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Archive for the ‘Guest Posts’ Category

With the Olympic Rowing finals around the corner, Bob has interviewed British junior coach David Blackham to find out his thoughts on the emergence of a strong Chinese team, the weather conditions and the chance of the British rowers. Here is what he had to say, before heading out to see the Games for himself:

David Blackham – British Junior Rowing Coach

BOB: Rowing is a sport the Chinese have targeted in their campaign to top the medal table in Beijing. Have they been successful?

They have definitely made big inroads, how successful and how far they have come at the very top level is yet to be seen. What is evident is that they have become one of the major players.

They haven’t got everything right yet and some areas are getting better than others; they’re not competing on the heavyweight men’s scene as much as they’d like, but other areas (e.g. lightweight women) seem to be going very well.

They are definitely finding success but there have been some ethical issues raised about their programmes.

BOB: Can you put this success into context?

Although it wasn’t my generation, their rise has been compared to that of the East Germans. Although it is important to remember that team China still has to prove itself on the Olympic stage.

BOB: How have they done this?

From what I have seen the Chinese seem very focused and determined, which is essential for a sport like rowing. The main factors have been: investment in their programme to support their athletes and the drive of the athletes to compete in an Olympics on their home turf.

It is also a numbers game – with maybe 20,000 rowing in the UK, maybe 100,000 in Germany, there are only going to be a few who have the ability to row at Olympic level. China has a population of 1.3 billion.

It is fair to say that rowing is still an elitist sport to the global stage, and this has helped team GB in the past. The GB set up – some great athletes and some good athletes who the team can get the best out of – is much like the private school set up.

China has the athletes and is developing the set up. In many ways it is quite comparable to what’s happening in the UK at the moment in junior rowing, between club and school. Rowing has always been dominated by schools but this is now being challenged by the clubs. The sport is opening up which is only good for it: more competition = faster times.

BOB: People have speculated about drugs – what are your feelings?

It is a relatively clean sport, but drug cheats do occasionally occur. My gut feeling is that the Chinese rowing team is clean, but I also think that if one or two of them aren’t clean then it will be endemic, and the whole team will need to be scrutinised as it would more than likely come from their coaches.

I hope that they are clean, as it would drag the whole sport down otherwise. It is very easy to speculate about drug issues if an athlete/team do well, as a way of justifying why they are better than you, rather than looking at your own set up. Team GB though are also better than Team China at this stage so you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself.

BOB: Does the rowing world have a ‘world order’, and if so will China’s rise impact this?

Rowing, like any other sport, does have a world order but it seems to vary. GB, Australia, NZ, USA, Canada, Germany and Italy – in no order.

China is breaking into that group.

New competition is always good. Just like the economy, the Chinese rowing team has the potential to be #1!

BOB: What are the conditions like in Beijing for rowing?

Well… I gather things went well when the 2007 junior world champs where held there.

Smog, pollution and heat aren’t going to help rowers but it is the same for all the athletes and the governing bodies have known it’s going to be in Beijing for 7 years. Let’s hope a sand storm doesn’t blow off the Gobi Desert!

BOB: Are there any British stars we should keep an eye out for?

The form book says the women’s quad. It would be great for women’s rowing and GB rowing in general if they could do it. Individual stars – Zac Purchase in lightweight doubles has a great chance. Triggs-Hodget in the coxless four will have to ‘do a Pinsent’ if they are to win gold; he is a world class athlete though.

BOB: Is there a race that you are particularly looking forward to?

Everyone looks forward to the men’s eight. It would be great to see GB in the medals; lightweight doubles, heavyweight coxless fours for example for GB interests. For the pure enthusiasts the men’s single sculls will be a great battle and hopefully Campbell can muscle in on the act.

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Guest post by Jordan Hirsch

In mid–March, several days of peaceful demonstrations against Chinese rule exploded into violent rioting in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. On March 17th, as China engaged in the bloodiest period of its crackdown against the protestors, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge circulated an internal memo to IOC officials, outlining a communications strategy. “China’s involvement in Tibet strictly concerns its social and political policy,” Rogge stated in the memo. “It is not related to the country’s hosting of the Games, nor to its relationship with the IOC.” Most importantly, Rogge ruled out any direct IOC involvement either in condemning China’s response or mediating an end to the conflict. The IOC would remain silent.

Will The Olympics Bring Change in China (or Should They)?But certainly the Olympics and politics go hand–in–hand. Countries compete to host the Olympics for obvious political reasons: to kindle national pride, gain international prestige, and stimulate their economies. The kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in the 1972 Munich Games, and the years of Olympic boycotts from 1976–84 clearly evince the political nature of the Games. And, doubtless, the IOC has made politically driven decisions in selecting host countries. It rejected China’s 1993 bid for the 2000 Games only four years after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Even the Olympic Charter seems to call for the promotion of liberal political ideals, including “the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” a rejection of any “discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex, or otherwise,” and the use of sport to inculcate “value of peace, justice, mutual understanding, and international friendship.”

When the IOC granted the 1988 Summer Games to South Korea, then under a repressive military dictatorship, critics accused it of once again awarding the Olympics to an authoritarian regime that consistently violated human rights.

The critics were right about South Korea’s authoritarianism, but the Seoul Games ultimately contributed to South Korea’s rapid and largely peaceful transformation to democracy in 1987. Indeed, the Seoul Games seem to demonstrate that the Olympics can help to initiate progressive political change. As the Beijing Olympics approach and world leaders remain at odds over how to respond, then, what lessons can the international community draw from the history of Seoul 1988?

South Korea’s bid for the Olympics in 1980 served a number of political purposes for the ruling regime. The country had enjoyed rapid economic growth in the 1960s and ’70s, yet the prosperity had not brought with it political liberalization. When South Korean President Park Chung–hee was assassinated in 1979, another military junta, led by General Chun Doo–hwan, assumed power and continued the repressive policies. But South Koreans—especially students—vigorously opposed Chun’s new dictatorship, and began protesting at college campuses across the country. In May 1980, as South Korea prepared its Olympic bid, South Korean students and citizens flooded the streets of the city of Kwangju in a massive pro–democracy rally. The government responded with overwhelming force, with opposition leaders declaring that it had killed nearly 2,000 protestors in one week.

With a bloody stain upon its record so early in its political life, the government sought to use the Olympics to enhance its legitimacy at home and abroad.

Once South Korea won its bid for the Games, outside media descended upon the country and gave voice to dissident students and politicians. Taken by surprise and unprepared to confront the empowered opposition, the government buckled under the pressure and began making concessions.

Alongside the media attention, high–level diplomacy by the (nominally non–political) IOC proved to be the other decisive factor. By the spring of 1987, South Korea had arrived at a crucial juncture. The government had suspended debate over constitutional reforms, and the country nearly ground to a halt as South Koreans from all ages and classes united in protest.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch made a high profile visit to Seoul to mediate between the two sides. According to historian Richard Pound, Samaranch, a former Spanish diplomat, “had never been shy about injecting himself and the Olympic movement into world events.” Only two days after Samaranch’s visit, the South Korean government made its famous June 29th Declaration, agreeing to all of the opposition’s demands and giving way to the first democratic elections in South Korean history.

Much like South Korea, China has invested heavy political capital in the Games, taking the unprecedented steps of inviting over fifty world leaders to the opening ceremonies and crafting the longest tour of the Olympic torch in history. This is leverage that the international community has over China, especially in light of China’s still unfulfilled promises to expand media freedom.

Yet the differences between China and South Korea remain stark. China, as an incipient superpower, enjoys far larger economic and political clout. Significantly the Chinese regime is far more ideologically entrenched than were the South Korean generals and can invoke a long history of struggle for popular justice and [against] foreign intervention.”

What’s more, despite its success, Samaranch’s intervention in South Korean affairs raises questions about whether the IOC should engage in diplomacy. Under Samaranch’s model, the Olympics might become a vast political spotlight, shipped purposefully to oppressive regimes to bear international pressure upon them and induce economic and political liberalization. Such an agenda–driven Olympics, without any pretense of political abstinence, might provoke a backlash against the Games from non–Western countries and rob the Games of their universal respect—the very element that empowers their potential for moral leadership in the first place.

In advance of the Beijing Games in August, the IOC has focused its energies on maintaining the idea that the Olympics are “hallowed ground” not to be disturbed by geopolitics. Yet the example set by the South Korean Games establishes that the Olympics can, if unevenly, maintain the balance between its inherent contradiction: steering clear of politics, and upholding its principles of struggling against discrimination and promoting peace, justice, and cooperation.

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Few people would argue that China is controversial choice of host country for the 2008 Olympics – something the Chinese government are only too aware of. With high profile protests greeting the Olympic torch’s global relay and rioting in various western provinces by ethnic Tibetans there is a very real threat of unrest spoiling the sporting showcase of the Olympic Games.

However, many believe that the security measures imposed by the authorities in Beijing may actually do more to sour the spectacle themselves. In the first guest post for the Beijing Olympics Blog a friend of Bob’s and a prominent Chinese Studies academic writes that this March tension was high and the atmosphere was poor in Beijing because of the prominent security presence:

I have never known Beijing as tense, the police and military presence as overt and aggressive, and Tiananmen Square as controlled, as it was in March. We had a lot of hassle about bags and searches before going up onto Tiananmen at the end of the Forbidden City visit, which made me wonder if anyone had tried to get up there, or even succeeded, with a Tibetan flag or leaflets, and then when leaving the Forbidden City, we were all funnelled over one marble bridge lined with a dozen armed men all urging us to hurry up – I think they were trying to make sure no-one whipped out a banner or flag under the Mao portrait, and again, it made me wonder if anyone had done just that, or tried to. It must have made an awful impression on first-time visitors, though – they were almost pushing people along over the bridge, even elderly and disabled tourists.
Then as we were walking east on Chang’an Avenue to where we could catch a cab, still at the top of the Square, we passed a middle-aged migrant woman, who looked as if she might have been Tibetan, who was refusing to let two police officers search her bag. They twisted her arms behind her back, threw her on the ground and knelt on her, pulling her by her hair, just eight feet away from half a dozen horrified British students. When they started to let her up, she threw a punch at one of them, so they repeated the performance, and other police came over to move everyone on, so we didn’t find out what, if anything, she had in that bag – she looked to me like the kind of woman who sells maps and postcards on the Square, not that many of them were allowed onto it to do that this year, but I guess she might have looked a bit Tibetan to the police as well, hence the search. All rather horrible, but I’m glad the students saw it.
We went onto the Square the next day, the day before the torch arrived, and the top half was already closed off in preparation. Locals and tourists were heavily outnumbered by police and soldiers, and police cars cruised the Square broadcasting in English and Chinese instructions not to come to the ceremony if you weren’t invited! Not terribly welcoming, then, and a plain-clothes police office filmed me for 50 minutes while I was talking to my students (should have asked him for a copy – it would have made a nice podcast). The Monument to the People’s Heroes was also closed off and had armed sentries posted all over it – I think that’s new since last year.
I can’t see how they’re going to get through the Games without incident, judging by March-April – things like this are bound to be seen by loads of foreign visitors, including the press – which is partly why I want to be there for the start, at least, although of course it’s the only country in the world where whatever happens either won’t be on the evening news at all, or in very particular form.

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