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  • Op Ed: 17 Days of Fireworks


    (ATR) It’s the final night of the Lunar New Year Festival in China and from my airplane window, fireworks flicker across the black expanse of northeast China, the end of 15 days of celebration. Now it’s on to the 17-day Olympics festival in August that is certain to bring record-sized pyrotechnics.

    In the land that invented fireworks, the skies over Olympic Beijing should dazzle like no other Games before. Visitors will leave the city overwhelmed by what they have seen, taking home vivid memories of the Games.

    But it’s fireworks of a more figurative sense that also could determine how the Beijing Olympics are remembered.

    Heading into the final months to the Games, it’s clear that the organizing committee and Chinese government are not prepared to defuse the powder keg of skepticism that media outside the country will bring to Beijing.

    Whether on Chinese foreign policy, human rights or the competency of BOCOG to run a smooth Olympics, western media still have a truckload of doubts, and notebooks filled with pointed questions for the hosts.

    How China responds will make all the difference in the image of the Olympics that the press presents to the rest of the world.

    High marks go to BOCOG for its efforts in Beijing to inform the media on different aspects of the Games. This week alone, press conferences and briefings have covered sport, marketing, food safety and security. While the intent is admirable, BOCOG is missing the chance to wrestle with media skepticism. It presents expert after expert speaking Chinese -- not English or French, the parlance of the world press.

    Athens organizers conducted their business amongst each other in Greek. But when it came time to meet the world press, spokesmen and experts -- including the indomitable president of the Games -- was ready to meet the press in English.

    With less than six months to go, there is just one executive at BOCOG with the savvy to speak to the media in English. But the media appearances of secretary general Wang Wei are few and far between. For BOCOG’s sake, Wang should play a more prominent role between the organizing committee and the media. Demands on his time for dealing with the IOC, international federations and national Olympic committees understandably stretches him thin.

    As a result, there’s no one to carry out the daily “charm offensive” needed between BOCOG and the foreign media. Maybe the media won’t be swayed, but they may feel wooed by a communication channel other than the dispassionate voice of an interpreter.

    It is the same for the Chinese government, which has failed to get out of the box with the foreign media on issues such as Darfur and human rights.

    With the Games approaching and questions mounting, the government and its information minions have yet to engage the media who will be coming to Beijing this summer. Press conferences at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by official spokesmen are one thing, but to have any chance of scoring Olympic points, the government must reach out to journalists who will wear press credentials at the Games.

    With an army (compared to BOCOG) of professionals with language skills and diplomats around the world, the Chinese government still hasn’t figured out how to use its people to reach members of the media who will shape the image of China and the Games.

    Despite statements that the Olympics are about sport and not politics, the two will clearly intersect in Beijing. Keeping issues separate during the Games is a fair ambition of the IOC, BOCOG and the government. But while keeping them separate, there must be the means to address the political issues the media will raise.

    Failure to do so will guarantee 17 days of fireworks heard around the world.

    Op Ed is a weekly column of opinion and ideas from Around the Rings founder and editor-in-chief Ed Hula. Comments, as well as guest columns are welcomed: