The International Olympic Committee is convinced it has the right approach to human progress and happiness: craft a joyful myth, censor any contradictory facts, and coerce everyone to comply with the official message. The Games’ great resource is the good will of good people all over the world, especially young people, but at almost every staging there is some unwelcome development “overshadowing” the events. The IOC and the Games are left seeming vain or feckless. The Olympics are a twodimensional pageant, where individual achievements are never greater than the “ideal,” even when the ideal is made to seem futile. At least in terms of what happens in most of the real world every day, the Olympics are fairly benign.
Staging the Olympic Games in China, however, is a merger of myths. China government leaders are convinced that the Olympic spectacle refutes the world’s numerous criticisms of their regime. Over the past two decades, by some incredible mustering of human will and totalitarian force China transformed itself from a poor nation to the most dynamic factor in the global economy. There have been incredible human costs in this transformation, but there is no tolerance for disagreement with the national objective.
More to the point, this achievement is China’s alone. The nation sees itself as prosperous and productive, but not a place where individual accomplishments are to be credited. The irony to this tale is that China’s great resource is people. Workers generate wealth not so much for themselves, but for China. That wealth is seen as evidence of China’s progress.
China reportedly spent $2.4 billion to stage the Games, an impressive figure. But, by some estimates the cost is as high as $40 billion — a total that seeks to account for the laborers’ below-scale wages and unpaid benefits, the uncompensated cost of expropriated property, and all the cost-saving advantages found in a world where the state dictates its own terms.
Competing with China for influence, and with the Olympic Games for spectacle, is Russia. It shocked the world, and relished the world’s shock, with its brazen conquest of a tiny neighboring country for provocations that great nations typically ignore. Not Russia. It sees itself as a great nation because of its vastness; challenges to its enormity, even by tiny republics, cannot be tolerated.
Russia’s great resource is that vast territory it dominates and all the reserves contained there. Oil and gas, coal and ores, minerals and timber. It uses those resources to enhance its wealth and magnify its influence, by force when necessary. Now it’s clear once again that wealth is less important to Russia than influence. Even when force is unnecessary Russia may demand that lesser powers pay it homage, to remind everyone of Russia’s greatness.
These are hard truths about the world we live in. All these mythic creations — Olympic ideals, Chinese miracles, and Russian influence — represent dangerous falsehoods. As impressive as each one is, the myths only survive by muscling aside the achievements, the potential, and the freedoms of individuals.
For those of us watching these spectacles, there ought to be some reflection on the world we live in. To us, truth is essential, and undeniable. We may not have permanent prosperity or global dominance, but we have potential. That is our resource — the creative, adaptive, ingenious potential of free individuals to transform our own circumstances, and thereby improve the world.