Friday, June 27, 2008

Is Pollution an Olympic Sport?

Or, how will the media cover the pollution during the Beijing Olympics?

China is polluted. If pumping smog into the air was an Olympic event, China would be the hands down gold medal a long shot. They do it faster, with more volume over a sustained period of time than any nation on earth. With the Beijing Olympics coming up this summer, they have the addition of home court advantage.

Seriously, China produces enough smog to block out the mid-day sun. I was just there last month and at mid-day you could see maybe a mile with skyscrapers disappearing into a haze that looked like fog but wasn't. Beijing was one of the worst cities for this...trumped only by Shanghai.

That got me and some of my fellow China travelers wondering how the international media will cover that angle of Beijing during the games. Will they cover it like glamour events such as basketball, gymnastics and track? Or, will they minimize coverage like they do with sports like shooting, kayaking and badminton?

Clearly, the massive air pollution has the potential to inhibit performance for outdoor events. If this occurs, the Beijing Olympics will not be remembered as the big coming out party for China, but the "smog Olympics" with times/finishes including an asterisk.

The government is trying to minimize the Beijing pollution by shutting down factories in the lead up to the games, reducing car traffic and other measures. We even met a Westerner while hiking on the Great Wall who said he was in China to help them "seed" the clouds right before the games so it will rain and clear out the air. Good luck.

OK, the US media. NBC is the broadcaster of the Olympics for the U.S. They, like other mainstream media, are prone to puffery and letting the bigger story slide by without much comment in favor of sensation, celebrity or a good sex scandal. So, not much confidence they'll be seriously looking into how the smog may be impacting the games or the greater world.

But, here's the other thing. NBC is owned by GE. GE is one of the world's biggest manufacturers with big time operations in China. A polluter for profit. Guess who is also a major sponsor of the Beijing Olympics? You guessed it. GE. In fact, you can see their logo everywhere in public places associated with the games - starting when you arrive in China with placements in all Olympic advertisements in the huge new Beijing international airport.

GE will not be interested in anything other than a perceived spectacular success to these games. That includes minimal negative talk about anything - including pollution. Happy talk, happy talk.

So, predictions for NBC (sports and news) coverage of pollution in Beijing:
1) They barely touch it
2) When they do, they acknowledge "that the Chinese recognize that its a problem" but they are working on cleaning things up - queue the set piece on what the government has done to clear the air for the games
3) You won't hear about it again once the games are over

The only deviation from this I think will be if there is a major epidemic of poor performances or celebrity athletes pull out of competition...and even then, the games will go on and someone will win. You know, "overcoming the odds" of the pollution to win that gold medal.

I also predict that the foreign media - UK, Canada, France, Germany - will likely do more critical reporting on the pollution and how it is effecting the games and the world. But, we here in the US will not see that coverage - essentially, unless you go out of your way to look for it online. Something most people don't do.

So, in the end, I think the US media will report on pollution in Beijing like they will women's field hockey. They won't do it in any meaningful way.

If it comes to pass like this, it'll be a shame because China is the Olympic champion polluter and the games should be an opportunity to point that out...not to mention connecting the dots back to the US by talking about how a lot of the pollution there is generated by US companies making products that US citizens buy for cheap at Wal-Mart and similar stores.

We'll see. I hope I'm wrong.


Charles said...

Pollution, lead paint, cheap products; how does America not know these things? Will pollution be addressed during the Games? Probably not!

After reading your story, I started to stare and then almost cry. An episode of "Law and Order" flashed into my mind, while the subject matter is completely different the message is the same.

Jack McCoy and the district attorney office find that a place that provides service to autistic men and women are practicing "Cruel and Unusual" (name of the episode) methods resulting in the death of one young man. As the episode continues Jack argues that it is wrong and one mother strongly wages a fight that her son is learning and getting better. She cannot identify anything wrong with her son and it is important that her son continues at the center. As the trial wraps; the center is closed and Jack has his victory in typical Law and Order fashion.

Jack is about to board the elevator when the mother approaches him with her severely autistic son who is more (head bobbing and body thrashing) out of control than ever she says,
“You closed the center, what am I supposed to do with him?
Will you care for him, Mr. McCoy, will do?"
Jack McCoy just stares at her and the credits roll.

I think that conveys what I am feeling about all of this.

Marc said...

Charles, good analogy. It's really easy to for us in the U.S. to sit back and just blame the Chinese for ravaging the environment and say they should stop it. Truth is, we're just as to blame with our desire for cheap goods and corporations' desire for cheap labor and production.

And, what if we got our way? What if we were able to shut down Chinese production/pollution tomorrow - just cut that off? When we saw some of the unintended result of our actions (poverty in China way up, US consuemr prices way up, US stock market plunge, major antagonism by Chinese to the US, etc., etc., etc.) we might be the same as that laywer in the elevator on "Law and Order."