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What will China’s Olympic legacy be?

24 August 2008

BEIJING — China has poured tens of millions of dollars into staging the Olympics. It has mobilized perhaps the largest army of workers and volunteers the games will ever see. It has carried out sweeping measures to ensure that Beijing is a spruced-up host city.

But whether it has left a good or bad impression depends on who you talk to — And in a year or two, what people will remember might be little more than the star athletes.

The vast majority of people worldwide watch the Olympic Games more for the sports than to learn about the host country or the political, human rights and other issues, market research experts say.

"I was walking around in London talking to people and they don’t care," said Paul French, chief China analyst for the Shanghai-based marketing and research firm Access Asia. "The ordinary man on the street has no interest in China. The Olympics will not change their views about China — if they have got any at all."

A huge boost
China, however, feels the Olympics has been a huge boost the country.

"The Beijing Olympic Games are a milestone in the course of the great reinvigoration of the Chinese nation," said a commentary Saturday by the government’s Xinhua news agency. "The success of the Beijing Olympic Games has also reflected the great achievements China has scored after three decades of reform and its process of opening up."

One person in three worldwide watched the Aug. 8 opening ceremony, according to the global research firm Nielsen.

The International Olympic Committee also has said the Beijing Games enjoyed the biggest broadcast in Olympic history.

But many people remained more focused on how their country performed rather than what China was trying to present to the world, analysts say.

"They will just remember what their country did," said French. "They will remember (US eight times gold swimming medalist) Michael Phelps. They will remember the people who won."

An agenda
In Olympic Games where there have been no major non-athletics incidents, people remember little: That is the case regarding the 2000 Sydney Olympics or the 2004 Athens Olympics, analysts say.

The Beijing Olympics, however, were preceded with an uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet, protests during the torch relay in other countries and during the games in China.

Groups with an agenda used the Olympics to gain international attention to their cause.

Militant Uighur minorities in the restive Xinjiang region carried out several deadly attacks targeting government, paramilitary and police personnel, according to the government.

Pro-Tibet activists held eight protests in which they unfurled banners, displayed flags and spoke out about China’s repression of Tibetans.

Activists from Students for a Free Tibet, which organized the protests, said their campaign had been successful.

"It’s shown to the world and the Chinese government that people of conscience around the world will stand up and speak with solidarity for Tibetans, that they also support the Tibetan cause," activist Alice Speller told reporters.

Highlighting deception
Many media outlets also highlighted the deceptions in the opening ceremony — the little girl who mimed one of the songs because the real singer was not considered cute enough, pre-recorded fireworks, majority Han Chinese dressed up as ethnic minorities.

However, such tricks are not unusual at any Olympics, public relations experts say.

"There are always some issues that come out with the games," said Scott Kronick, president of Ogilvy PR Worldwide in China. "That seems to be endemic with the Olympics."

He and others cite the huge doping scandal in Athens and the astronomical costs as top newsmakers at the Turin Winter Olympics.

Cultural differences
But marketing experts also point to some political and cultural differences China had with the West.

These included the way police physically tackled journalists covering protests and other stories, the way Beijing was cleaned up a little too much, removing some of the fun and liveliness and the focus on new buildings that do not necessarily interest people from the West, except the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube.

While there was partying in some Beijing districts, notably the Sanlitun bar street, there was none of the large-scale partying seen at major sports events elsewhere.

Fearful of domestic attacks by militant Uighurs, protests by Tibetans and assaults by the many people disgruntled over injustices, the Chinese leadership maintained tight security, even canceling plans to broadcast the opening ceremony and sporting events on big screens.

"The message that this would be the no-fun Olympics got out pretty quickly," said French. "Everyone was doing stories quite rightly about bars being closed. Think about the World Cup in Germany, about what a big party that was, thousands of people watching on streets, sleeping in the parks, a 24-hour party. That is going to be what the London Olympics will be like."

Still, China believes the Olympics was a big success.

"Through the Beijing Olympic Games, the world has gotten a better knowledge of what China is like — a country that makes constant progress, emphasizes friendship and harmony, keeps its promises and respects international rules," said the Xinhua commentary.

It depends on one’s perspective.

— Cindy Sui/Expatica