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Olympic Torch-ure

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Now that the Olympic Torch has moved on from San Francisco -- and Athens, Paris and London -- we can begin to assess the consequences and ramifications for Beijing 2008 and public debate about China.

A student at the University of Pennsylvania, Xiaoxia Cao, has written about the way in which Beijing 2008 has been seen by the Chinese people as a way of repudiating or compensating for generations of humiliation in global dialogue. And yet, the Olympics is beginning to emerge as a dramatic narrative that hovers between triumph and power (on the one hand) and a public relations nightmare. This week it was the torch and Tibet, we'll see what banners unfurl, what protests are mounted in the weeks and months to come.

One element that's emerging: the etiquette of snubbing. How can national leaders (perhaps sports federations and athletes as well) participate and yet symbolically withhold honor and recognition? Variations will be excruciatingly delicate. The opening ceremonies now emerge as a site for playing out the drama of signaling (both to China and one's domestic or international constituencies). The Secretary General of the United Nations has "too busy a travel schedule" to appear at the opening ceremonies. Sarkozy used his bully pulpit to raise the question. Gordon Brown is explicitly not coming. Bush has not yet made it clear. Presidential candidates are testing what plays with the voters (and maybe what they believe).

Probably, all over the world, there's an emerging vocabulary. Maybe the Dalai Lama is setting or legitimating one kind of response or other (i.e. do something short of boycott). It was breathtaking to see the President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, knocked somewhat off a general position of tempered denial by declaring that there was something of a "crisis" that needed to be addressed. This is very big news in the dialogue between the Olympics establishment and a host city and country. Suggestions and sitings of these formulations are welcome.

A good summary of where we are now is provided by UCLA political science professor Richard Baum:

"The first true protest started last August, one year out before the games. That's when the first true protestors started calling for a boycott. Then Mia Farrow and some others then started calling it 'The Genocide Olympics.' But it really wasn't until the final run-up to the Games began and the torch started to become an issue that all the floodlights were turned on full. The precipitous decision that really kick-started this was the decision of Steven Spielberg to renege on his commitment to be an artistic advisor for the Games. That very public display created an opening for a lot of people to jump on the bandwagon."

That's from Wayne Dreh's column for ESPN.

I've also written about these questions in a just-out book, (edited with Daniel Dayan), Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China, published by the University of Michigan.