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.