THE BLOG

My Olympic Torch Run: Planning, Propaganda and Passion

05/29/2008 11:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lenovo, a Top Olympic Sponsor and one of JWT's clients, graciously invited me to be a torch bearer for the 2008 Beijing games. A few days ago, I ran 100 meters in Minghan, an outlying industrial district of Shanghai and home to one of Jiaotong University's five campuses. It was difficult not to be moved by the participants' emotional release and spectators' unity of ambition. Despite China's awkward progress on many issues of concern to Westerners, its resolve to confront operatic challenges - from natural disaster to economic crisis - is inspiring. That's what the Torch Run was ultimately about.

Meticulous Planning.
Everything leading up to the event was exquisitely planned. "Patriotic representatives," runners selected from the public at large, were vetted over a six month process to ensure "proper motivations" and political "appropriateness." I was provided with: an identification number (0032); the exact location and time of my run (May 24th at 8:51 am); detailed instructions on what must not be worn (no logos, no accessories); and food that would and would not be allowed in the meeting hall (only items provided by event organizers). We were deposited at departure points three minutes before our moment in the sun and picked up 30 seconds after the eyes of onlookers had moved onto the next of 20,000 runners. Not a beat was missed when, after the Sichuan earthquake, the entire event was pushed back 72 hours to avoid overlap with an official three-day grieving period.

Disciplined Communication. The Chinese know how to manage a message. On a dime, China's propaganda machine shifted the tone of Torch Run coverage. The tagline was changed from "Ignite the passion, spread the dream" to "Spread the sacred flame, spread caring love." Identical headlines appeared everywhere, framing the Torch Run as national resolve, a tribute to Sichuan. At Lenovo's press conference, each bearer was given 60 seconds to express: a) pride in being selected to personify BOCOG's "One World, One Dream" ethos and b) concern for the victims and hope for their families. For the group photo, we were adorned with yellow "sympathy" ribbons. In the middle of preparation drills -- flame held high! logos forward! dignified facial expressions! -- a "mourning video" appeared on two large screens. Everyone stood up, instantly, silently, and bowed their heads.

Unbridled Passion. Political pageantry notwithstanding, there was nothing pre-programmed about the enthusiasm. Every torch bearer - peasant, policeman, politician and industrialist - was thrilled to be "running for China." One multi-millionaire, a garment factory owner, whispered to me that representing his country was "the greatest honor of my life." All of us wore the same outfit, refreshing for a status-obsessed society in which brands are powerful markers of achievement. When we got off the bus, we were cheered by fellow torch-bearers and, as foot hit pavement, crowds exploded with patriotic frenzy. I do believe China has shortcomings, as do all nations. I am aware propaganda organs were instructed to pump up the passion. And quasi-evangelicalism recalled Cultural Revolution hysteria. But the pride was real. The joy was real.

Epic Mobilization. What fueled the pride? The importance of the Olympics to the Chinese is difficult to overstate. In a society in which individualism is suppressed but ambition is trenchant, the nation serves as a surrogate identity. Emotional investment in the Games, therefore, is deep. The Torch Run - Herculean in scale - resonates because it projects the Middle Kingdom's, and every Chinese person's, thirst for glory.

Furthermore, the Torch Run's logistical complexity is a metaphor for how far the nation has come on its bumpy journey to greatness. It is also an acknowledgment of a long road ahead, filled with unpredictable, but surmountable, obstacles. When the earth shook, killing 80,000, the Olympic flame morphed into a symbol of China's resilience, its ability to rally.

Throughout history, mobilization has been tantamount to survival. Cohesion ensures continued existence, as a nation and a culture. The entire population has come together time and again to defend the motherland. In the fifteenth century, immediately after emperor Zhu Di suspended his ambitious maritime expeditions, 250,000 soldiers from all corners of the country were plucked from villages to cross the Kerulen River and defeat the Mongols. The fourteen-year construction of Beijing engaged 100,000 artisans and a million workers. Five million were harnessed to construct one of the greatest engineering feats of the pre-industrial age, the 1,500 kilometer Grand Canal. More than three million were dispatched to (re)build the Great Wall during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. More recently, thirty million were sacrificed during history's most destructive utopian experiment, the Great Leap Forward, Mao's misguided attempt to industrialize the countryside. During the Cultural Revolution, sixteen million youth and intellectuals were "sent down" to the countryside to "learn from the peasants." The containment of SARS in 2003, expected by no one in the developed world, was probably the latest example of mass mobilization and a vivid demonstration that the Chinese, when unified, have a unique ability to grab triumph from the grip of disaster.

In the end, the Torch Run was not a self-congratulatory victory lap. It was an entire nation's primal declaration, in the face of Biblical adversity, to survive, to persevere. Defensive nationalism, conspicuously on display after the pro-Tibetan protests, was not the key driver.

That's real progress. That's real glory.