China's deadly earthquake may have saved the Beijing Olympics.
Just a few weeks ago, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge described the games as “in crisis.” They were being battered by pro-Tibet protests, health concerns about Beijing’s noxious pollution and calls for boycotts tied to China’s support for Sudan.
The May 12 earthquake changed everything.
“I’m sorry to say it, but this has turned things around,” said Gerhard Heiberg, a member of the IOC’s executive board member and its marketing director.
After the tragedy in Sichuan Province, the Games are now riding a wave of goodwill — a feeling that the Chinese government’s propaganda machine had failed for months to generate.
Of course, 11 weeks remain before the Olympics begin on Aug. 8 and another unexpected event could change everything. Politics still loom, and some athletes are still expected to use the Games to speak out on political issues like Darfur and Tibet.
“What the earthquake has done ... it has essentially pushed the coverage of the preparations for the Olympics to the margins, temporarily,” said Phelim Kine, Hong-Kong based Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But that coverage and focus will quickly return in the days and weeks ahead.”
“The media will move on from this immediate focus on the humanitarian tragedy in Sichuan, and there will be space for other stories and other coverage,” he said.
At a track and field event that opened on Thursday at the 91,000-seat National Stadium — the games’ centerpiece, known as the “Bird’s Nest” — donation boxes for quake victims dotted the venue and people were using them.
Activist groups grudgingly acknowledge that China’s state-controlled media — by allowing uncharacteristic openness in 24-hour earthquake coverage — have shaped the news agenda and gained sympathy for a catastrophe that has killed more than 55,000 people.
Instead of criticism, China is receiving wide-ranging praise for its quick earthquake response.
Known for its secrecy, the government has let earthquake coverage flow more freely, with less censorship in an era of text messages and the Internet.
State-controlled China Central Television has produced nonstop coverage of the disaster. The government initially allowed more aggressive news reporting, most dealing with the government’s rapid response, heroic rescues and grieving.
“Maybe the Chinese government hasn’t had time to think about it, but later it may come to realize that, compared with the state-controlled media, the words from the ordinary people at the grass roots are more convincing and influential,” said Luo Qing (羅青), who teaches at the Communication University of China.
Hoping to carry the momentum into August, the government has sent high-profile former Olympic gold medalists Gao Min (高敏), Yang Yang (楊揚) and Deng Yaping (鄧亞萍) into Sichuan Province to boost the morale of thousands of orphaned children surviving in tents.
The stars have also shown formidable psychological skill, visiting the injured in field hospitals, or leading pep rallies for those displaced people taking shelter in tented camps.
“We really don’t see that we have been outmaneuvered by the government,” said Matt Whitticase, a spokesman for the Free Tibet Campaign. “Obviously, the earthquake has been awful, an act of God that no one could have predicted.”