From their start in 1896, the modern Olympics Games have promoted a dreamy, idealistic fallacy; the proposition that, if all the nations of the world gather together to engage in friendly competition, world civilization will become less violent and more humane.
In the subsequent 126 years, that aspiration has been shattered again and again as war, genocide, terrorism and oppression have survived in ever more sophisticated guises. And, despite their lofty rhetoric, organizers of the Olympics have sometimes been complicit in lending respectability to inhumane regimes. The first and still most notorious example of this came in 1936 when the Olympics took place in Berlin beneath Nazi swastikas and the malevolent gaze of Adolph Hitler.
This year, various critics insist the award of the 2022 Winter Olympics to Xi Jinping’s China is as disgraceful as holding it in Hitler’s Germany. On the glossy surface of things, that contention might seem preposterous. China’s leader is a smiling man in a crisp business suit, not a strutting, ranting, cartoonish character in military garb. The Nazi images that resonate in memory are the films of massive rallies with endless ranks of uniformed zealots raising arms in a stiff salute to their leader. In contrast, the images China projected to the world to lure the Olympics for the second time in 14 years looked like happy, friendly, “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coca-Cola ads.
The reality, though, is that Xi’s China is the most technologically advanced authoritarian state the world has ever seen. The movements, the actions, the communications, even the thoughts of Chinese citizens are elaborately and relentlessly monitored by a regime that is as ruthless, but dramatically more sophisticated, than the brutish fascists of the 1930s. And, like the old fascists, Xi is engaged in genocide — in his case, against a Muslim ethnic group in western China.
The ability of the Chinese government to project a pleasant image while maintaining near total control of Chinese society makes it easy for the people who run the business of the Olympics to pretend they have not rewarded a regime that aggressively flouts the Olympic ideal. But all the fake snow being pumped out by machines on the bare slopes of China cannot cover the grim reality.
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