The Smog Olympics

Having visited Beijing recently, I was shocked to hear that Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics was accepted. My first thoughts had nothing to do with China's dismal human rights record. I wasn't thinking about the massacre in Tiananmen Square twelve years ago, and I wasn't thinking about China's abuses of Tibet either. I was thinking of only one thing: pollution.

I pity the poor marathon runner who will have to compete in the Beijing smog. Sadly, Beijing is one of the most polluted cities I have ever seen -- and that's saying something considering I lived in Los Angeles for a year. Somehow, Beijing makes the Los Angeles smog seem like fresh air. Unless something is done quickly, athletes are going to be choking across the finish line.

It's a shame too, because -- beneath the smog -- Beijing is such a beautiful city. All that imperial splendor, all those serene temples, all the bustle from being one of the world's busiest cities. It's enough to make even two weeks of Bob Costas seem palatable.

Let's face it. Beijing is a far more interesting place to hold the Olympics than any of the competitors for these games. We've all seen enough of Paris in the movies. As for Toronto, I don't want to see any more Olympics held in North America. There's something wonderfully exotic about the Olympics, which for me is completely ruined when they are held so close that I can drive there.

Of course, China's abysmal human rights record does make Beijing a difficult choice to defend. And some of their plans are decidedly weird. These are the people who originally wanted to dump tons of sand into Tiananmen Square and hold the beach volleyball event there -- thus entirely removing the beach from beach volleyball, not to mention desecrating the memory of the Tiananmen Square protests. I only wonder if there would have been a penalty for hitting the building in which they keep Mao with a volleyball.

It's obvious that Beijing won the Olympics out of sheer determination. From the moment I stepped off the airplane, I was inundated with giant Olympic posters bearing the awkward slogan "New Beijing, Great Olympics." These posters were plastered all over the city. Beijing probably had more posters before winning the Olympics than other cities have after winning them.

When representatives of the International Olympic Committee visited this past spring, my friend Brian, an American who studies there, was amazed to notice that the city had even painted the grass green in some spots just to impress the visitors. Meanwhile, Beijing taxi drivers were taught to use many phrases in English including "Pollution is a global problem," "The city's traffic is getting better and better," and "You look very handsome today," all apparently designed to make foreigners feel giddy at the prospect of a Beijing Olympics. I doubt anyone in Paris or Toronto was trying that hard.

Actually, it's not surprising that China went to such lengths. For a country without any official religion, sports has become one. From talking to people in Beijing, it's obvious that the Chinese people wanted the Olympics even more than the government did. Perhaps that's the real reason that the IOC awarded these games to Beijing. If they hadn't, they would have given birth to a grudge that could have lasted for years to come: that the west stole the Olympics away from China. It sounds like propaganda, but it's propaganda the sports-crazy Chinese citizens may well have bought.

In some ways, withholding the Olympics from China would have only made the Chinese government stronger. Granted, with all of China's past offenses, that's a controversial statement to make, and I understand that many will disagree with me. But, to those who disagree, I have just one thing to say: You look very handsome today.

A more serious version of this piece originally appeared in this past Saturday's Boston Herald. Look for more columns about my trip to China in the coming weeks.

Copyright 2001 by Joe Lavin
Joe Lavin's Humor Column is published every Tuesday at:

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Submitted By: Joe Lavin
Jul 26, 2001 16:09

This joke is rated: PG