At Beijing press conferences, questions tell their own story
BEIJING — The first question at Saturday’s daily Olympics press conference came from a German reporter, and anyone could have guessed what he would ask.
“On the Kamila Valieva case,” the reporter began, referring to the teenage figure skater amid the latest Russian doping scandal, “can you explain why it took six weeks for the positive test result to come out ?”
The second question went to a reporter from Xinhua, China’s official news agency, and the speech went, well, elsewhere.
“What is the favorite dish of athletes? asked the Chinese journalist. “Do you have a specific number for how many roast ducks are served?”
On this went. There were 12 questions asked in English, and 11 related to the doping scandal. There were seven questions asked in Chinese, and they were basically about anything else.
It was, in a good hour, a perfect synthesis of the parallel approach to reporting on the Games inside the Olympic bubble. Every morning, in a cavernous room, reporters from outside media outside China assail the International Olympic Committee spokesperson with often insensitive questions about what is wrong. Meanwhile, domestic reporters are asking their Chinese counterparts about everything going well.
The two press corps, of course, have different goals and limitations. But rarely are they so clearly juxtaposed, and for such a long period, as they have been during these Games.
“The focus of the media here is different,” said Mark Dreyer, Beijing-based analyst for China Sports Insider. “In the West, it’s to hold people to account, to expose the lies, the corruption, all that, as well as to report the news. Here, it is to tell the story of China. While not officially controlled by the government, it is approved by the government. And if you’re too far from that line, you’re in trouble.
China has made small concessions to accommodate the Olympic apparatus. Residents of Olympic venues, for example, benefit from “barrier-free internet”, which allows them to bypass the country’s normal firewall and access websites and online platforms that most Chinese cannot access.
Yet, in most cases, it’s as if the two press corps are dancing side by side, in the same cramped ballroom, to two different songs.
The tone was set during the opening press conference of the Games, when journalists are accustomed to asking questions about various controversies to the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach.
But first, a question from China Central Television, the state broadcaster. “After two years of dark times,” the reporter asked, “do you feel the arrival of spring?”
The boost was palpable when a Reuters reporter then stepped up to the microphone to ask Bach about his plans to meet Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who disappeared from public life for weeks after accusing a senior government official of sexual assault (Bach met her). Stories about Peng continue to be censored in China.
Divergent sensitivities were also on display at Olympic venues. On Thursday night, after China lost to the United States in hockey, a reporter asked a player from the Chinese team, which has several naturalized players, how he felt about playing alongside his “foreign national teammates”.
A Chinese reporter turned around, surprised. “You can’t talk about foreign nationals,” she said.
Similarly, at the IOC press conference on Saturday, after three consecutive questions from international journalists pressing Olympic officials on Valieva’s doping case, a Chinese reporter changed his tune.
“There are a lot of super performances from the athletes, a lot of Olympic records being broken,” she said. “Is this good performance linked to the support of the Olympic villages, to the good service provided to the athletes?”
You can guess the answer.
Western journalists got few answers to their sensitive questions. Chinese reporters often received fluent, paragraph-long responses to theirs. (Chinese media, Dreyer said, often adhere to requests to submit questions before officials are made available for interviews.)
On Saturday morning, a Chinese reporter asked Zhao Weidong, the host committee’s spokesperson, if he had a comment on some athletes performing well and others not.
“I want to share with you a historical story about Olympic history…” Zhao began, the start of a two-and-a-half-minute soliloquy that turned a tale of the 1908 Olympics into a lesson in the importance of mutual respect .
The reporter rammed a fastball into the middle of the plate, and Zhao slammed it out of the park.
However, the session ended with a pleasant surprise.
After granting the last question, an Associated Press reporter stepped up to the microphone, addressed the Chinese spokesperson and, in surprise, asked about the food: Were there kosher options and halal in the athletes’ village?
The interests of these journalists might sometimes align, after all.