The Olympics as a National-Affective Movement
I had never been particularly interested in the Olympics. Perhaps I could never grasp the logic of promoting peace between nations through competition between nations. Or, more realistically, maybe it’s just because I have never been particularly adept in athletics. Eventually, however, it was the extent of others’ interest and investment in the Olympics which caught my interest as a research topic.
The People’s Olympics
In the summer of 2001, when the International Olympic Committee named the Chinese capital Beijing as the host for the 2008 Olympics, I was studying in the former southern capital of Nanjing. Despite marked geographical and temporal distance from the event, excitement and celebration reigned that July evening. Crowds cheered before televisions broadcasting the news live, drivers honked their horns in celebration, bar patrons engaged in repeated calls of “bottoms up (gan bei),” and acquaintances and friends repeatedly asked, “did you hear?” The geographical and historical gap between the two cities was sutured by a manufactured intimacy seemingly encompassing “China” as a whole, while the temporal gap was sutured by anticipation and already rapidly-growing expectations. Acquaintances, seemingly unfulfilled by the present moment, repeatedly encouraged me, “you’ll have to come back in 2008!”
Such euphoric visions of 2008 were painstakingly nurtured over the years that followed. The Beijing Olympics were repeatedly portrayed as the culmination of a century-long dream of the Chinese people as a whole: the People’s Olympics (renmin aoyun). An event inevitably limited to a small circle and designed largely to produce state legitimacy was draped in such slogans as “my Olympics” (wode aoyunhui) and “everyone joins in” (renren canyu), repeated through media reports and local drives, which suggested that each and every citizen, no matter their position, had an important part to play in the Games. This manufactured intimacy presented individuals with an event far greater than themselves and their everyday life experience, yet within which they appeared to have an essential role. The dispersal of countdown clocks to cities and public squares across the nation in the years preceding the Olympics embodied this phenomenon: these clocks not only served as a daily prompt, but also restructured the experience of time itself around this coming event. The mundane and unbearably repetitive progression of hours from dawn to dusk each day was replaced by a constantly shrinking distance from a seemingly sacred moment, redistributing meaning throughout society.
The Secure Olympics
When the moment towards which these countdown clocks counted finally arrived, however, the distance for the average citizen could not have been greater. I returned to Nanjing in the summer of 2008 to research how the Olympics were viewed and experienced outside of China’s capital, and unsurprisingly found the weeks before the Olympics filled with anticipation and excitement. It was in this atmosphere that around 7:50 on August 8, 2008, I walked past a countdown clock to a public square in the center of the city, over which loomed an imposing television screen. Hundreds had already gathered in the square, spontaneously seeking a rare moment of collective solidarity before the image of the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, about to start in just a few short minutes. Clearly in preparation for this moment, we were treated to a video from the municipal propaganda bureau on the importance of being civilized citizens.
Yet when the countdown clock behind us hit zero at 8:08 pm, we were still being treated to a video from the municipal propaganda bureau on the importance of being civilized citizens- on repeat. As 8:10 approached, and as it became apparent that we were missing the beginning of the ceremonies, viewers began enquiring with the dozens of policemen accompanying us. “The opening ceremonies aren’t going to be shown here,” they replied, adding that we should “go home to watch them.” After years of manufactured intimacy and rising expectations, the Olympics had arrived in Nanjing: but it arrived in a far different sense than most had envisioned, with paranoid security measures replacing the unbridled celebratory imaginaries that had dominated the preceding years.
It of course comes as no surprise that Chinese officialdom is less than enamored with the idea of crowds gathering in squares. Yet the ultimate irony of the security-obsessed mindset of the summer of 2008 was that these spectators clearly had no interest in engaging in any form of protest- at least not until they were pointlessly prevented from patriotically viewing the opening ceremonies. As the People’s Olympics began, claiming to symbolize the culmination of a longstanding national dream, the people themselves were being told to disperse and view the games in the privacy of their own homes, transforming a once all-encompassing imaginary inclusion into a similarly all-encompassing exclusion. Adding a new chapter in the perpetual uncertainty surrounding “the people” in the “People’s Republic,” enacting the People’s Olympics was easier without the people.
“Not What I expected”
But instead of going home, the people went to McDonald’s! Conveniently located adjacent to the central square, the multinational fast food giant ironically provided the only public space to view the unfolding of national aspirations. Yet while we crowded together within its confines before a considerably less imposing television screen, the tantalizing odor of French fries began to mix with an unexpected and profound sense of disappointment. As the opening ceremonies progressed, viewers described the images unfolding before them as alternately interesting, boring, too wasteful, too long, too elaborate, clearly designed for “foreigners,” and “not what I expected.”
This last comment, “not what I expected,” might seem insignificant at first. Yet upon closer examination, it reveals the core of the affective dilemma of the Olympics and arguably the national experience in general: reliance upon the continued inflation of expectations and the distribution of such expectations from affectively charged stadiums across massive and fundamentally uncontrollable geographical spaces leads to inevitable disappointment in practice. The grandeur of imaginings and investments, built up over the years in anticipation of the event, undermines the reality of experience upon the event’s arrival. While the official slogan of the Beijing Olympics was “one world, one dream” (tong yige shijie, tong yige mengxiang), the average citizen’s experience of the Games on the ground exposed a fundamental fissure between this “one dream” and our “one world.”
Throughout the Games, posters and advertisements for previously planned public events in Nanjing remained hanging in prominent locations despite their cancellation on “orders from above (shangbu guiding de),” highlighting on a daily basis this irresolvable tension between ideality and experience. In one example, posters for a celebratory downtown “beer garden” sponsored by a local beer manufacturer covered the city’s subway system. The image of three world-champion athletes raising their beer mugs, surrounded by a cheering crowd extending their arms in celebration, provided a glimpse of past imaginings of the present, from an era when countdown clocks were still counting, an era which now seemed so distant.
Since the Olympics had arrived, rather than mobilizing the populace to join in and celebrate the Games which were purportedly theirs, an official sign placed above these posters in one station called on citizens to “mobilize in opposition to terrorism and maintain stability while welcoming the Olympics.”
Needless to say, beer gardens are generally more enjoyable than protecting national stability. Yet the security-obsessed mindset first brandished on August 8thmeant any and all celebration throughout the course of the Games was to be limited to closed and controlled spaces. One could partake of a pricey “International Olympic Buffet” on the top floor of the downtown Jinling Hotel (priced at $40 per person, in a city in which many professionals earn as little as $200 per month), but could not gather in public to enjoy this moment with other citizens over 20-cent beers: the minimum that people had been expecting after years of participatory propaganda.
It was almost as if the images of order, perfection, and glory that had proliferated over the preceding years had taken on a life of their own, eventually smothering reality. When an event is promoted as a culminating symbol of national revitalization and the realization of a century-long dream, anything that happens in reality is highly likely to disappoint. The obsession with matching experience to such ideal images that summer produced an all-encompassing paranoia which then ironically undermined the experience of assumed all-encompassing celebration. The need for tightly structured and secure celebration, obsessively ensuring that nothing “went wrong,” ended up defeating the act of celebration itself; or, the idealized imaginings of the moment smothered the moment itself.
The Olympics as a national-affective movement then produce collective imaginings and fantastic expectations which mobilize widespread interest and investment, yet which inevitably contradict themselves in practice. To suggest a detached approach to the Games arguably runs counter to the Games themselves: but for an event which everyone talks about, yet which most join only as targets of state-sponsored emotions and security measures, it might, after all, be the most reasonable approach.
Kevin Carrico is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Cornell University. His research interests include nationalism, neo-traditionalism, and ethnic relations in China. He is currently completing an ethnography of emerging neo-traditionalist movements and institutions in contemporary urban China.