Olympics place focus on China

The last fireworks have popped, and the last shimmying dancer has left the Bird’s Nest. Yup, the Olympics are over. It was a wonderful two weeks, from the spectacular opening ceremony that proved Chinese people really can fly, to the closing ceremony that proved they can party too—when else will we see Jackie Chan belting out his best karaoke and Chinese athletes waving bottles of booze?

It was two weeks of pure, unadulterated couch potato time, and of course, shameless pride in being Chinese and cheering on the Chinese athletes while I ignored my friends’ reminders that I’m a U.S. citizen now.

Hey, I was as happy for Phelps’ eight gold medals as any other red-blooded American, but after his sixth world record-setting swim, did anyone really doubt he’d make Olympic history? Besides, those poor Chinese gymnasts looked so fragile and crushed under all the high-intensity pressure of performing at home (pressure that sent two Chinese marksmen favored for gold running out of the stadium and crying in shame, by the way). How could I not cheer on people who looked like family?

All that aside, the Olympics were a great time for the world to come together and celebrate sport, even the ones no one has ever heard of before (I mean, handball? What is that?). Still, it’s a good time to “ooh” and “ahh” at all the incredible things you never knew anyone could do, like twist and bend in a million different ways while balancing on a stick of wood or spinning headfirst off a diving board. It’s even better to get someone else to “ooh” and ahh” with you, so I persuaded my husband to watch at least 10 hours of gymnastics with me and thus convinced him that it was a real sport (although I’m not sure which he thought was more grueling—the gymnasts’ routines themselves or being forced to watch all of them).

Of course, the Olympics weren’t perfect. Russia continued its aggressions toward Georgia while the latter stomped their beach volleyball team (note to Russia: intensifying war is not an appropriate response to losing beach volleyball).

China’s record of free speech and concern for human rights continued to be…well, nearly nonexistent. The government deported eight Americans protesting its actions in Tibet, and rejected every single request by Chinese citizens to demonstrate in the three protest zones it set up under pressure from the International Olympic Committee. In fact, two elderly women, Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying, applied to protest about the government tearing down their Beijing homes and were sentenced to a year of labor and re-education at a prison camp. Dianyuan’s son said it best: “Wang Xiuying is almost blind and disabled. What sort of re-education through labor can she serve?”

Even the Games themselves were a bit suspect. There was the underage gymnasts controversy (China was accused of entering 14-year-olds in a competition whose age limit was raised to 16 this Olympics), and the gap-toothed seven-year-old slated to sing at the opening ceremony was replaced by a lip-synching nine-year-old because she had better teeth. If anything, these Olympics were a lesson in China’s prowess in public relations and image control. Mao forbid we show a seven-year-old with crooked teeth singing at the opening ceremony, because cute little girls are just not allowed to lose their baby teeth when they’re seven years old.

For all my criticism, though, I am very proud to be Chinese and to see the Olympics hosted in Beijing. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Games this year, and it was immensely fun to cheer on the athletes in excited, gibberish Chinese with my parents.

China has come a long way; it actually attempted to improve air quality in Beijing (by ordering all the cities nearby to shut down industry), and it tried its hardest to be hospitable and open to the world, even distributing an Olympic style guide to thousands of Beijing residents to give them pointers on how to welcome foreigners and avoid being mistaken for crazy people (“Don’t wear pajamas in public,” the pamphlet advised).

Of course, China also has a long way to go, but maybe now that it has won some of the respect it has so desired, it can turn its attention to more pressing problems, like the rich-poor gap, pollution and the situation in Tibet. And perhaps it can give more than lip service to the Olympic slogan of “One World, One Dream” and become a true global partner, one that governs without oppression and with compassion.