My 2 Cents

Should the U.S. and other nations boycott the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games as repeatedly requested by U.N. spokesperson and actor Mia Farrow?

Before answering, take a look at some of the obstacles:

  • Steven Spielberg acting as consultant to coordinate the Games’ opening ceremony, to be held on August 8, 2008 in Beijing.
  • General Electric has contracts for various Olympic projects for $160 million.
  • NBC has paid $3.5 billion for exclusive U.S. TV rights.
  • Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s, among other U.S. corporations will invest heavily in the Games.
  • The Los Angeles Office of Tourism has organized the Hollywood parade for the Beijing Olympics.
  • The Games’ formidable U.S. and U.K. PR machines.
  • The Sydney Olympics Organizing Committee as consultants.
  • The U.S. Treasury, which has $400 billion of its bonds held by China.

As UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador, Farrow objected to China’s financial, logistic and military support of Sudan and its genocide in Darfur.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Farrow and her son Ronald warned Spielberg that he risked becoming a modern version of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, known for her 1936 Berlin games film Olympia. “Does Mr. Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games?” they wrote.

The French then-presidential candidate Francois Bayrou came out in favor of Farrow’s proposal, commenting that France should boycott the Beijing Olympics. Naturally, Tibet –– with its line-up of Hollywood stars –– and Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiéres (RSF), which has activated a website to create more awareness, are all for a boycott.
According to RSF, “the Olympic movement was discredited when, in 1936, it allowed the Nazis to make the Games a spectacle to glorify the Third Reich.” The argument is that if the world won’t boycott the 2008 Games, Beijing will take it “as a license for more aggression.” Some argued that the boycott of the Russian Olympics in 1980 by the U.S. and some 50 additional countries helped speed along the democratization of the Soviet Union.

For me this is like déjà–vu all over again. In 1978 I was sent by my then-publication TV/RadioAge to the Soviet Union for a special report on the preparations for the XXII Olympiad, where I visited Moscow, (St. Petersburg) and Kiev.

Then, like now, NBC was the exclusive U.S. broadcaster. At that time it spent a total of $118 million for the Olympics, including $36 million for the exclusive TV rights and a $2 million premium for a $40 million insurance policy. This was because, just about that time, president Jimmy Carter was getting upset with the conviction of two prominent Soviet dissidents. Avital Sharansky, whose husband, Natan, a computer expert, was handed a 13-year sentence for spying, urged the U.S. to pull out of the Moscow Games. AFL-CIO president George Meany refused to become the U.S. Olympic Committee’s honorary chairman for labor because of “the barbaric prison terms” given to Sharansky. Meany’s organization included members culled from NBC’s on-air personnel and technicians. Meanwhile, the American Federation of TV & Radio Artists rejected an invitation from the Soviet counterpart organization to visit the USSR. The refusal was to protest the imprisonment of Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov.

At that time, the Olympics represented a major showcase for the Soviets. They were so important to them that such a repressive society under Leonid Brezhnev even allowed reporters like me who were interested in their Olympics, to wander freely about the country, albeit, in my case, followed by two KGB agents: my translator, Tanya Kashintsewa, and a woman who invited me for a drink in St. Petersburg, but managed to disappear in the middle of the bar’s revolving door.

At the time, however, the Soviet Union was poor. Unlike China today, it did not hold any U.S. T-Bonds, did not produce goods for Wal-Mart ($18 billion in 2004) and did not have formidable PR machines. Then, the U.S. military was the only entity valorizing the Soviets, but just to get more funds out of the Congress.
China, on the other hand, has been well prepared to deal with criticism from the beginning. Bell Pottinger was hired to handle PR in Europe ahead of the vote to assign the XXIX Olympiad. The firm was founded by former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s PR guru Tim Bell, who also ran a campaign to free former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet during his detention in the U.K. At the same time, Beijing took on Weber Shandwick to cover Asia and the U. S. with a 50-strong team under Michael Holtzman in New York, who had been the communications adviser to former U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, who sealed a landmark trade deal with China on its entry into the WTO in 1999.

Even though in 2001 the U.S. Congress opposed the Beijing Olympic bid, nowadays it has to consider that, should China cut its U.S. holdings, it could drive up long-term yields on U.S. bonds, which could, in turn, put pressure on interest rates. The U.S. economy is also in the hands of China, which keeps inflation at bay with cheap imports.

In today’s world, no mater what China wants, China gets. As former president Bill Clinton once remarked: “It’s the economy, stupid!”          

Dom Serafini