The custom of putting on a resplendent show of grandeur and magnificence for the Olympic Games was begun by Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
That was also the year that Germany won the most gold medals, 34, handsomely defeating the US, who came in second with 24. At the time, Germany was a strong nation and it used the Berlin Olympics to demonstrate the splendor of its fascist collectivist aesthetics. From that moment, nationalist countries began to view the number of medals won as an expression of national strength, ignoring the view of the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, that what counts is participating.
Although the South Korean medal winner who displayed a banner proclaiming South Korean sovereignty over the Liancourt Rocks, known in South Korea as Dokdo — which are also claimed by Japan, which refers to them as Takeshima — was carried away in the heat of the moment, it cannot be denied that strong nationalist sentiment remains a part of the Olympics.
Chinese athletes who lose will cry and apologize, while British and US female athletes paint the national symbol of their country on their fingernails.
Taiwan is now in a depressed state: The expected medals did not materialize. Winning only one silver and one bronze, these were Taiwan’s worst Olympics since 2000. And not only that: The Olympic “Chinese Taipei” flag remains Taiwan’s official flag at international sporting events. The national flag had started to appear at venues, but was quickly removed by authorities. This hurts the feelings of the Taiwanese.
Beijing has no reason to be too happy, either. China feels that Western countries do not appreciate China’s talents and skills.
Since the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, every host country has spent huge amounts on the Olympic arrangements. However, it was not until Beijing hosted the Games in 2008 that Hitler’s efforts were matched and even exceeded. The Beijing Olympics were the most expensive and most extravagant Olympic Games. They were also the Games that placed the most emphasis on collectivist spirit since the 1936 Games. Beijing also won the most gold medals at 51 — far more than the US’ 36. After these Games, people were curious to see how the former imperial superpower would follow this performance.
In London, China won 38 gold medals, beating Great Britain, who claimed 29. However, Westerners often stress that track and field are the Olympic events that really count, while China focuses on “outsider” events, keeping them from becoming real “heroes.”
Now there is even talk that since China is more or less the only country that plays table tennis, the event will not be accredited at the next Olympic Games. In which case, China would lose four gold medals.
The loudest accusations are that China is using a system that sacrifices the athletes’ health for extreme training routines, which oppose the idea of sports being part of our everyday lives.
Others say that China has no amateur athletes, which is a main focus of the Olympic Games.
The total bill of the London Olympics came to US$17.2 billion — far less than the US$42 billion China spent on the Beijing Olympics. As a result, the opening and closing ceremonies also fell short of the splendor of the Beijing Olympics.
However, it is stressed in the West that the Beijing Olympics was a display of the collectivist spirit, while the London Olympics stressed life, culture and the spirit of individualism. For Westerners, that is the kind of cultural spirit that makes for a comfortable and happy life. China feels that such Western criticism amounts to “cultural containment.” They feel it is part of a leftover imperialist mind-set that is unappreciative of China.
As China oppresses Taiwan to the point where Taiwanese react with nationalist angst, China’s radical nationalists are also brimming with rage, as they see themselves as under siege from past humiliations, current trade wars and military issues and tensions surrounding a rising China on all sides.
This makes one think about Hitler’s rise as he was coming under pressure from the big powers of the time, and how Germany saw itself as being persecuted while at the same time being permeated by a strong feeling of national superiority.
It is very difficult to imagine that Beijing will follow the same path that Hitler took, but China’s situation today is worse than it was in Germany at the time, both domestically and internationally.
To Hitler, sports were a collectivist and universal undertaking, but to China, they are restricted to being just a collectivist undertaking. This means that the splendor of China’s greatness, strength and gold medals are signs of a hard power with no inherent soft power.
China wanted to host the Olympics to showcase its soft power, but instead it unexpectedly revealed how hollow that soft power is. A China that only understands hard power and lacks all signs of soft power is a frightening prospect.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Perry Svensson