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UPDATED: April 1, 2015
Going for the Gold
With Beijing as the clear frontrunner to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, some fear that China is ‘taking over’ a beloved global institution. Here’s why they’re wrong
By Corrie Dosh

Will 2022 see Beijing as host of the Winter Olympic Games? It seems likely, now that the city's competition has melted away. Public concerns over cost have prompted Oslo, Stockholm, Munich and Krakow to bow out--leaving just Almaty, Kazakhstan, as the sole opponent to a joint bid by Beijing and the northern city of Zhangjiakou.

It's a part of an overall shift of global mega events exiting the West. If Beijing wins the 2022 Games it would mean three straight Olympics in East Asia with Pyeongchang, South Korea, hosting the 2018 Winter Games and Tokyo hosting the 2020 Summer Games. Beijing would also be the first city to host two Olympic Games in such a short period (following the 2008 Summer Games) and the first city to host both Summer and Winter Games.

But now the Western world seems to have some remorse over their abandonment of the Olympic Games.

"The Olympic spirit has come to this: Two authoritarian countries are vying to host the 2022 Winter Games, competing to endure a huge financial strain for the benefit of burnishing their public image," Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch's director of global initiatives, wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

That's a bit unfair, says Susan Brownell, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an internationally recognized expert on Chinese sports and the Olympic Games. Speaking at a recent event sponsored by the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUSCR) in New York City, Brownell said the fears over China's hosting says more about the West than it does about China.

"For some people, this is really more than about sports, it's about maintaining the supremacy of the liberal West and its political ideology," Brownell said. "There are real battles on the ground between competing interest groups who are often motivated by ideologies that sometimes seem like a throwback to the Cold War. Developing countries face an uphill battle to gain power and influence in international organizations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC)."

In fact, it may be in the West's interests to let non-Western powers shoulder the costs for these mega events, Brownell said.

"It helps Western-faced multinational corporations strengthen their networks and move into non-Western markets. The Western powers still get to dominate the political economy, the emerging nations get to have their coming-out parties and they get to feel good about a symbol," she said.

The Olympic Games are more than about sports. The Games serve as a backdrop for social and political activities, informal diplomatic talks and corporate hosting. It's often noted that 82 heads of state attended the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. These events are "bigger than a G10 conference, any meeting of the United Nations, the Versailles Treaty conference, you name it," Brownell said. We know very little about what happens when these high-level leaders gather in one place, but it seems likely that matters of international security are discussed and they are an opportunity to "move us closer to world peace," she added.

In terms of business and cultural exchange, the Games are a goldmine. In 2008, Chinese real estate developer SOHO China threw a star-studded party for 1,000 guests including media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, as the company geared up to bid for major international properties including the historic General Motors building in New York. The London Summer Games reportedly injected £100 million ($148 million) into the hospitality industry.

Still, the fact that that the 2022 Winter Olympics is the first Games in history not to have a Western contender bidding to host is unsettling to Western powers, she said. From the first modern Olympic Games held in 1896 in Athens to the Sochi Winter Olympics last year, only five of the 50 host cities have not been in North or Central America, Europe or Australia and all five Games hosted outside the West were held in East Asia.

"In the next Olympics after Sochi, the South American continent will host its first Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and then after that the next three Olympic hosts are in Asia," Brownell said.

The other major global sporting event, the FIFA World Cup, has also exited Western powers, starting with the 2010 Cup in South Africa, followed by Brazil, Russia and Qatar in 2022.

"Does this shift of world premier mega events show that the Western preeminence in the world is in decline and Asia is surpassing it? My answer is essentially 'no,'" she said. 

Overly simplistic political ideology and misplaced perceptions are hiding what is really going on in the world, Brownell said. Asia and China are joining a world in which the West "still dominates, in large part." 

"What I think is happening, is China is joining what the West was already doing and I don't think the West supremacy is going away--at least when examined from the perspective of the Olympic Games," she said.

The IOC votes are notoriously unpredictable, but China is seen as a "safe bet," Brownell said. China knows how to organize mega events and the IOC can be assured that venues will be completed on time.

Brownell speaks from personal experience. She was a nationally ranked track and field athlete in the United States before joining the track team at Peking University in 1985-86 while she was in China for a year of language study, according to NCUSCR. She represented Beijing in the 1986 Chinese National College Games and set a national record in the heptathlon. She has published several books on sports and China, including Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People's Republic and Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.

The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City

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