Now that the winter Olympians have stolen away from Italy with their skis, skates and polished granite curling stones, the eyes of the sports world turn with rising excitement to the 2008 summer games in Beijing.
The excitement has been stirred by an irony of history. It follows the Athens games, site of both the ancient and modern Olympics, and comes for the first time to a vast and fast-growing Asian nation which got seriously involved in Olympic sports less than 25 years ago.
After the less than thrilling winter Olympics staged in a country familiar to millions of Americans, the Beijing games promise all the elements of an international thriller: mystery, money, controversy and pageantry. It will offer to the West a glimpse, through press and television, into a little-known country whose old civilization is colored by two very different philosophers, Confucius and Karl Marx.
Although it is regarded as one of the cradles of human civilization, its interest in organized sports during its Confucian era, which lasted until 1949, was minimal. Sports were the individual diversions of a highly born few.
When the Olympic games were renewed in 1896, the empress dowager Tzu Hsi is said to have asked what they were all about. Told they involved running, she reportedly remarked she could send some of her eunuchs to take part since they were experts at running her court.
They laid siege in 1900 to the foreign legations of Beijing. Their defeat by an allied army of Americans, Japanese and Europeans paved the way for the 1911 fall of imperial rule and the beginning of the republican era.
Sports for the masses did not flourish in that period except for the foreign conquerors who settled down in the defeated country to squeeze what wealth they could find out of it. They built polo grounds, race tracks, tennis courts and swimming pools for their own diversion and put up signs saying “Chinese keep out.”
I met one of these Chinese in 1947, a highly educated mandarin whose long fingernails and courtly manner proclaimed disdain for work or sport. After lunch at the highly colonial Peking club, I took him to watch two sweating Brits playing a vigorous game of tennis under the hot sun.
“What,” I asked, “do you think of this game?”
Mao Zedong’s communists whom I met in a seven-month stay in Yanan, their cave capital, had a very different view of sports. They actively encouraged widespread athletic activity not only for its own sake but for its value in war and nation-building.
When they conquered China in 1949 they still believed in its virtues but had to put off its application as they fought among themselves, bringing the nation to the brink of destruction.