OPINION

The parallel Olympics taking place in Beijing

“So let me try this one more time,» said a British journalist from Channel 4 TV. A Chinese girl, half his size, sneaked up from behind and tried to grab the microphone out of his hand. He pulled it back hard, and continued undaunted: «I think I speak on behalf of everyone in this room when I say I don’t believe I have received an answer to my question: Is the International Olympic Committee (IOC) embarrassed by the way the Chinese authorities are treating the journalists?» It was his fourth attempt. This took place at press conference last Friday, in the aftermath of a much publicized incident where John Ray, an ITV reporter, got manhandled by the police as he was trying to film a pro-Tibet protest. If the IOC was indeed embarrassed, it never became known, but certainly the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOCOG) was – not so much by the incident but surely by the tone of the questions. Without any notification, it simply canceled Saturday’s press conference. And on Saturday, it canceled the Sunday press conference. A friend of mine – an experienced Olympic reporter for a major international news agency – told me: «In Beijing there are two Olympiads taking place in parallel: The first is happening inside the venues, and the second is what is going on inside the press room.» He is actually quite right. The first one is moving along just fine. Michael Phelps won an unprecedented eight gold medals and, within the first two days of athletics, two world records were broken in a spectacular way. It seems that as far as sport goes, these Games will be long remembered in history. In addition, from an organizational standpoint everything seems perfect, almost in a clinical sort of way. But at the Main Press Center, things seem to be developing within a parallel universe, one that the organizers refuse to acknowledge. Their consistent refusal to respond to questions has irked journalists, creating almost a pack mentality, with one hostile question followed by another. With each passing day, more and more journalists arrive at the large hall on the first floor of the Intercontinental Hotel expecting not to receive answers but to participate in a different kind of event. «The press briefing used to be the place you unfortunately had to go,» a journalist who regularly covers the IOC meetings told me. «Now they are begging to go in my place.» The situation has spilled over onto the front pages of major newspapers, in articles and columns. The journalists are demanding answers – sometimes the kind of answers they wouldn’t receive in their own countries. The Chinese organizers are upset that their guests don’t seem to appreciate the tremendous efforts they’ve made to accommodate them. «We welcome the media to our country,» said Wang Wei, an articulate Chinese spokesperson. «You just have to understand we have our own style of democracy and you have to respect the country’s system.» «Mr Wang, let me pick up from where we left off two days ago,» said the Beijing correspondent for the South China Morning Post. «How many applications for protests were filed, and how many permits were granted?» Tomorrow’s press conference has been canceled again. Stratos Safioleas was the international media manager for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.