Monday, August 25, 2008

China's Coming Out Party

In the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, there was a lot of loose talk comparing the Games to those held in Berlin in 1936. That comparison never really gained much traction, and it all but disappeared with the successful conclusion of the games.

There was never a liklihood that China’s rulers would try to turn the Games into showcase communism as an ideology. That doesn’t mean that holding the 2008 Games in Beijing was not highly symbolic in a way that holding the Games in some of the more recent venues such Sydney or Athens was not.

The more obvious comparison is not Berlin 1936 but Tokyo 1964. The Beijing Games have been called many times as China’s coming out party, marking, in a dramatic way, not just the country’s rise from poverty to prosperity but also its entry in good standing into the community of nations.

In much the same way the 1964 Tokyo Games, the first ever held in Asia or, for that matter, any non-Western country heralded its rise from the disaster of World War II and its acceptance by the rest of the world as a normal, increasingly prosperous nation.

Ironically, Tokyo had originally won the games for 1940 but lost them because of Japan’s aggression in China. Of course, the Games were later suspended entirely for the duration of the war. Beijing first bid for the 2000 event in 1993 but lost out to Sydney. The Tiananmen massacre of 1989 was too fresh in people’s minds to allow Beijing to host the games.

The 2008 Beijing Games were as distant in time from the Tiananmen Incident – 19 years – as the 1964 Games were from Japan’s surrender in World War II. Yoshinori Sakai, born August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima the day the atomic bomb exploded, lit the Olympic torch in Tokyo, provided a symbol of a phoenix rising from the ashes of defeat if there ever was one.

Losing its first bid was a major disappointment, but China was lucky since the ensuing eight years gave the country a breathing room to expand its economy and, more importantly, to further its involvement in the international community. It is also a question whether the China of 2000 could have afforded to put on such a spectacular opening ceremony and build some of the more expensive athletic venues.

Both countries were on the verge of prosperity when they hosted the Games. At the time of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was around $3,300 at adjusted current values. China’s equivalent figure for last year was $2,460. In the year 2000, it was less than $1,000 per capita. China’s economic circumstances today are similar to those Japan experienced in the 1960s.

By 1964 Japan’s economy had progressed to the point where it was embroiled in trade disputes with the U.S. (over textiles), just as China is embroiled in disputes over the value of its currency. In Japan individuals were becoming car owners for the first time, just as they are in China today. Two years after the games in 1966 Toyota Motor Co would roll out its popular people’s car the Toyota Corolla.

Much ink has been spilled worrying about of Beijing’s polluted air quality, and the effect it would have on the health of the competitors. In fact, the air was unusually clean because the authorities ordered many smoke belching factories to shut down for the duration and imposed traffic restrictions.

Yet it is forgotten how polluted Japan’s air was back in 1964. This was a time when the comedian Bob Hope, entertaining U.S. troops based near Tokyo, could joke that you could earn a Purple Heart (America’s award for wounds in battle) just for breathing. Mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay, one of the century’s worst environmental disasters, was known in 1964 but would not be officially acknowledged until 1968.

China spent lavishly on many modern venues, such as the spectacular stadium known as the “Bird Cage” that will undoubtedly serve the public for decades to come. Nearly 50 years after the 1964 Games, Japanese still enjoy many of the venues that were built for the games. These include the National Gymnasium and Tokyo Budokan, originally constructed to hold judo matches and today an important concert venue.

This year China blew everyone away with its tally of gold medals. Japan was not quite so dominant in 1964, but it still made a respectable showing, earning 29 medals, including 16 gold. It was helped along in the medal count by the introduction of two new Olympic sports, judo and volley ball, that are popular in Japan. The country is still a powerhouse in judo.

Those 29 medals were enough to place Japan third in the medal count in 1964, behind the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This year Japan won almost as many medals – 25, including nine gold – yet that was only good enough to place 11th in the world standings.

Perhaps, like China, it needs the stimulus that comes from hosting the games. If so, it may have a chance to find out, since Tokyo is making a bid to host the 2016 Games, which would make it the first Asian city to host the Games more than once.


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