Time to worry about the unthinkable - failure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

China watchers from near and far are searching during these remaining months before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games for analogies and dichotomies to better understand and explain the host country.

So baffling is the naked, thriving capitalism in one of the world's last surviving communist states weaved together with sparkling, wireless metropolis where citizens are loaded down with Gucci shopping bags and dirt-poor peasants stand knee-deep in their subsistence fields, that any clue as to what makes the awakening giant tick is jumped upon.

And to top it all, there's the Beijing Olympics that is supposed to be about sport but in fact is (and not for the first time) as much about politics.

More evidence of friction and harmony living cheek by jowl emerged at the Olympic Sports Centre in Chongqing, where China set out to avenge arch-rivals Japan in the East Asia Football Championship this week.

On Wednesday evening at 6.15pm, the teams were to kick off for the first time since the Chinese lost 3-1 at the Workers Stadium in Beijing in the 2004 Asian Cup final, a match made infamous for the disgraceful scenes of bad sportsmanship and unchecked nationalism among Chinese fans.

Though the inland port city on the banks of the Yangtze is not hosting any events, it is embracing the Olympic spirit.

Neon statues of the five Olympic rings add a splash of colour to what is essentially a gloomy, grey urban sprawl. Huge concrete bas-reliefs depicting all the modern Games overlook the stadium that was hosting the East Asian Championship matches.

And the event was exceptionally well run and staffed by helpful, friendly, humorous locals rightly proud of their city, their country and the opportunity to host an event that allows them to show off China's hospitality.

So, where better to try and understand contemporary China in its Olympic year than deep inside the country on the banks of its lifeline river?

Standing on chilly terraces during a football match against old adversaries is an ideal place to make an ad hoc attempt to gauge the mood and psyche of a nation. After all, such an arena serves as an ideal dichotomy of the English, famed both for their civility and their football thuggery.

Trouble, as well as subsequent headlines, was expected in Chongqing - and for good reason. Last year's women's World Cup in China was marred by similar scenes to the 2004 men's Asian Championship final.

And last weekend, partisan Chinese fans flocked to watch North Korea play against Japan. There they threw ceremony into the river and hurled insults and projectiles at the Japanese players and fans.

Some 12,000 security personnel were on standby for Wednesday's showdown, and luckily for Bocog and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the international press missed the picture of 20 green army trucks parked underneath huge, neon Olympic Rings.

With the world watching and the Olympics a few months away, there were appeals for calm, which were met.

When the Japanese national anthem was played, most of the 40,000 fans stood; if there were any boos, the PA systems drowned them.

The government is often accused of stirring up nationalism with jingoistic editorials in the state-controlled media. But it is as good as putting out the fires of fanatical patriotism as it is at igniting them.

With tickets priced beyond the means of migrant workers and farmers from the surrounding fields, it is safe to assume the majority, if not all, inside the stadium had enough disposable income from their purchases of apartments, cars, computers and the must-have branded goods to pay to cheer on their country.

The Chinese team promised much and delivered little in the much-hyped match that was supposed to avenge for many wrongs, sporting and political.

A second-string Japan side scored in the 19th minute and made it effectively game over, despite the loud support of China's 'extra man' on the terraces.

Then, halfway through the second half, the worm turned. Cheers of support turned to ridicule, loyalty to derision. The home supporters became emotionally divided. Heads swivelled towards, and tutts of disapproval were made at, a section of the upper tiers. There, the most vociferous part of the home crowd had started to boo and jeer the red shirts.

When the final whistle blew, a small section of fans predictably lobbed projectiles at the Japanese players as they celebrated and a few thousand more tried to surround the Japanese team bus, but were held back by the imposing security force.

But they saved their wrath for the China team. Why government sports chiefs have recently played down the nation's medal hopes and ability to conquer the sporting world in Beijing in 166 days' time became plainly evident.

With Olympic officials bracing themselves for another batch of headlines dramatising the abuse of Japanese players and supporters at the hands of the China supporters, they instead caught a worrying glimpse of a future gone awry.

The mob spotted the China team bus and charged.

Nothing says you're a huge disappointment and disgrace to the country than half-filled plastic bottles of Pepsi and green tea exploding against the windows of your team coach.

If this is what happens when a bunch of footballers fail to impress, what happens if the nation's Olympians fall short of the mark?

Is this what we can expect if Liu Xiang and his peers fail to deliver the Olympic dream? Will the Bird's Nest or Water Cube transform from a patriotic gathering of the smiling, clapping, cheering, contented urbanites into a cauldron of hissing, frustrated malcontents?

Egged on by visiting political protesters, will the emotionally muzzled mob - seemingly banned from expressing anything other than consumerism - see a chance to explode and seize it?

How would the leadership respond in front of the cameras, given its new and respected place of prominence in the world?

Celebrated English manager Bill Shankly once joked that football was far more important than the greatest dichotomy of them all: life and death.

But after this week's turn of events, and until it's known upon which side of the tracks the Olympics legacy falls - the good or the bad, positive or negative - China's Olympic officials and the IOC aren't laughing.

Better safe than sorry

The number of security personnel at the game between China and Japan on Wednesday: 12,000