Lenovo, a top-level Olympic sponsor and one of JWT’s clients, graciously invited me to be a torch bearer for the 2008 Beijing games. I accepted as a mark of respect for a valued business partner and to tip my hat to a nation and people with epic ambition. I also wanted to send a signal to foreign audiences that cultural relativism is a reality we in the West must accept and respond to with empathy, without, of course, forfeiting our own moral compass.
I ran 100 meters through unsexy Minghang, an outlying industrial district of Shanghai. This happened less than two weeks after the Sichuan earthquake, and it was difficult not to be moved by the participants’ emotional release and spectators’ unity of ambition.
Source of inspiration
Despite China’s awkward progress on many issues of concern to Westerners, its resolve to confront operatic challenges – from natural disaster to economic crisis – is inspiring. That is what the torch relay was ultimately about.
Meticulous Planning: Everything leading up to the event was exquisitely planned. Runners selected from the public at large were vetted to ensure “proper motivations.” I was given: an identification number (0032); the exact location and time of my run (May 24 at 8:51am); detailed instructions on what must not be worn (no logos, no accessories); guidelines on what food would be allowed in the meeting hall (only items provided by event organizers). We were deposited at departure points three minutes before our moment in the sun and picked up 30 seconds after it. Not a beat was missed when the entire event was pushed back 72 hours to accommodate the official grieving period for the earthquake.
Disciplined Communication: The Chinese know how to manage a message. Before the earthquake, I was concerned coverage of the torch relay’s domestic leg would be angry, defensively proud and nationalistic. The virulence of the anti-foreign reaction triggered by the pro-Tibetan protests in the West is difficult to overstate. But my fears did not materialize. China’s propaganda machine simply recast the relay as a tribute to Sichuan. The tagline was changed from “Ignite the passion, spread the dream” to “Spread the sacred flame, spread caring love.” At Lenovo’s press conference, each torch bearer was given 60 seconds to express: a) pride in being selected to personify the “One World, One Dream” ethos, and b) concern for the earthquake victims and hope for their families. In the middle of preparation drills – Flame held high! Logos forward! Dignified facial expressions! – a “mourning video” appeared on two large screens. Everyone stood up and silently bowed their heads.
Unbridled Passion: Political pageantry notwithstanding, there was nothing pre-programmed about the enthusiasm. Every torch bearer was thrilled to be “running for China.” One multi-millionaire, a garment factory owner, whispered to me that representing his country was “the greatest honor of my life.” When we got off the bus, we were cheered by fellow torch-bearers and, as foot hit pavement, crowds exploded with patriotic frenzy. I believe China has shortcomings, as do all nations. I am aware propaganda organs were instructed to pump up the passion. But the pride was real.
Epic Mobilization: Throughout China’s history, mobilization has been tantamount to survival. Cohesion ensures continued existence, as a nation and a culture. The entire population has come together time and again to defend the motherland, from emperor Zhu Di plucking 250,000 soldiers from all corners of the country to defeat the Mongols in the 15th century to the containment of SARS in 2003.
The importance of the Olympics to the Chinese is difficult to overstate. In a society in which individualism is suppressed but ambition is trenchant, the nation serves as a surrogate identity. Emotional investment in the games, therefore, is deep. The torch relay – Herculean in scale – resonates because it projects China’s individual and collective thirst for glory. It is also an acknowledgment of a long road ahead, filled with unpredictable, but surmountable, obstacles.
When the earth shook, killing 70,000, the Olympic flame morphed into a symbol of China’s resilience, its ability to rally. Defensive nationalism, conspicuously on display after the pro-Tibetan protests, was not the key driver. That’s real progress.