BHP Billiton

Behind the glitter, a dangerous reality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 April, 2007, 12:00am

495 days to go

The Beijing Olympics will be bigger and better than anything that's gone before, so we are told, repeatedly.

So, too, will the medals that were unveiled with much fanfare this week.

Games organisers Bocog lobbied hard to have the medallions be fitting of the scale and global importance of next year's historic event.

Officials at Olympic Tower requested the medals be larger than those of previous Olympics because they wanted to include jade, the symbolic gem. Gold and jade together signify honour and virtue in Chinese culture - a pair of national characteristics the government is keen to push as part of China's branding campaign.

Long debate between Bocog and the International Olympic Committee followed. The IOC, which sets the rules on medal design for every Olympic Games, is rather precious and protective of it.

One side of the medal must stay consistent and depicts the five legendary rings. Host cities are allowed to let a few art students loose and come up with a signature design on the reverse side.

But to enlarge it? The IOC had never heard the like.

This is to be an Olympic occasion like no other - and the Chinese are doing rather well in their preparations; remember, they were told to slow down the speed of construction such was the enthusiasm. So the IOC chiefs in Lausanne relented. 'Let the medals be big,' they said.

But it's no easy feat inlaying jade with gold on a thin disc. And, of course, as any jeweller worth his sovereign pinkie knows, you have to possess the right jade for gold, silver and bronze.

'The quality is relative to the stature of the medals, the lighter, finer jade is in the gold, while the bronze has the greener jade,' says Clinton Dines, from Australian-based mining company BHP Billiton, the official medals sponsor of the games.

The commemoration badges must be worthy of the skill and vision of the sportsmen and women who will be breaking sweat, records and hearts in trying to win them next year.

The medals also act as permanent reminder of the Olympics, an event that endeavours to unite one and all through sport, and eulogise the endurance of the human body.

Casting such symbolism was subsequently no easy feat. 'Part of [the difficulty] is the design; if you make the jade band too thin, it's too brittle,' Dines said at the unveiling ceremony on Tuesday.

As Dines and senior Bocog officials discussed the finer points of medal-making, deep beneath the haggard, ancient hinterland of Shanxi province, the word 'brittle' and 'human endurance' might have resonated with the thousands of miners attacking seams of coal, and the inadequate safety measures in place to protect them. Within 24 hours of the medals' unveiling, 19 miners at the Yujialing coal mine in Yipingyuan township would be dead and seven more missing - mere blips on the long fatality list that grows steadily week by week.

China's mining safety record is atrocious, yet its thirst for coal is insatiable as it strives to keep its economic juggernaut rumbling along and an ever-demanding population satisfied.

BHP Billiton is the world's largest mining company, banking US$39.1 billion in revenue in 2006. It also represents the acceptable side of mining, pumping some its vast profits back into community projects.

'In line with our sponsorship agreement, BHP Billiton will provide financial support to the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games and supply the raw materials for the Olympic and Paralympic medals,' declares the company's website.

A BHP Billiton spokeswoman said the company did not have any operations in China. However, it doesn't mention if it is using its expertise or profits to advise on or assist in financing a better safety record in China's Dickensian mines.

China's impact on the world is wide and complex but is most keenly evident in its economic clout and rampant pollution. Much of the latter is smog from coal-burning power stations - a cheap, natural resource that is being dug out at an alarming speed at domestic and international mines so as to fuel the 'Waking Giant'.

The fossil fuel is also highly symbolic of all that's good and bad about 21st century China.

There are the loyal, patriotic workers who risk their lives for a pittance in the belief they are not only feeding their families, but are also ensuring China modernises and regains the international respect it has so longed for and deserved.

And without a gripe, many will no doubt lose out on a few weeks' wages when their work place is forced to close to prevent smog damaging the lungs of Olympians.

Then there are the unscrupulous mine owners, government and party officials, health and safety inspectors and factory bosses who live in and out of each other's pockets, which are lined with not only coal dust - but also with bribes.

The Olympics, it has been said, is all about heroes, unsung and otherwise.

Perhaps the IOC and Bocog should order an extra millimetre circumference to be added to the 2008 medals, and inlay a ring of coal.

Deadly business

Coal miners bear the brunt of China's insatiable need for power

The number of workers killed in China's coal mines in 2006: 4,746