[Photo Update: I've been informed that not everybody recognizes the subjects of these two photos. So, just to clarify: the top one shows Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang at today's ceremony marking the start of the Olympic torch relay through China; the lower one shows President Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at last night's home opener for the Washington Nationals baseball team - which they won.]
As a lifelong American sports fan, I’m accustomed to seeing politicians appear at sporting events. And, like most American sports fans, I really wish they wouldn’t – I’m there for the @#$% game, not the propaganda and self-serving PR value fed to me by some politiican most likely running for re-election. But in China – especially in the run-up to the Olympics – the game is the propaganda. To an extent, the difference reflects the fact that international competition is a low-priority for most US sports fans who value -rightly so, in my opinion – professional competition between the best and highest-paid athletes in the world (question: where does Premier league compare in salary structure?). Does anybody really think that, say, the Olympic basketball final will feature higher quality play than the average NBA game in April? I don’t. Anyway, the nationalism that animates many of China’s sports fans has no real analog in the US.
To be sure, flag-waving, “USA” chanting American sports fans are a fixture at the Olympics and other international events. But those tend to be transitory fits between viewing the higher quality US professional leagues. As a result, no US politician has ever managed to co-opt a sporting event for political purposes as completely as the Chinese leadership have co-opted this one (and that goes for Ronald Reagan and the 1984 LA Olympics). I’m going to have much more to say on the topic of politics and sport in the coming months, but for now I’ll let this be my response to those who insist on telling me “that this should be about the athletes and not necessarily about politics.”