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An Upset by An Upstart?
William Oscar Johnson
September 20, 1993
Beijing appears to have the inside track to host the Summer Olympics in 2000
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September 20, 1993

An Upset By An Upstart?

Beijing appears to have the inside track to host the Summer Olympics in 2000

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On Sept. 4, the first night of China's seventh national sports festival, a suitably grandiose Olympic-style opening ceremony was held in 80,000-seat Beijing Workers Stadium. The festival featured a huge neon BEIJING 2000 backdrop and a two-hour Busby Berkeley-like spectacle that included 10,195 performers and a torch-lighting act in which the igniting flame roared up through the bodies of two 100-foot dragons.

Polls put public support of the Games among Beijing's citizens at 98.7%. In two or three dozen man-in-the-street interviews, there was unrelieved enthusiasm. However, no one was quite as committed to the Games as Henry Fok and Li Xiaohua. Fok, a Hong Kong real estate developer, wants to be remembered in the nation of his birth and has offered to pay for the building of a $300 million Olympic stadium if it is named after him. Li is a real estate developer who has prospered during China's economic reforms, which amount to a switch from strict communism to relatively free enterprise capitalism. Li describes himself as a "former pauper" and says he made his first fortune as a Formula 101 hair-tonic distributor and attained folk-hero status by becoming the first man to import a Ferrari into China. "The Games will spur the economy, and they will raise the national spirit," says Li. He is also willing to put his money where his mouth is: Not only has he pledged $1 million to the organizing committee if Beijing gets the bid, but he also promised to donate his famous $135,000 red Ferrari as first prize in the Beijing 2000 Olympic lottery designed to raise money for the Games.

Though private contributors are encouraged—and sometimes coerced—to support big sports events, the government has issued a no-strings guarantee to pay the entire $3.4 billion needed to upgrade telecommunications in Beijing, as well as $7 billion to pay for infrastructure improvements needed for the Olympics. This is why the IOC prefers authoritarianism over democracy when it comes to financing the Games.

Another factor that might tempt some delegates to pick Beijing is the under-exploited Chinese consumer market. Because China has 1.2 billion people, consumer sales for any non-Chinese company with the Olympic rings on its product could be astronomical. This, in turn, would mean that the IOC could collect comparably astronomical fees from sponsoring corporations. As Jaime FlorCruz, TIME'S Beijing bureau chief, says, "Brand names connected with the Olympics will be as popular in China as if they've been carved in stone on the Great Wall. I can't imagine that Coca-Cola or Mars candy would get any remotely similar impact out of having the Games in Sydney."

A final consideration in handicapping Beijing's bid is the issue of human rights violations in China. The most infamous of them all occurred in the first week of June 1989, when army troops slaughtered hundreds of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in Beijing following a period of liberalization. There have been many other recent violations of rights, including torture, slave labor and prison sentences or exile for dissidents.

Angered by China's cold refusal to case its repressive rule, the U.S. House of Representatives this summer passed a resolution urging the IOC to reject Beijing's bid for the Olympics. Sixty of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate then signed a letter sent to all members of the IOC expressing similar sentiments. The Clinton Administration didn't formally declare its opposition to Beijing, but Wendy Sherman, an assistant secretary of state, said pointedly in a letter to Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "The administration strongly believes that a country's human rights performance should be an important factor in the selection of a site for the 2000 Olympics."

Of course, finding the precise definition of what makes a serious violation of human rights can turn into an endless argument. As Rodda puts it: "To a lesser degree every candidate city has a human rights problem: Sydney with Aborigines, Istanbul with Kurds, Berlin with Turkish immigrants, Manchester with Northern Ireland." Given that, the Chinese were predictably outraged at Congress's attempt to scuttle their bid. Chen Yunpeng, China's swimming coach in the last three Olympics, says, "This is politics, and politics brought us the U.S. boycott in 1980 and the Soviet Union's revenge boycott in 1984. When human rights are discussed, maybe it is possible that we in China have seen the Los Angeles riots as growing out of a serious rights violation, and maybe we in China will suddenly declare that the L.A. riots seem so serious a violation that we will boycott Atlanta in 1996. Now what would the U.S. Congress say about that?"

The matter of human rights is not something the IOC members will officially consider. The subject is considered political and, thus, is officially out of bounds. As Berlioux says: "The rights situation doesn't disturb them [IOC members] a wee bit. After all, where in this world are you sure to have human rights respected anyway?" Ironically, instead of undermining the Beijing bid, the protests of U.S. politicians may actually have helped the Chinese. KarlHeinz Huba, publisher of a Munich sports periodical with close links to the IOC, says, "I am afraid Beijing will win because of the objection raised in the U.S. IOC members don't like such interference."

So does Beijing have it wrapped up? Who knows? There is no sign of surrender from Oceania. Sydney's bidders are convinced that the U.S. rights protests have badly hurt the Beijing effort, and an Australian official says, "We're still regarded as favorites, and we're hoping that's the way it finishes." At the same time, however, word came from Centre-bet, a bookmaking firm in the Australian outback: A flood of money is pouring in for Beijing to win at 4-to-5 odds.

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