Journalist Jay Weiner spoke at the October UCBC meeting about covering the Beijing Olympics. This is the transcript of his presentation.
Whenever I go to and then return from an Olympics, people always ask: "How was Greece?" or "How was Japan?" or "How was Australia Generally,I say, "Oh, I didn't go to Japan. I went to the Olympics."
The event creates a sort of nationless cocoon.
The event creates a sort of nationless cocoon.
But this time, in 2008, more than ever, the host nation was the most over arching star of these Olympic Games. This time, a person moving around within the Olympic framework, couldn’t avoid the reality of being in China or the energy and issues of Beijing.
That’s why I’m here. These weren’t just any Olympics. These were the Chinese Olympics and, arguably, the most significant international sporting event of my generation and, perhaps, the most important international public diplomacy event for China since 1949.
Of course, I want to address a handful of key issues that arose before the Games and how they played out: from Tibet to human rights, from freedom of speech to air pollution.
In fact, a few became non-stories during the Games, particularly Tibet and the air quality. They seemed to fade as the 17 days wore on.
And,then, for the specific purposes of UCBC, I’d like to key in on some business stories that emerged from these Games.
But first, let me explain how I covered this event and how that allowed me to probably see more aspects of these Games than I had in the six previous Summer Olympics and seven Winter Games I have covered. Beijing was my 14th Olympics.
I’ve also covered two Pan American Games, which are the hemispheric Olympics, and one of those was in Cuba. So I’ve seen many international sports festivals in more than a dozen nations, some as progressive as Norway, some as poor as 1980sYugoslavia, some as controlled as South Korea.
Before Beijing, I covered my previous Olympics for the Star Tribune.
Under those circumstances I was, since 1992, a sort of team leader, too, for up to five people. We would follow every Minnesotan, whether he or she was going to finish 97th in synchronized tiddly winks or not.
This year, I was a solo practitioner. I left the Star Tribune in June of 2007 and,through various machinations, got an Olympic credential to represent the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia. My job there was to cover Virginia-based athletes. My deal with the Richmond paper allowed me – and based on my compensation – required me to work for other outlets.
MinnPost.com,which is coming up on one year old next month, a new news Web outlet here intown, asked me to cover the Games for it, mostly dealing with larger Olympic issues, and the politics of the Games. I also followed the most interesting of Minnesotans, but not every little contest of every Minnesotan.
And then my major national client was a publication called Sports Business Journal,which is the sports industry’s trade publication. Along with a full time staffer for the magazine, we produced a three-times-day Olympics business Website.
This kind of free-lancing and the ability to follow the cracks and nooks and crannies of the Games rather than just a wrestling match here or a table tennis match there was somewhat liberating compared to how I used to have to cover the Olympics for the Star Tribune.
People always ask, so I will anticipate: I have long said the 1992 Barcelona Games were my favorite. They were compact. They were in a terrific city. I lived in an apartment, rather than official Olympic housing. There were some terrific events, such as the first U.S. Dream Team with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
But I will now list these Beijing Games as the best.
These were the best because of the scale of the event, the attention on the event –the largest worldwide TV audience in sports history – and the fact that they were in China, the 21st century’s new empire.
Michael Phelps’ eight gold medal campaign added great sports tension to the event. The rise of China’s sports system was proven. More nations – 87 of the 204 in the Games – won medals than in any other Olympics.
And,of course, it was a major platform for the key Olympic sponsors, both the International Olympic Committee’s worldwide sponsors and the Beijing Organizing Committee’s domestic sponsors.
Weat Sports Business Journal broke a story early in the Games that reflected just why some companies sponsored the Olympics.
For a four-year rights fee investment of about US$70 million – plus, probably another US$150 million to activate their sponsorship – General Electric reported it was satisfied. Why?
GE’s Olympic sponsorship chief told me that sponsorship gave him and his team access to contracts that totaled more than US$700 million in infrastructure jobs on some Olympic construction but also on airports and power stations. More work is forthcoming.
One other breathtaking fact: the Chinese government continued to espouse a silly notion that sports and politics don’t mix and that the Olympics shouldn’t b epolitical. This was driven, really, by the pre-Olympic torch run in which Tibet politics became entangled, but is a longstanding position back to the1990s when China began bidding for the Games.
Decoupling the Olympics from politics is impossible and even historically inaccurate. The Olympics are an inherently political event. How can’t they be with more than200 nations walking into a ceremony with their national flags and victors hearing their national anthems? Ever since the modern Games began in 1896,politics has been a part of the Games; indeed, the founder of the modern Olympics created them, in part, to boost French nationalism.
To suggest that the Olympics should be apolitical is to suggest any gathering with11,000 athletes, twice as many media and more than 100 world leaders in attendance can somehow be non-political. It’s to deny that such a large stage won’t be exploited by all the key players . . . including savvy image makers like the Chinese authorities.
That’s just silly talk.
Indeed,the Olympic Games are a movable monument to – at once – globalization AND nationalism and, finally, to localism, if that’s a word.
Of the 12 IOC sponsors, five aren’t US based and two of the U.S. based companies –Kodak and ManuLife – won’t be moving on to Vancouver in 2010. For the first time, the majority of international sponsors could be based outside of the U.S.
But,of course, there’s a medal count in which nations compete against each other.And the home country always does better because there is a tremendous homefield advantage stoked by nationalism.
And there is a very sweet aspect to the Games despite their gigantic size.
From every nation come young people who compete in about 30 different sports against young people from other nations. And there is always a kid from Anoka, as there was this year, or another kid from Brooklyn Park, as we had this year. It is the world’s largest sports stage but it is peopled by the boy and girl next door.
Let me tell you about some shortcomings.
Take the ability of citizens and visitors to conduct protests of various kinds during the Games. There was no ability. As was done in St. Paul for the Republican Convention and in many other Olympics cities previously, protest zones were set aside for those who wanted to make statements during the Games.
And,of course, we were all led to believe that these Olympics would serve to –quote – “open up China’’ to the world. The International Olympic Committee said, in fact, that various freedom of speech issues would be allowed in China during the Games, and that freedom was linked to the IOC awarding the Games in 2001.
But,according to most reports, 77 permits were sought by Chinese citizens to protest.None of the applications was accepted.
No protests were allowed in the set aside zones. Indeed, according to published reports, some of the people who applied to protest were summarily arrested.
That wasn’t good.
Of course, perhaps the worst incident of the Olympics was the horrific murder of Todd Bachman, the CEO of Bachman’s flowers, an aberrant, random, crazed act of violence. It came one day after Opening Ceremonies and cast a pall over the first couple days of the Games. One thing it did was tighten security. In reaction, Chinese officials virtually shut down the Olympic Green, which was this four square mile zone of Olympic facilities and the Athletes’ Village and corporate sponsor pavilions.
For the first four or five days of the Games, only ticket holders were allowed in the Green. That meant in those early days, only about 60,000 or so people. The corporate pavilions – sort of marketing and branding cathedrals – had very few visitors.
Corporate sponsors freaked out and complained to organizers. Soon, free coupons were given to Beijingers via their neighborhood organizations, unions, work places and other groups.
Then,thousands – hundreds of thousands of people – began congregating inside the Green. Even before the Games opened,people were gathering outside the fences of the Green just to be part of the Games to see the facilities.
Seeing people just wanting to be in the orbit of the Games and the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube made me realize that most pundits were wrong. These Olympics weren’t China’s coming out party. I believe these Games were as much for domestic consumption. There was genuine pride and excitement. And that to me was the sweetest part of theGames. The Chinese people I met truly celebrated these Olympics. And in the end, I celebrated them, too.
Jay has covered every Summer and Winter Games since 1984. The Beijing Olympics were his seventh Summer Games.
Weiner worked for the Star Tribune for 27 years before leaving the newspaper in June 2007. During those years he covered the Twins for three seasons, but soon specialized in sports business issues, covering the Target Center buyout,University of Minnesota scandals and the Twins and Vikings stadium debates. He'snow writing locally for MinnPost.com, the year-old news Web site backed by the former publisher of the Star Tribune. He covered the Beijing Games for MinnPostand for Sports Business Journal, the national sports industry publication.