Social impact of the 2008 Olympic Games on China
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Susan Brownell reflects on the social implications of the Beijing Olympics for China and its society, how this affected relations with the western world and ways of thought

by Susan Brownell

Legal reforms as a result of the Olympics

To date the only rigorous studies of the impact of Olympic Games have measured economic impact, and scholars do not really understand their social impact very well. The most convincing evidence for social change would be changes in institutions. Critics of China's political system hoped that the Olympics would bring about political reforms, but there were no major changes in political institutions after the games. Legal reform was one of the Olympic legacies, particularly the tightening of intellectual property laws, and the law giving more freedom to foreign journalists.

Strengthening solidarity
My own conclusion is that the Olympic Games do not necessarily have a significant direct social impact. What happens is that they cause a large number of people to feel for one moment in time they are all members of one community – even if this moment is only shared through television. The power of that moment lies in its ability to strengthen solidarity and heighten awareness. At a global level, the major impact of the games was to make the world feel closer to China, and make Chinese people feel they were part of the world. This made some people feel threatened by China, but on the whole it seems to have had a positive effect inside China by making relations with non-Chinese seem normal for the first time since the revolution of 1949.

Call for government accountability
Inside China, heightened national consciousness resulted in greater demands from the people for government accountability. A corruption scandal erupted in the football administration five months after the Olympics. It was driven forward by a popular sentiment that the team’s poor Olympic performance was a national embarrassment, and that it had not fulfilled its responsibility to the people. The two and a half years of the investigation and the court trials manifested a new level of transparency and rule of law.

Raising awareness about social issues
The games raised public awareness about the environment and the treatment of the disabled. While the air pollution in Beijing is hardly better than it was before the Olympics, everyone is now aware that there is a problem, and can remember that blue skies were achieved for the two weeks of the games. This has created a greater will to attack the problem. The Paralympics helped make people conscious of the obstacles faced by the disabled.

Changing ways of thought
The greatest impact of the Olympics may be on ways of thought. It may take some time for these changes to be expressed in concrete changes in social institutions. We can be sure that Chinese society will be changing rapidly in years to come, and certainly the Olympics made a contribution to this.

Susan Brownell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis


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