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The dark side of the Olympics

I don’t think I’ve ever felt as disinterested in the Olympic games as this year. I’ve awarded them no more than a passing glance ever since they’ve been on, probably only amounting to 15 minutes or so in total. However, it wasn’t until today that it struck me that much of my apathy has to do with the fact that the games are being held in China. I’ve been vaguely conscious the entire time of the duplicity that’s being presented by the Chinese, so aptly demonstrated by the ruse they put on during the opening ceremonies.*

The sort of hypocrisy and pretense that’s going on there at the moment completely sickens me. The censorship and espionage that are being perpetrated [foreign journalists do not have free access to the Internet despite promises made to the contrary; taxicabs are now outfitted with hidden microphones to allow the government to spy on people]; the fact that they blacklisted anyone suffering from mental illness from entering China prior to and during the Olympics [and leprosy, and anyone with a STD]; the fact that Chinese authorities have put up facades of normal housing in Bejing’s slums, behind which the real slums exist; the fact that they promised to review their human rights policy if they were awarded the games, which of course they haven’t done … all this and more I find absolutely appalling.

Then today, I read a fascinating article in Fréttablaðið. It’s an interview with a Swedish journalist named Sverker Lindström, who has written a book called Det stora sveket [The Big Betrayal] about the conditions of workers in Chinese sweatshops. He draws parallels between Western corporations and the human rights violations in China – Western corporations that are highly visible at the Olympics where they aggressively promote their wares, while they whole time they’re making huge profits from slave labour in China.

The book quotes a young girl who works making athletic shoes in a sweatshop in South China:

We wake up every morning at 6.30 am. In ten minutes we are supposed to get up, wash and get dressed. Then we wait in line in the cafeteria for two pieces of bread. Next we get in line for the supervisor who hands out his daily portion of scolds and threats, then the work begins. Every morning we see the stars in the darkened sky. When the working day is over and we are let out the stars are shining again. We work from seven until eleven in the evening. Most of us are hungry and emaciated. The food is bad. In the evenings we are given a watery meat soup. When a large order comes from Puma we only get a half an hour to eat, then we have to keep working.

In the interview, Lindström is asked the classic question: Is it not important to maintain good trade relations with China? He responds that good trade relations now appear to be more valuable than human rights, respect for human life and freedom of speech. If an athlete is asked how he or she feels about human rights violations in China, everybody gets upset. Evidently some types of questions are not to be asked.

Lindström stresses the importance of placing today’s events in a historical context and draws parallels with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Before the Swedish Olympic delegation was to set out for Berlin someone managed to distribute a flyer with the locations all of Hitler’s concentration camps and prisons marked on it. This caused an uproar. Swedish papers wrote about the “scandal” that someone was trying to ruin things for the Swedish athletes. Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin’s film The Dictator was banned in Stockholm until after the war, because Swedish authorities didn’t want to upset Hitler. Why? Because it was important to maintain good trade relations, just in case he won the war.

Has anything changed?

Prior to the games there was some dispute as to whether our President and our Minister of Culture should attend the Olympics. The persistent response was that the Olympics should not be marred by politics and that it was important not to offend the Chinese because “so much more could be achieved” by having dipomatic discussions. Read: they relished a free trip to China and a seat at the table with some of the worst human rights violators in the world. I do hope they enjoy their feast.

The tropical climate we enjoyed a mere two weeks ago has now given way to more fall-like weather. We’ve had spatterings of rain for the last few days, albeit no actual downpours, and it’s been windy and kind of dampclammycold. The temps are kind of misleading because even though they’re about the same as they’ve been, it’s been colder. Lots of people getting sick and stuff. Right now 13°C [55F]. Sunrise in the capital was at 5.26 and sunset at 9.35 pm.

PS – here’s some fascinating trivia: in 1933 two German brothers, the Dassler brothers, joined the Nazi party because they were interesting in marketing their brand of athletic shoes. Their business thrived and their shoes were a hit at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Gradually the two brothers became great adversaries and their business was divided up into two companies: Adidas and Puma.

* Before you ask: no, I did not watch the handball game where Iceland beat Germany!



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dave Z. August 17, 2008, 11:47 pm

    I guess the Chinese communists can’t be original either, in their “Potemkin villages” which were a Soviet ploy.

    The Olympics™ (I use the trademark to indicate the money machine, not the spirit they are supposed to have) have not interested me from the time of the first USA “dream team” in basketball. It is no longer about amateurs, but professional atheletes.

    Here the back-to-school sales have started, which I guess now signals the end of summer, even though the weather here in Chicago does not.

  • Jessie August 18, 2008, 1:01 am

    Well said. I didn’t mean to insinuate in my previous comment that I condone the cover-ups and fake shenanigans that took place at the opening ceremony; the whole thing seems so shady. Having worked with Tibetan Buddhist monks who were imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese government because of their support of the Dalai Lama, I can’t even imagine what’s going on over there “behind the scenes” right now. I fully supported a boycott of the games this year, but then I am from the US, and I guess we really shouldn’t talk about injustices committed by other countries right now…

  • Professor Batty August 18, 2008, 2:30 am

    Your post has really given a form to what had been, for me, a vague distaste for the whole affair. One only has to see the “bird’s nest” stadium shrouded in smog to understand what price China, and ultimately the world, is paying for this kind of “progress.” With its pollution and slave labor, coupled with the lack of human rights and any sense of responsibility toward the environment it is obvious that China has made a “Great Leap Backward” into the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s.

  • Cama August 18, 2008, 6:06 am

    Leaders from the USA were there too, enjoying the feast as you stated. The mayor of Chicago was there taking in the details as Chicago is in the runnings to hold the next summer Olympics. During their stay there an American man was murdered. His wife also stabbed. They were the parents of a former Olympic athlete and the in laws of the mens volleyball team coach. They said it was just an isolated incident. With all the other cover ups, it just leaves me to speculate. As I stated before the USA depends greatly on China for so many of our goods here. I like you have not watched more than a few minutes of the games this time.

  • alda August 18, 2008, 9:43 am

    Dave – agree, the whole money machine factor has corrupted a noble ideal.

    Jessie – I had not interpreted your previous comment thusly!

    Professor – very well put.

    Cama – yes, I heard about that stabbing and the first thing that occurred to me, too, was whether there was something more.

  • Dankoozy August 18, 2008, 4:27 pm

    each time i feel the need to watch the olympics i think “those dirty, evil chinese bastards”

    then i don’t bother. srsly. why china? why not north korea? if they are going to hold the olympics in some shithole of a country then they should choose a real shithole. maybe some third world african country with 4 different wars going on at the same time and then they can do the whole pretending there is nothing wrong with the country thing like they are doing now.

    when the olympics are over the stadiums will probably go back to being used for executions.

  • Karen August 18, 2008, 9:02 pm

    While I appreciate the politics intellectually….. somehow I’m able to divorce that half of my brain while I’m watching the Olympics. I’ve been enjoying them just for the sake of the entertainment.

    I’m happy that Iceland’s mens handball team is in the finals, and that Canada’s finally getting some medals.

    On another note…. I’ve been enjoying your newly updated photos. The pressing question on my mind is…. why aren’t you a famous professional photographer? Yes…. they are that good!


  • digdug727 August 18, 2008, 10:26 pm

    as an american, i feel rather hypocritical condemning china for it’s human rights abuses and slave labor factories. our american desire for brutally cheap products and the ability to turn a blind eye to horror we ourselves support, makes us as culpable as the chinese government. i’m sure that china would continue to oppress and censor it’s people, even if we pulled out every financial tie and manufacturing concern. this still doesn’t make me feel any less guilty over our greed and blind consumerism. america did not create the monster that is china, but we feed it and watch it grow bigger and stronger.
    my heart goes out to all the athletes who dedicate their lives to excellence in their respective sport, but are entangled in the consumerism and jingoism of this propaganda show.

    i’ll get off my soapbox now.

  • alda August 18, 2008, 11:45 pm

    Dankoozy – personally I don’t think they should hold the Olympics in any shithole. Toronto would have done just fine!

    Karen – oh my, you do flatter me! Thank you. 🙂 However as I always say (and which you yourself surely know) it’s easy to take good pictures in Iceland. The subject matter is so benevolent.

    Doug – yes, well, America certainly is culpable, but so is most of the Western world. Every place that has got a taste for cheap products from China just wants more. Iceland is the same. However, I really would like to know now which athletics clothing and shoes manufacturers do NOT use sweatshops in their production. Or clothing manufacturers, for that matter.

    It’s one reason I approve of American Apparel – and ZARA. They don’t manufacture their wares in China.

  • Bryce August 19, 2008, 2:05 am

    I share your distaste for the whole affair. We can find it in ourselves to go and play sport (that’s what it is after all) in a country where basic human freedom is stamped on. Our desire to prove our prowess in running and jumping on the world stage is more important than the lives of the millions of people living in abject poverty while a select class become rich. I remember an interview the British reporter Kate Adie took shortly after Tianamen Square. She interviewed a pundit on the region and asked what he thought the leadership thought of the world’s outrage. He replied that they didn’t care ,noting that Chinese thinking is based on a view of 50 – 100 years and more – “In 5 or at worst 10 years, the west will have forgotten what happenned here – the people of China will remember it for hundreds of years and they are the people the leadership need to have remember it” – how right he was.
    I try where possible not to buy anything with “Made in China” on it. We pronounce proudly in the West how we have abolished slavery when in fact we have simply exported it to a country where the leaders morals are bankrupt. We can distance ourselves saying it is ” a cultural differenece”, an “emerging economy needing our trade”, a “matter for the Chinese people” .
    When we buy our cheap Chinese clothes and electronics we are funding slavery and destruction of the environment in China. We are all responsible for maintaining this ………………

  • alda August 19, 2008, 9:58 am

    Bryce – amen!

  • Bibil August 19, 2008, 11:10 am

    Honestly, did politicians really believe that the human rights situation would have changed because of the Olympics?
    … Or did they just say that to appease the people who vote for them?

  • Levitra August 19, 2008, 6:39 pm

    personally I have no vested interest in the Olympics this year. I was skeptical about the games being in China for many reasons and my concerns have come to fruition.

  • JoeInVegas August 19, 2008, 8:09 pm

    Our president Bush is there, looking as abnormal as ever, complaining about all the countries that are bad while ignoring what he is doing here. It’s the same all over, so what difference does it make?
    I wish it did – but when we went out for sneakers there was nothing but China on all of the labels, no choice any more.

  • Cassie August 19, 2008, 8:34 pm


    (And remind me to email you some pictures that my daughter took when she was in the Himalayas last week, of people from the Tibetan expat community in India protesting at the start of the games.)

  • Ásta August 19, 2008, 10:53 pm

    I was having this very same conversation at work today over coffee. I can not by the life of me understand why the Olympics are being held in China. But then one of my coworkers said something that made me think; how many conversations about China and their communism did you see on the internet or on a blog site before the Olympics? To be honest, I had to say none… Maybe, just maybe (and this might just be naive) the reason they chose China was to make the world notice how people are treated there? As I said, it might be a naive thought, but it could be right?
    Anyway, always a joy reading your blog Alda, it is on my “bloggrúnt” which i take every two days or so. I’m sad to say I’m not very good at commenting, but that might be for the reason that I don’t really see the point of commenting, just to comment – know what I mean? 🙂 Kveðja frá Selfossi

  • alda August 19, 2008, 11:20 pm

    Bibil – I lean towards the latter. That, and a purposeful evasion. :-/

    Joe – alas, I think that’s all too common, that you go to buy something and just about all of it is made in China. That said, athletics companies seem especially bad.

    Cassie – done! 🙂

    Ásta – takk fyrir kveðjuna og falleg orð! – as for your theory, I suppose I’m too much of a cynic to believe that. The International Olympics Commission (or whatever it’s called) is notoriously corrupt, I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been some serious bribery taking place.

  • Babs - beetle August 20, 2008, 12:30 am

    I think, in truth that is is more likely to be people with lower incomes that look for, and buy the cheaper goods, therefore, out of need we fund China’s sweat shops. I’ve no doubt there are many people that would prefer not to buy goods with ‘Made in China’ labels, but when finances are low, choices are fewer.

    Politics apart, I am actually put off by that label, because rightly or wrongly, I tend to think that the goods are inferior in most cases.

    I have watched some of the Olympics, but only the actual sporting events. I haven’t watched any of the pomp and ceremony at all.

    Does that last remark give away the fact that I am British ;O)

  • Bird watcher August 20, 2008, 8:10 am

    I have not watched the Olympics either but that is because I hate the Olympics. The Chinese regime is pretty appalling, I agree, but they have to be allowed to develop at their own pace. Not trading with them will not help freedom and democracy it will ensure that it continues to be strangled. The world is littered with examples of Western style democracy being imposed on “unready nations” only for it all to go horribly wrong.

  • alda August 20, 2008, 10:05 am

    Babs, hi and welcome! That is an interesting angle and I do agree with you. However, there is a large portion of the population that does have a choice – the middle classes, who might buy something cheaper just because it’s cheap, whereas they could conceivably buy something else. All that said, I’m not urging anyone to boycott all products made in China. But for me, personally, I’d like to steer clear of companies that use slave labour – such as, evidently, Puma.

    Bird watcher – very good point about Western democracy being imposed and it all going horribly wrong, and I completely agree that an organic sort of development is needed. And again, I’m not saying there should be no trade, but that I find it sickening that large multinationals are exploiting a very vulnerable section of the world’s population to make huge profits for themselves. I personally would like to make the choice not to participate in that. And I really think China needs to be consistently reminded that much of the rest of the world thinks their human rights violations are not OK.

  • PeaceBang November 15, 2008, 10:22 pm

    Thanks for this post — I found you by googling the phrase “dark side of the Olympics,” as I am working on a sermon on competition. I’m fascinated by the origins of Puma/Adidas!! That HAS to get in the sermon somewhere… and how sadly ironic that both sneakers are manufactured in (among other places) Chinese sweatshops.