"Never the Twain Shall (Track) Meet": Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Olympic Lies

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management has a well informed insider’s view of the Olympics, “Olympics Reveal East-West Divide.” (Forbes.com August 20, 2008) which starts with Rudyard Kipling’s classic 1889 “Ballad of East and West“:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

‘Till Earth and Sky stand present at God’s great Judgment Seat.

Sonnenfeld argues that the Beijing Olympics demonstrates that Rudyard had it right: “There is more than a duality between East and West inherent in these games; they embody a paradox between the collaborative spirit of global unity and the patriotic spirit of nationalistic competition.”

Beijing offered “flawlessness” and “manufactured perfection” where prior Olympics in Atlanta and Athens “proffered raw authenticity, pluralistic interests, democratic voices and transparent decision-making.” Such flawlessness, though, is exactly what betrays the “real divide between East and West.”

He concludes that 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.”

Sonnenfeld surely has a point, but like most who quote the Kipling poem, he leaves out the next lines:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

Sounds like the Olympics to me.

But what caught my eye is how Sonnenfeld illustrates the argument my piece on “Lies.” (August 28) which talks about the role of concepts such as authenticity, individualism, and well, lies.

My point was that we need to avoid the assumption that others act because of their age old cultural values. At just about the time that he wrote “East is East,” Kipling exhorted the US to “take up the White Man’s Burden” of colonial rule in the Philippines, tipping us off to the racism lurking here. Kipling’s Gunga Din praises the native subaltern: “you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” This is fine, since Kipling uses the same standard as he uses to judge both the “other” and himself, but not so fine in that the standard is a British standard, that of “manliness.”

I agree, though, when Sonnenfeld explains things in terms of differences in situation, that is, that China is large, newly proud and united nation. This is a reasonable approach (though the particulars can still be debated) rather than insisting on “East” vs. “West,” two units of analysis which are undefinable and lead to self-confirming assertions.


  1. Sonnenfield’s piece betrays his misperception of the games, namely, that they actually happen in one place in any kind of meaningful or authentic way. Of course a few million people attend the actual Olympic event, and Sonnenfield claims that his “behind the scenes” research reveals the truth about Beijing and other games. But far, far more people watch them on TV, in every country in the world, mediated by the state and corporate interests that filter the representation of the games that comes out of the boob-tube wherever you happen to be watching. The best attended Olympics in history, at least up until Beijing, was Atlanta in 1996, which sold a total of around 8 million tickets. 30 million people tuned in to watch ONE NIGHT of the Beijing Olympics in the U.S. alone; worldwide, it must have been close to a billion viewers. And all of these people are watching only the events that their network chooses to broadcast, with the particular spin offered by their national or channel commentators. How can anyone talk abotu the

    In the summer of 1996, I was living in Beijing, and watched much of the Atlanta Olympics on Chinese state television. The view of the games that was presented to me was one in which China was completely dominant. Total medal counts were never presented, and events in which the Chinese were weak seemingly didn’t even exist. And to be honest, watching the Beijing Olympics here in the U.S. this year, I had pretty much an identical experience in reverse. Of course I could see all the obscure sports at which Americans suck by looking at the NBC website or staying up until 5 and watching MSNBC, but instead, if I watched the primetime show, what I saw was an ostensibly objective but in fact blatantly nationalist presentation of America’s fantasy version of the Olympics. Most nations offer a spin on the Olympics that suits the expectations and needs of their viewers; we all see “manufactured perfection.” So I agree with you that Sonnenfield’s explanation is too simplistic. He just hasn’t seen enough versions of the games.

  2. Nice point, Morgan — you take the discussion to a whole new level, one where Orwell, Marshall Mcluan,the Karls Marx & Rove, P.T. Barnum, and the Wizard of Oz dance around holding hands and laugh and trade insights into how best to mix politics, mastery of mass media, chicanery, and illusion!

  3. It seems odd looking at these posts and others, and seeing people surprised at the nationalistic perspective(s) given to the Olympic Games as broadcast in the various participating countries. Of course each national broadcast station is going to primarily cover its national team. Whilst I did not watch much, I live in South Korea, so it seemed like archery, baseball, and taekwondo were the only sports. But I am Canadian, and when I’d look at the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster), the first week was all about the failure of Canadian atheletes as they couldn’t win any medals; how the whole Olympic programme was a failure; and about how embarrassing Vancouver in 2010 will be. Then the second week roles around and it is the reverse as the Canadian team won more medals in total than the last games in Greece. THE OLYMPICS ARE POLITICAL AND NATIONALISTIC, of course they will be. AND SO, TOO, WILL NATIONAL BROADCASTS BE NATIONALISTIC. To think otherwise is naive. And trying saying whether this is positive or negative, is equally naive. Let us stop deluding ourselves and thinking that the Olympics can be free from politics. Nothing is free from politics… and that too is neither good nor bad.

  4. Hi Christopher – I think that was sort of what I was saying as well, no? That the critique of China for trying to mount a “perfect” games, and for manipulateing the whole event to perform a new version of Chinese culture and identity for the world, that this critique is simplistic. Many have noted that the games are inherently political. I didn’t at any point say I was offended or surprised to discover that broadcasts of the olympics were spun in different ways in different countries. I just don’t think most American analysts, including academics, pay enough attention to the “glocalized” faceting that occurs as the game is broadcast around the globe . . .

  5. I think the whole notion of China manipulating the Olympics to perfection is laughable. Western media loves to demonize China… Why doesn’t the media ever mention the winter Olympics in Utah. Last time I heard, Utah “manipulated” IOC to award the city. Fake fire works, lip singing, and diapers are nothing compared to IOC bribes. As for the media’s role in all of this, I wish that it would uphold it’s responsibility to report news in a fair and balanced manner.

  6. Dear Morgan: True, very true. I agree with your points… it was just that it seems the net has been inundated by posts still talking about the Olympics sans politics, or in contrast, talking about how they are overtly political… and then (most distressing I feel) trying to assign values. I would like to suggest that instead of talking about how things can be without politics, isn’t it perhaps more constructive to acknowledge the politics and then find productive ways to work within that ideology as opposed to always railing against the system? Revolutions are healthy things now and then, but sometimes working within the ISAs we find ourselves in can be more effective (maybe).

    In any event, no offence was meant by my previous post.

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