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One last lap around the Olympic green

Posted by Shira Springer, Globe Staff  August 26, 2008 11:18 AM

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BEIJING -- During three weeks inside the heavily secured Olympic Green zone, life became increasingly surreal. Every building, every barricade, every lamp post was either neon-lit or banner-covered or both. Speakers scattered throughout the Olympic Green blasted the Games’ nauseatingly cheesy pop theme song “You and Me” in a near constant loop. It didn’t help that the song alternated between Chinese and English versions. Large video screens at the sponsors’ pavilions and elsewhere broadcast live action and highlights at all hours. It was the Olympic spirit on Chinese-style overdrive with plenty of Orwellian atmosphere.

But even though security guards checked my credential every time I entered my hotel, and sometimes wouldn’t let me pass without a second look, there are things I will miss about Beijing, the Olympic Green and the whole experience of the Games. One of the highlights came on the final night of the track and field competition at the “Bird’s Nest,” when security reluctantly allowed reporters onto the track. A group of US journalists broke down the military security guards with equal parts persistence and good, old-fashion American gumption and ran a lap around the track.

The lap confirmed two things. First, it was a very fast track. Second, it felt even hotter and more humid running on it. After one lap, I was drenched in sweat along with everyone else who ran around with me. I jogged away even more impressed with what I had seen during the track and field competition. When viewed from the track, the sheer size of the Bird’s Nest was intimidating, never mind the competition and the Olympic moment.

At first, the guards didn’t want us taking pictures on the track. But again, they quickly gave up, realizing military training was no match for a bunch of overtired American journalists who simply pretended not to understand the word “No” or international sign language for “No pictures.” Once the guards walked away bemused by the foreigners who ignored them, we snapped away. The guards ended up laughing at us and waving for some photos, which was a nice change from the stern faces that seemed to suspiciously watch our every move. The security posts around every corner are among the things I’m happy to leave behind.

Things I will miss:

  • Lost and Found at the Bird’s Nest: Chinese Olympic volunteers had an obsession with reuniting reporters with lost items. The lost-and-found list at the Bird’s Nest grew daily with no item too small or insignificant for posting on bulletin boards in each of the press rooms. But the write-ups, not the lost items, caught my attention.

    One message read: “A white power adapter was found in press workroom 2. The loser could come to help desk of press workroom 1 to get it.”

  • Volunteer to reporter ratio of 3-to-1 (at least): There is something to be said for manpower, particularly hyper-efficient, your-wish-is-my-command Chinese manpower. Thanks to the never-ending stream of volunteers/press room workers/computer tech assistants, etc., I leave China knowing how the super-rich must live with their phalanx of assistants. Early in the Games, computer issues were solved by four volunteers. And when the Chinese volunteers said, “Let me get my supervisor,” there was no wait. The supervisor showed up almost instantaneously. There was a quick response to all of my requests, no matter how big or small -- copies of track results, a pot of green tea, a set of official Beijing Olympic posters. At my hotel checkout, not one, but three members of the staff made sure everything went smoothly.

    If there was a problem Olympic workers couldn’t solve, they looked incredibly depressed. And that was perhaps the troubling flip-side to all the prompt volunteer attention. The Chinese were so emotionally and personally invested in providing good service that I became increasingly reluctant to criticize anything that wasn’t quite right or correct volunteers when instructions were misunderstood. A Canadian reporter said to me (and I agreed) there was the feeling you did irreparable harm when criticizing or correcting a volunteer. And sometimes you didn’t even have to say anything. When a photo tech at the Kodak pavilion accidentally reversed some of my prints, she apologized for five minutes straight.

  • Olympic Forest: The Olympic Forest was a hidden gem of traditional Asian garden design and modern architecture. It was by far my favorite place in the Olympic Green zone, probably because it was the one place where I felt I could get an authentic glimpse of China, not the dressed up version aggressively on display elsewhere around the Olympic Green. Running around the Olympic Forest early in the morning, I saw migrant workers cutting grass with sickles. In my opinion, it was the migrant workers behind the scenes who made sure the Beijing Olympics looked as spectacular as it did. And they got very little credit or recognition for their efforts from what I could tell from Chinese TV or the China Daily newspaper.

    I did, however, see the workers living in mobile housing units that looked poorly air conditioned. A sign at one such complex read: “One World. One Dream. I Participated. I Devoted. I Got Delighted.” As I ran around the Olympic Forest, I made an effort to say “Hello” to every groundskeeper I saw and their faces lit up when I did. They were also entertained as I did laps around the “Flower and Water Overlapping Platform” and through the “Underwater Corridor,” which was a glass-walled "bridge" cleverly set in the middle of a pond. After several laps one day around noon, an older man signaled time-out and laughed.

    With the exception of distance runners and race walkers doing laps on the 3.1-mile paved road that ran around the Olympic Forest, I never saw any foreigners wandering around. But there were plenty of Chinese tourists. It seemed like a place were the Chinese were happy to relax and joke around. There was too little of that laid-back, joyful attitude at the Games.

  • Usain Bolt and the Jamaicans: Any criticism Usain Bolt receives for his celebratory antics is more laughable than the sprinter’s version of the Gully Creeper dance. He is the future of track and field, and the sport is lucky to have him. He brought the entire track and field competition to life, even for Americans who were disappointed by favorites failing to win gold. Track and field needs more showmen with a sense of humor like Bolt, though I wasn’t always sure when he was hamming it up and when he was just being himself. But there’s something irresistible about an athlete who pauses mid-press conference to watch replays of himself setting a world record then comments that the race looked pretty fast. He also chewed on a nutrition bar while fielding reporters questions at one press conference, completely casual about the fact that his every word and every chew was being broadcast around the world. I asked members of the large, talkative, fun-loving Jamaican delegation if Bolt was always like this and they said he was even more of a jokester back home.
  • Chinese pageantry: I got my lifetime fill of fireworks at the opening and closing ceremonies. But what I enjoyed even more was the precision of Chinese pageantry. There’s something about military guards throwing flags open in unison or perfectly synchronized volunteers removing clothing baskets filled with warmup gear from the starting line before each race. I cannot imagine how many hours the Chinese on display spent practicing for their big moments.

    That said, there was something creepy about just how perfect that pageantry was as well as the homogeneity of the participants. The medal girls at the track and field awards ceremonies were all the same height and had the same smile. I was told that their smiles, as well as their gestures when handling medals and flowers at the podium were all carefully rehearsed. By the end of the Games, I longed to see something outside of competition that was more than just a façade. But there was nothing I could find like that near any of the venues in the Olympic Green. In many ways, it seemed the Chinese desire to control everything took some of the joy out of the Games. There were many times wandering around the Olympic Green when the atmosphere seemed especially contrived and sterile.

    And anytime there was any criticism about appearances, officials worked to fix the situation. During the first few days of the Games, there were complaints that very few people were visiting the Olympic Green with all its neon lights and water fountains dancing to John Philip Sousa marches. But with in 48 hours, someone had Chinese visitors literally bused in to the Olympic Green zone. I saw them unloading by the bus full during my morning runs. Maybe they were all scheduled to arrive on the fourth or fifth day of competition, but I doubt that was the case.

  • Chinese obsession with cleanliness: Even though this was my second trip to China, I was worried about cleanliness before I arrived, especially with all the doctors’ warnings about what you can catch there. But if you are a Purell-loving neatnik, then China is the place for you. Two (sometimes three) times a day my hotel room was cleaned by two (sometimes three) housekeepers. And there wasn’t much to clean. But they spent considerable time making sure each bath towel was perfectly folded and that the bed comforter was perfectly turned down. At breakfast, it was all hands on deck as staff anxiously waited to remove plates and replace silverware. Early mornings around the Olympic Green, an army of workers took to the walkways with brooms and dustpans and tong-like trash collectors made of wood. At the Bird’s Nest, volunteers were so worried about spillover or errant spray from machines that dispensed coffee and hot chocolate that they always made sure your cup was perfectly centered.

    The only mess I encountered was at the Superstore selling Olympic souvenirs. Trash overflowing containers, T-shirts strewn all over the place with sizes mixed together, Olympic mascots falling out of their packaging, plastic wrappers and receipts on the floor with no one waiting to pick them up and throw them away. It was complete chaos. I had to wonder if there wasn’t some sort of message about the cost of capitalism run amuck amid all the chaos and some message about the efficiency of communism everywhere else on the Olympic Green. If so, I wasn’t buying it. But no one stages a show like the Chinese.

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18 comments so far...
  1. The Chinese have pulled the wool over the eyes of the world. They are are an evil communist regime that uses torture and near slave labor to accomplish the goals of the regime. Journalist need to rest for a few weeks, so that they can again see the forest through the trees.

    Posted by Zane Waltz August 26, 08 02:21 PM
  1. i didn't bother finishing reading the post. you are a typical unappreciative obnoxious ugly american. are you always like that when you come to someone else house. seems you are. we treat friend well, but not someone like you. this is a shameful behavior.

    Posted by peter he August 26, 08 02:28 PM
  1. The mission for my sister and I was to get on that Olympic Green and buy those Olympic souveniers! We had to buy tickets to an event to get to those souveniers. We were on the Olympic Green on Aug 9th, for Men's gymnastics, the only event we got to attend, because we were leaving August 10th. They were only allowing people on the Olympic Green who had a ticket to an event on that day, and the place was virtually deserted. I sorta loved it, but it seemed a little strange compared to being at a place like Disneyland where you're used to crowds of people buying the expensive food and souveniers. I said the Chinese don't really understand capitalism. They'd make tons of money if they'd allow people on the Olympic Green who did not have tickets to an event. Our only problem was walking from the Bird's Nest to the Superstore. It was a long walk and they would not let us ride the shuttle. You had to be really old. We tried to convince them that being over 50 in that heat was old, but they did not go for it. The McDonald's located by the Superstore had very few customers at noon, and the workers seemed disappointed. But the Superstore experience was great for us. It was the first day, so there was plenty of stock and plenty of help.

    Posted by Deborah Haygood August 26, 08 03:02 PM
  1. I can't accept the reporter's complaint that the Chinese overrehearsed their Olympics. What did she expect them to do, wing it? No, this was the Chinese moment in the sun and on camera around the world, and if the stadium girls were auditioned for looks and rehearsed their smiles, stop grousing. I wouldn't be surprised if the girls were actually happy. Watching the spectacle, I know I was. My only complaint is the Chinese cheating about their gymnasts' ages.

    Posted by Jim from DC August 26, 08 03:06 PM
  1. So what? you do not have to come to China if you do not like it. Nobody will force you. The country welcomed you since it misunderstood you as a guest and friend. After having read your post, at least I will never welcome you. And China is our country.

    We Chinese are good at Chinese and knowing a little English. So do you understand Chinese? Our consideration of the convenience for the English speakers is not for your laughing at. If you do not like to see the defectful English, you can read the Chinese instead. It is up to you.

    Chinese culture is working first, then enjoying the fruit. It is different with yours which is enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. When you do not have the fruits, you go to rob one from others, first from the African black slaves, then eastern Asian Chinese.

    As China regain its power by hard working, you see the chance of robbing fruits being getting less and less. Thus, I understand your feeling now. From your post above, I see only one word, JEALOUS.

    Posted by XM August 26, 08 03:35 PM
  1. It's truly amazing to see how fast the American media dropped the reports on Beijing Olympic Games as if they were forced to write on things just happened in hell...People from all over the world spent nearly three weeks in one city. Shouldn't there be more stories told in addition to those about Michael Phelps and his mother?
    This is a very nice piece. Thank you for writing it and thanks to Boston.com for publishing it!

    Posted by La Ugh August 26, 08 03:53 PM
  1. "...probably because it was the one place where I felt I could get an authentic glimpse of China...."

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    However, western people have to understand that China is a country that has developed for thousands of years and will keep changing. Western countries do not live the style as that in the medieval ages neither does China.

    It is up to Chinese people to decide what is or is not an authentic China.

    Posted by Shan August 26, 08 03:58 PM
  1. Thanks Shira Springer. The authentic journalist is the person who takes the time to wrap-up their experience with a final post. I hope you're covering the Celtics again this year and I hope you can bring this kind of conversational tone to the writing.

    Posted by Neil August 26, 08 04:09 PM
  1. I not sure why they caled a giant bed pan a birds nest.

    Posted by Kieth Walker August 26, 08 04:29 PM
  1. complain complain complain...

    Posted by Al August 26, 08 04:59 PM
  1. anther egotistic and narrow disection on other people's culture & lifes from the all too wonderful & great USA.

    Posted by Ra August 26, 08 05:05 PM
  1. yes i agree

    it was probably one of the greatest Olympic games ever produced and the chinese are to be congratulated for their warm and incredible effort at creating a distinct and incredibly well run event

    to be admired for sure

    Posted by whitewolf August 26, 08 05:08 PM
  1. I was born in Beijing and have lived in the US for over 20 years. Each time I visited Beijing, I found people became more friendly and more caring about their fellow citizens. Yes, you did see a show in Beijing, but it was a show of volunteerism, a show of love, a show of pride, and a show of hope. What you saw was a new China, full of potential and optimestic about its future. It has very little to do with communism. Communism is still alive in name only in China. Harmany, compassion, respect, and love are the core values of traditional Chinese values. It is the time to try to reshape your understanding of China.

    Posted by wayne August 26, 08 06:06 PM
  1. Celebration of Olympics Bronzes

    What happened?
    How can we lose gold count to China, a third world country?
    Let’s have a national holiday of mourning. No one objects I bet!
    Let’s have a national contest of the best excuses of winning so less gold medals.
    It has to be the BEST, so it could worth a gold in this category.

    What to do?
    Borrow more money from China to buy foreign coaches…
    No Speedo to Australia and China.
    My secret weapon is to import 8 Jamaican runners. Money talks!
    Bribe the judges (a little harder as everyone hates us but money talks again).
    Change all the rules to our favor: 5 medals for basketball, 1 for table tennis, 0 for diving…
    All tiebreakers must go our way as our sponsors own the Olympics.
    We will amplify their “shortcomings”:
    copying our advance lip sing technique, working too hard, starting before you can walk…
    The Chinese must have put slippery jell on our batons and/or the gym apparatus.
    Develop a dope that can take out all dope traces from our body.
    “One country, all medals” is our new Olympics slogan.
    The more wishfully we think, the closer we succeed.

    How to heal now, really?
    Write to Dear Abby for starter.
    Bronze is the same as gold if not better.
    If you do not believe me, ask any blind person here.
    It is harder to get a bronze as we have to LET two others to win.
    We’ll train our athletes for the bronze from now on.
    NBC should interview bronze winners only as they are the real winners.
    Actually we’ll be happier to be #3 and build a better relationship with other nations.
    Stop laughing. It is a fact!!!
    Phelps, we love you more with 8 bronze medals - it is no easy job to let 2 and ONLY 2 pass you 8 times.

    If everything does not work, turn ugly.
    Ask McDonald’s and KFC to give away their “food” (better than opium) to China FREE, so their next generation will be so fat that they cannot walk to the subway station.
    Send soldiers to grab the medals, esp. gold. Hey, we have the best offense.
    Will the world be better if we only fought for gold medals only (bronze medals in our case)?
    What an Olympic spirit to celebrate the winning of the bronze!

    -- The author is Tony Pow. 8/22/08. Created for fun. No politics. No dumb nationalism. No ego. 90% false, 10% true. 100% fun. Hope no offense to you. Please feel free to distribute/change... ---

    Posted by tonypow August 26, 08 06:19 PM
  1. I can only say this that in compare with the West, China is a just aged young adolescent first time coming out into society. It's reasonable that they are nervous and want to do every thing right so badly. Give them times. I believe in the future, after few more worldly events experiences, they will be loose up more and become more natural.

    Posted by ricecake August 26, 08 08:07 PM
  1. Wonderful commentary, Shira!

    Insightful and beautifully written. I've been to Beijing, and everything you wrote rings true.

    Posted by Phil Murray August 26, 08 09:08 PM
  1. Sounds like they did their best to be good hosts, and you did all you could to be a perfect guest.

    Posted by Tom August 26, 08 11:23 PM
  1. my point is the militaristic enviroment you mention about, olympics should be about peace at the games instead everybody is trying to use them to make peace for the world forever (silly and unattainable) having antiaircraft missiles around the stadium is not peace / my solution in the book ,The achilles heel of modern olympics...congretizing the concept of truce for the modern olympics , so we can all participate in the games and enjoy too

    Posted by makis havadjias August 31, 08 04:18 AM
 

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