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 1906 led Italy to give up the honor. Rome preferred to spend that money helping the victims of the disaster, a move that Rome may want to repeat now by giving up the possibly useless Milan Expo in 2015. Almost-bankrupt Italy may have better use for that money now, as it did a century ago.

In 1908, by no accident, Britain was at the height of its power and ready to lead a coalition that eventually lined up almost the entire world in a global war against superpower Germany. The second time Britain hosted the Olympics was in 1948, right after World War II, when for security reasons Germany and Japan were not invited. The event underscored the enduring strength of Britain although it also opened an age in which London definitively lost its empire.

The Olympics were always stages for political statements. In Moscow in 1980, the Soviets wanted to prove they were better than the US, ready then to win the ongoing Cold War as they were piling sport medals. And Washington replied simply by boycotting the games. Four years later in Los Angeles, the Soviets and their satellites returned the favor by boycotting the American games.

Every Olympics has a meaning. In 1960, Rome began its economic miracle. Four years later, it was Japan's turn to show its new status. And in 1972, it was Germany, which staked a very different place in the world from what it had claimed exactly 36 years before. The South Koreans had to wait until 1988 for their time in the political/athletic sun. There is meaning everywhere - even without considering when Hitler hosted the Olympics in 1936 and was humiliated by a black athlete, Jesse Owens, who won for the first time four Olympic golds.

Britain this year is at a critical junction. In the middle of the euro crisis, despite being out of the euro zone, many influential British media outlets like the Economist and the Financial Times are arguing for greater unity, while Germany, the largest economy in the euro zone, has conversely been dragging its feet. In a way, Great Britain solved its dilemma of being torn between America and Europe. For decades, the United Kingdom was reluctant to push for a greater European integration, fearing it would be left out and marginalized in a Germany-centric Europe.

Now that America is also looking with favor at greater union on the old continent (See A 'Euro-union' poses challenge to China (, Asia Times Online, July 6, 2012), the UK is in the right position, being both European and transatlantic, and thus it can push for greater political union in the old continent without betraying the loyalty to Washington.

Could this be the new role of the United Kingdom in the world? Can it be the real center of a new transatlantic relationship, which looks not only to the European continent and the Middle East, but also projects itself to other parts of the world, including Asia? Will this be what the London Olympics is about?

London is possibly the most international and diverse Western capital. Washington, Berlin, and Paris are not as full of people from Africa, the Middle East, India, China, and Indochina as London. London does not have the dozens of think tanks Washington possesses to draw and redraw world geography and history; it does not have the powerful economy of America behind it, but can it move to this stage after the Olympics? Interestingly, the UK has some of the most influential and best-respected media outlets in the world - the BBC (still the most authoritative TV network), the Financial Times (the most confident daily), and the Economist (the most convincing weekly), and headquarters of Reuters (the largest news agency).

But Olympic ambition can also mean the beginning of a decline. Britain, squeezed between the US and EU could become unimportant - either simply because of the squeeze (Washington may want to talk just to Berlin without going through London) or because, for instance, a greater consolidation of the European Union around recalcitrant Germany fails. Olympic history is full of betrayed ambitions: the famous turn of events in Germany in 1936, but also Mexico in 1968, as the political and economic explosion of the country never materialized, or Greece in 2004, which looks like a mockery in the light of the present EU crisis triggered by the Greek default.

Will contemporary London become what Venice was to Europe and the Mediterranean in the 16th century? Then, the Italian city was the center of politics and strategy for the Western and Eastern worlds, keeping contacts and brokering peace and war between the Christian and Muslim worlds - which seemed like the totality of the world at that time. Through that it controlled the spigots of industry and trade to and from Europe also to the Indies, then like now an economic powerhouse.

Yet, Venice declined not because it failed in its schemes, but because it was off-center, mentally and geographically, from the new global cradle of power and wealth, the Atlantic and its projection to America. Then the real question is: can London keep its role by projecting an original vision onto Asia, the "new world" of this era? Is London really clear about what Beijing is about? This could also have repercussions on the new transatlantic relationship. Perhaps in the end, this is all that these games, symbolically right after those of Beijing, will really be about.  (2012-07-11 Asia Times)


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