Minnesotans get physical with the Beijing Olympics


As giant clocks across China count down the days until August 8 at 8:08 p.m.— the official start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics—a group of University of Minnesota students hit the streets of Beijing for a study abroad course that closely examines at the impact of this year’s Olympics on China and the world.

Twenty U of M students spent three weeks in Beijing and Shanghai visiting Olympic venues, meeting and speaking with city planning committees, and traveling to historical sites like the Great Wall.

Minnesota journalist marks 14th at the Olympics

Sports journalist Jay Weiner of St. Paul knows of the importance of international sporting events when it comes to politics – this fall’s Beijing Games will be the 14th Olympic Games he’s attended since 1984. “There’s been political issues at every Olympics I’ve been to,” said Weiner. “When I cover the Olympics I don’t separate the sports from the politics.”

Though the Olympics have a long history of political controversies, Weiner expressed his opinion on the significance of this year’s Games in an article for MinnPost: “China is bigger, stronger and, right now, just about wealthier than any of the other 200 nations poised to compete in what will be, arguably, the most corporate, most political and most examined sports event this planet has ever witnessed.”

Weiner will be following several Minnesotan athletes for MinnPost and will also be posting live podcasts online starting August 3rd. Weiner will not just be reporting on statistics and record-breakers though. “I will have my eyes and ears open for other issues here,” said Weiner, “I’ve learned not to cover the events, but to cover the Olympics as a whole. It’s best to take a step back and see what the scene is, that’s what I’ll be doing as I walk around Beijing this fall.”

“The course is about China,” said Chris Isset, Professor of History at the U of M and one of the faculty directors of the trip, “but we needed a topic in order to study it—and the Olympics is an obvious one.” This is the second year the U of M has offered this intensive, Olympics-focused course, which attracted students with diverse interests, from sports to Chinese culture to marketing, to create an all inclusive study of China and the games.

The students studied athletics in Chinese culture at a very hands-on level as well, joining a game of softball against a Chinese team and visiting the recently renovated, Taoist “Temple of Heaven” where they watched people perform their regular exercises, from Tai Chi to badminton.

Tom Mitchell, a U of M student, was surprised with the level of fitness in everyday Chinese life, “I found that most of the near-70-year-olds were more flexible and agile than me, the lanky, white American.” What many of the students realized was how prevalent sports and fitness are in modern Chinese culture. Olympic ideals like fair play and hard work have been integrated into daily life, including a series of textbooks that teach these values in the school system.

The group had a unique opportunity to get a close look at how important the 2008 Games are for China. A conference at the Research Center for the Study of Humanistic Games and a visit to the brand new, hypermodern Olympic stadium in Beijing gave the students a feel for the major ideals and themes that China is trying to present to the world this fall: a hi-tech, green, and humanistic Olympics.

“What you start to realize,” said Doug Hartmann, professor of sociology, who co-directed the course with Isset, “is that in order to understand sports in any culture you have to learn about the social and political context as well.”

The course also visited several Minnesota-based companies such as Target and BestBuy to get a feel of international corporate culture. At the Target production and distribution center in Shanghai students were surprised to find that, although all of the employees were Chinese, only English was spoken so that the branch could communicate with corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. The students were also able meet with some of the major sponsors of the Olympics to study the corporate, globalized nature of this Olympics.

“This is China’s coming out party,” said Hartmann. “It’s their chance to show the world how modern and global they are. They’re trying to promote an alternative vision of the value of international Olympic sport, which has been dominated by European powers – it’s about a broader sport for everybody.”

Cass Sanford is a student at Mount Holyoke College and an intern with the TC Daily Planet.