Olympics Reveal East-West Divide - A Commentary By Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld
"Olympics Reveal East-West Divide"
By Jeffrey Sonnenfeld
Published on Forbes.com on August 20, 2008
Read the article in its original context on Forbes.com.
In 1889, seven years before the founding of the modern international Olympics, the British author Rudyard Kipling intoned: "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet/'Till Earth and Sky stand present at God's great Judgment Seat."
Do this month's games falsify or affirm Kipling's geocultural assessment?
As someone who has attended and studied several games and gained backstage access to Olympic officials, the recent events in Beijing confirmed the verity of Kipling's verse.
There is more than a duality between East and West inherent in these games; they embody a paradox between the collaborative spirit of global unity and the patriotic spirit of nationalistic competition. Thus the Beijing Olympic Committee's theme of "One World, One Dream" can be interpreted as celebrating either the harmony of shared objectives or China's conquest over conflicting, and diverse, values.
The harmony theme should not be negligible. Ten thousand five hundred athletes from 205 countries traveled to China to compete in 302 events; they were accompanied by 3 million visitors, while billions more watched from home. But exuberance over record-setting excellence by athletes like American swimmer Michael Phelps and Chinese gymnast Li Xiaopeng transcended national ties.
In Beijing, in fact, what hasn't emerged is the kind of violence often provoked by the competition at the Super Bowl or even some high school football games.
At the same time, the existence of the competitors' distinct agendas is reflected in their interest, energy and sponsorship of each Olympiad. Patriotic pride is mirrored in nationalistic funding, fiercely monitored nation-by-nation scoring and spectators on the lookout for evidence of political bias in the judging. The architectural triumphs of this particular Olympics represent an historic $40 billion public works initiative to showcase the world's acknowledgment that this nation of 1.3 billion people--and the world's third-largest economy--is taking its seat at the table of global influence.
This nationalistic pride of China was appropriately manifest in the breathtaking beauty of the opening ceremonies, the logistical efficiency of the games, the newly planted forests and a largely ceremonial Olympic Green.
This manufactured perfection was matched by legions of conscripted "volunteers," the Potemkin village-like disguise of unsightly buildings with faux veneers, uniformed spirit sections at venues with scripted cheering at random moments, a lip-synched little girl's soprano, pre-recorded spliced-in fireworks and the perpetual emptiness at the far-flung locations designated for protesters.
Such flawlessness, though, is exactly what betrays the real divide between East and West. In stark contrast to the public yet artificial perfection of Beijing's Olympics stand the substantial civic and systemic challenges of past events in Atlanta and Athens. In Atlanta, late buses for athletes, failing scoreboards, suffocating street vendors and, of course, a terrorist bombing during a late-night concert sparked public controversy; tardy construction of key venues, traffic control and financial distress plagued Athens.
But these prior Olympics proffered raw authenticity, pluralistic interests, democratic voices and transparent decision-making. Athens would almost seem disloyal to its label as the cradle of democracy were there no disagreements. Similarly, the entrepreneurial polyglot culture of Atlanta was a carpet of humanity; the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park was filled with children rollicking in splash pools, families watching performances by musicians from around the world and perusing exotic exhibits. Los Angeles, Barcelona, Spain, and Sydney, Australia, also remembered to create gathering places that showcased the spontaneous expression of individual joy.
The Atlanta Games were dubbed the "People's Olympics," but, ironically, the magnificent games produced by the People's Republic of China seem geared to please the world's wealthy elites. Beijing's Olympic Green discourages visitors with multiple layers of security screening and hard-to-obtain access tickets.
Thus, its formal meeting spaces, majestic reflecting ponds with rows of benches, massive parade grounds and monuments are eerily vacant as event spectators are hastily ushered to their destinations, like the Bird's Nest stadium and the Water Cube swimming venue. Crime scene tape keeps Beijing's 17 million proud residents from glimpsing the lots where the athletes' buses are parked.
The night of opening ceremonies, a 1,000-person crowd at Beijing's main train station, which had peacefully gathered to watch a large-screen projection of the show, was dispersed by police. Authorities turned off the TV in the middle of the spectacle.
This manufactured uniformity is both a triumph and a challenge for China. Perhaps the sacrifice of individual pleasures for collective achievement is acceptable to the people of China and other Eastern cultures in a way it isn't in the West. Since the next Olympics will take us to Kipling's London, we are likely to see a return to chaos, confusion, conflict and spontaneous joy.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is senior associate dean and Lester Crown professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management. He led the Yale Global Leadership Forum at the Beijing Olympics and studied the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games for several years before publishing a case study on these Games in 1996. He is also author of Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound from Career Disaster and The Hero's Farewell.