It’s going to be really interesting watching the Olympics unfold. There had already been rumblings, with the protests last year in Burma and pressure over Darfur, but protests in Tibet bring it that much closer to home. And as the Olympics get closer, and more and more media attention is focussed on Beijing, the Chinese government are only going to find it harder to control the news agenda. Though I’m sure they’re going to put a great deal of effort into the attempt.
They have a knife-edge path to walk: they have no chance of getting through the games without at least a few difficult moments, but probably it will be no more than that. Western governments are not keen to start a confrontation, and while there will be a lot of media there, most of it will be the well-oiled machinery of bland, upbeat sports coverage, with its emphasis on lap times and human interest stories about plucky Britons just failing to win bronze medals. As long as the games themselves are running smoothly, Steve Cram and Sally Gunnell are not going to be spending much of their time in the BBC studio talking about China’s human rights record.
But with all that attention, there’s always that sneaking background knowledge that, thanks to the oxygen of publicity, if something does spark off, it could be very explosive indeed. I suppose the doomsday scenario would be something like large scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square during the games themselves. If I was a Chinese government press officer, I think I’d be quite tense already.
» The defecting Tibetan Antelope mascot is from here.
I was just watching Question Time on the BBC, and the panel were asked what ‘we’ should do about Burma. Simon Schama was on the panel, and he suggested that, if China was stubborn about blocking any action via the UN, we should have a mass boycott of the Beijing Olympics, since Burma is a client state of China and the Olympics is one of the few pieces of leverage we have. I’m not going to offer any opinion about Schama’s analysis; I was just struck by something one of the audience members said: ‘What does sport have to do with politics?’
Because my immediate reaction was that this Olympics, the 2008 Olympics in China, is intensely political. I say that without knowing anything about the current state of Chinese politics; I don’t think you need to. The 2008 games just has a frisson around it, an aura. It’s the amount the Chinese government is spending, and the way they’re spending it. I mean, have you seen the stadiums they’re building? They are incredible: huge, dramatic, glamorous. Gesture architecture on the grand scale. It’s not enough for the Chinese to show they can put on a successful Olympics; they want to appear dynamic and, above all, modern.
It’s no coincidence that the British Museum has an exhibition that includes some of the warriors from the Terracotta Army. Or that last winter there was a huge show at the Royal Academy of work from the C18th Chinese court. It’s all surely part of a concerted effort of cultural diplomacy, an attempt to engage with the world and establish Brand China as sophisticated, exciting, a modern nation amongst modern nations. While, I’m guessing, fighting tooth and nail to keep a rigid grip on the levers of power.
Which isn’t to say that the people running China’s PR department are magicians. The insistence on using every opportunity to assert Tibet’s place as an integral part of China’s heritage seems like a bad idea to me; it just reminds people of the issue. Next year there will probably be literally millions of people who will experience a twinge of hostility, or guilt or whatever, at the moment in the opening ceremony when the mascot representing a Tibetan antelope appears. It would probably have been a better idea to avoid the negative vibes.
This isn’t particularly intended as an anti-China screed; trying to project the right national image is something all governments do, after all, it’s just that big totalitarian governments do it in a big, sweeping, control-freak manner that makes it more obvious. I guess it’s just a feeling that every so often you have to say these things explicitly because, after all, you’re kidding yourself if you think that propaganda doesn’t affect you. I’m planning to see the terracotta warriors; I’ll be watching the Olympics; it will all, inevitably, have some impact on my perception of China. The least I can do is remind myself from time to time that it is propaganda.
» the picture of the stadium is from Wikimedia. The terracotta horses are by molas on Flickr and are used under a by-nc-sa Creative Commons licence.
As regular readers probably know, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the London Olympics. But I’ve always had my own particular private worry about them. Not transport problems or cost overruns; no, what I’ve always had a nagging worry about is the opening ceremony.
There have been two big international sporting events held in the UK in the past 15 years: Euro ’96 and the 2002 Commonwealth Games. From an organisational point of view, both were a great success. But the opening ceremonies were cheesy, incoherent, unimaginative, clichéd. Half-baked. Second-rate. And my worry was that not just the opening ceremony, but the whole style, everything that the world will remember about the London Olympics other than the sport, might end up the same way: naff and a bit amateurish.
There are plenty of people in the UK who know how to put on a show, whether it’s an exhibition, a rock concert, a West End musical or a royal funeral. For that matter, the fabulous opening ceremony for the Athens Olympics was done by a British company. But none of that creativity seems to survive contact with the government. Whether politicians just have bad taste, or it’s the clammy hand of design by committee that ruins everything, I don’t know, but the record doesn’t inspire much optimism. The ultimate example is the Millennium Dome. It was always an event in search of a reason for existing, and the cost of the thing wasn’t exactly going to endear it to anyone, but much of that would have been forgiven if the experience of visiting it had been exciting and stimulating. Or glamorous, or awe-inspiring, or shocking, or moving. Instead, it was overwhelmingly mediocre. I had a pleasant enough day out there with my family, but it was completely unwowful and unmemorable.
I was cautiously optimistic about London 2012, though. The team seemed to be very focussed and professional, the bid logo was certainly the best of the competing cities, and the videos for the bid presentation in Singapore were very polished and even quite witty. And beach volleyball on Horseguards Parade, where the PM will be able to watch it from the windows of 10 Downing Street, is a stroke of genius. So I had a sense of shock and a feeling that all my worst fears had come true when I saw that the new logo is, basically, ugly:
Not only is it garish and lopsided, it looks so dated. And not generically old-fashioned, but quite specifically dated. My immediate associations were Max Headroom and the original Channel 4 logo; other people have mentioned Smash Hits, the video for Money For Nothing, MTV, and the titles for Saved By The Bell. In other words, there’s an immediate association with the cheesier end of 80s yoof culture.
Now I have a certain nostalgic fondness for the 80s, and I know the decade is quite trendy at the moment, but it seems a bizarre note to strike for the 2012 Olympics. And what worries me even more than the retina-scarring gaudiness of it is that note of cheesiness. The Olympics is never going to be cutting-edge and hipper-than-thou; it’s too big, too old, and too establishment for that. But it should be possible to do it with a bit of panache.
Well, I’ve been reading some of the commentary on design blogs—there’s a couple [1, 2] among the daily links in the previous post—and although everyone seems to have the same initial reaction of startled revulsion, some people have, after a little thought, offered some defences of the design. There seem to be three basic points:
1) Technically speaking, it’s a very flexible design. It scales well, it works well in black and white and a variety of colour schemes, and it will work not just in print and on screen but on baseball caps, polystyrene cups and just about any other medium. Which wouldn’t make up for any of its other failings, but is worth noting.
2) At least it doesn’t include a picture of Big Ben. More broadly: Olympic logos are generally forgettable, clichéd and bland. This one is surprising, striking, and, presumably, memorable. It has had an immediate impact, and although that initial impact has been negative, it is at least a strong reaction. And people will get used to the design in time. Possibly.
3) Most interestingly: it’s not just a logo. Because it is so visually striking, it sets up a visual signature which will be able to be carried through into all kinds of materials: TV ads, posters, banners, volunteer uniforms and so on. It really is, as the committee stressed, a brand rather than a logo.
These arguments have not quite won me over. ‘At least it’s not bland’ is a bit too much like saying ‘don’t you see? It’s ugly on purpose.’ Which just might be so clever it loops round to stupid again. And while I can see the virtues of a coherent visual style for the Games, the idea of the whole of London being plastered with lurid jaggedy shapes for the next seven years doesn’t fill me with an overwhelming sense of joy.
But at least it’s given me something to think about and a sense that, just possibly, there’s some method to the madness. Perhaps they know what they’re doing, perhaps it’ll all be OK; perhaps we won’t be looking back at the Games in 20 years time with a visceral cringe of embarrassment.
I really feel like London was cheated out of a cheerful honeymoon period of harmless excitement between winning the bidding for the 2012 Olympics and the start of the inevitable gloomy stories about spiralling costs. Cheated because, of course, it was the morning after we won that a bunch of devout young men from Leeds hijacked the news agenda.
It was always going to cost more than predicted — it’s a big capital project run by policitians. That’s what happens. And it was always inevitable that there would be a lot of whining from dismal killjoys. But the enthusiast, pro-Olympic side of the argument lost all its momentum just as it should have been drawing people in, and so we’re going to have the six years of gloomy pronostication without having had the chance to enjoy the initial moment.