Olympics Reveal East-West Divide

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is senior associate dean and Lester Crown professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management. He led the Yale Global Leadership Forum at the Beijing Olympics and studied the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games for several years before publishing a case study on these Games in 1996. Here is his commentary piece on 2008 Beijing Olympics:

In stark contrast to the public yet artificial perfection of Beijing’s Olympics stand the substantial civic and systemic challenges of past events in Atlanta and Athens. In Atlanta, late buses for athletes, failing scoreboards, suffocating street vendors and, of course, a terrorist bombing during a late-night concert sparked public controversy; tardy construction of key venues, traffic control and financial distress plagued Athens.

But these prior Olympics proffered raw authenticity, pluralistic interests, democratic voices and transparent decision-making. Athens would almost seem disloyal to its label as the cradle of democracy were there no disagreements. Similarly, the entrepreneurial polyglot culture of Atlanta was a carpet of humanity; the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park was filled with children rollicking in splash pools, families watching performances by musicians from around the world and perusing exotic exhibits. Los Angeles, Barcelona, Spain, and Sydney, Australia, also remembered to create gathering places that showcased the spontaneous expression of individual joy.

The Atlanta Games were dubbed the “People’s Olympics,” but, ironically, the magnificent games produced by the People’s Republic of China seem geared to please the world’s wealthy elites. Beijing’s Olympic Green discourages visitors with multiple layers of security screening and hard-to-obtain access tickets.

… This manufactured uniformity is both a triumph and a challenge for China. Perhaps the sacrifice of individual pleasures for collective achievement is acceptable to the people of China and other Eastern cultures in a way it isn’t in the West. Since the next Olympics will take us to Kipling’s London, we are likely to see a return to chaos, confusion, conflict and spontaneous joy.


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