September 29, 2007 3:00 am

Beijing strikes gold in the propaganda Olympics

The average traffic policeman in Chinese cities dies at 43, because of bad working conditions and pollution. Perhaps 250,000 Chinese live in slave labour camps.

I didn't know these or many other ugly facts about China until the media began focusing on next year's Olympics in Beijing. China had thought the games were a brilliant wheeze to show off its "peaceful rise". Will it instead become the umpteenth host to discover that staging an Olympics can damage your image?

The last thugs to benefit from hosting the games were probably the Nazis in 1936. Mostly, they fooled the world. Whenever pesky foreigners complained about their treatment of Jews, the International Olympic Committee rode to the rescue. General Charles Sherrill, an American member of the IOC, said after persuading Germany to let a half-Jewish fencer enter the games: "I went to Germany with the purpose of getting at least one Jew on the German Olympic team, and I feel that my job is finished." Asked about the obstruction of other Jewish athletes, Sherrill replied: "There was never a prominent Jewish athlete."

Most visitors to Berlin seem to have bought the Nazi propaganda. Joao Havelange, future president of Fifa, the global football authority, swam for Brazil at the 1936 games. He later told author David Yallop: "Everyone admired Germany's progress. It was a marvellous time."

Gradually things got tougher for nasty hosts. In 1969 the American journalist Joe McGinniss discovered "spin". In his book The Selling of the President , McGinniss described the presidential candidate Richard Nixon endlessly retaping the same commercial. Previously journalists had reported what politicians said. From then on they began reporting on the methods politicians used to persuade us of things. No longer - at least not until the build-up to the Iraqi war in the US - would journalists be scribes for governments.

That was bad news for cities hosting the Olympics. Invariably, they thought the games would showcase their city. Often they were wrong. We remember the Munich Olympics of 1972 for the Palestinian massacre of Israelis, and Montreal 1976 for boycotts and 30 years of municipal debt.

Dictatorships were slowest to understand the change in the media, because their own journalists remained docile. When Argentina's military junta hosted the football World Cup in 1978, it hired the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, and prettified the country. How to make Argentina look rich? Bulldoze the slums. Their inhabitants were banished. Dissidents were "disappeared". But many foreign journalists reported on exactly these measures. Their articles evoked the Berlin Olympics; two German TV commentators spent the tournament's opening ceremony educating their viewers about the "disappeared"; and TV crews filmed the photogenic mothers of the disappeared at their weekly protests. The generals were outraged. They had showered these foreigners with hospitality, and this was their thanks!

Similarly, in 1980, Moscow discovered that the story abroad was not how clean the city was for the Olympics, but how it had got so clean. "'Undesirables' will be sent out of the city," explained the American columnist Red Smith. "Dissidents, drunkards, psychotics and Jews who have applied for emigration are undesirables." Partly because of Moscow's bad odour, no dictatorship has hosted the summer games since.

Atlanta discovered in 1996 that the Olympics could ruin even a free city's image. The games were scarcely visible behind the thicket of advertising, and nor was the city behind its freeways. Then a bomb killed one person and wounded 111. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC's then president, who ritually described every Olympics as the best ever, closed these ones with a cold: "Well done, Atlanta."

Beijing would seem doomed to Atlanta's fate. Much of the publicity so far has been about China's smog and executions. The country's toleration of the slaughter in Darfur has inspired the phrase "the genocide games".

Yet Rana Mitter, historian of China at Oxford University, says that in spite of everything, the Olympics have boosted China's image. It's true, says Mitter, that American and European media are criticising China. But in other parts of the world, China is winning the argument on human rights. Many poor countries buy its claim that "economic rights" matter more. If Americans carp, China can mention Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib.

Mitter says China has already scored its great propaganda victory: it was awarded the games in spite of being a dictatorship. That means it is hosting them on its own terms. Mitter explains: "The games give China the imprimatur that the Olympics always give any country: that China is a significant and integrated and moderate member of the international community of nations, which is what the Chinese want to project."

It's a gold medal for the Chinese Communist party.

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