Observations from Beijing
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 Gamesí nauseatingly cheesy pop theme song ďYou and MeĒ in a near constant loop. It didnít help that the song alternated between Chinese and English versions. Large video screens at the sponsorsí 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 wouldnít 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 ďBirdís Nest,Ē 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 Birdís Nest was intimidating, never mind the competition and the Olympic moment.
At first, the guards didnít 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 ďNoĒ or international sign language for ďNo pictures.Ē 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 Iím happy to leave behind.
Things I will miss:
- Lost and Found at the Birdís Nest: Chinese Olympic volunteers had an obsession with reuniting reporters with lost items. The lost-and-found list at the Birdís 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: ďA white power adapter was found in press workroom 2. The loser could come to help desk of press workroom 1 to get it.Ē
- 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, ďLet me get my supervisor,Ē 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 couldnít 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 wasnít 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 didnít 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: ďOne World. One Dream. I Participated. I Devoted. I Got Delighted.Ē As I ran around the Olympic Forest, I made an effort to say ďHelloĒ to every groundskeeper I saw and their faces lit up when I did. They were also entertained as I did laps around the ďFlower and Water Overlapping PlatformĒ and through the ďUnderwater Corridor,Ē 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 sprinterís 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 wasnít always sure when he was hamming it up and when he was just being himself. But thereís 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. Thereís 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 faÁade. 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 doctorsí 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 wasnít 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 Birdís 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 wasnít 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 wasnít buying it. But no one stages a show like the Chinese.
The torch is out, and the Beijing Olympics ended the same way they began: with a seemingly endless halftime show and a deafening, spectacular fireworks display. See and hear a bit of the latter in the short timelapse video above.
OLYMPIC MAIN PRESS CENTER - As the games come to a close here this weekend, I know many fans will dwell on medal numbers. But there's another set of numbers that really sticks with me.
Of the 149 people - nearly all Chinese citizens - who submitted nearly 80 applications to protest in designated parks during the Olympics, none - zero - were approved by the government. These rejections come after the government had authorized this application process, at the suggestion of the International Olympic Committee. It was designed to keep protests - about everything from Tibet and domestic land seizures - orderly and away from the Olympic sites.
According to the state's news agency this week, of the 77 applications, 74 were withdrawn because the problems cited were "addressed" by the relevant authorities, two were suspended because of incomplete information, and one was rejected because it was "in violation of China's laws on demonstrations and protests."
This leads to the obvious question for any thinking person: Were the "protest parks" a charade to fool the Chinese people - and the media?
As a parting act, I am taking up the Chinese government on a different application process introduced during the Olympics. As part of its vow of greater openness with the foreign media about a range of issues related to the games, they have made available an official "application form of accredited journalists" to facilitate interview and informational inquiries. Like the 149 people who took advantage of the protest zone process, I'm here as a journalist to give this one a try.
My written request (written in English and Chinese to facilitate communication) asks the Beijing Public Security Bureau to tell me the home province of each of the petitioners, and what each grievances was about. Wanting to be as reasonable as possible, I have asked for a response within 10 days, and given my Boston contact information so they can respond when I return to the U.S.
Perhaps the Chinese will see this request as part of the "biased" foreign media - a term used just yesterday by Wang Wei, spokesman for the Beijing Olympic Committee, during a testy press conference here. He had fielded one too many questions about isolated detentions of Westerners who had unfurled Tibetan flags. And inquiries about the pair of elderly Chinese women sentenced to "reform through labor" when they protested their forced removal from their homes.
He wanted the media to focus more on the near-flawless operation of the Olympics -- that some 10,000 athletes competed in 28 different sports in 37 competition venues that gave inspiration - and entertainment - to millions and millions of spectators all over the world. T.V. Olympic viewership globally and domestically reached all-time highs.
Wang went on to say to reporters, "Tell the true story, please."
Surely that is a goal that many journalists here share. I'm hoping for an answer to my inquiry.
As the Olympics wind down, I did one last man-on-the-street informal survey today, this time to find out which country Beijingers think is the big winner of the 2008 Olympics. China, of course, is way ahead in gold medals, but the US has a slight edge (as I write this) in the total medals count.
A few people politely pointed out that no one wins the Olympics, or that the whole world wins. B O R I N G. But when pressed on the total-medals-versus-gold-medals issue, everyone was in agreement that it's gold medals that matter the most.
Some said that the gold count is the way that China traditionally measures Olympics victory, and since we're in China that's the measure we should use this year. "Based on this meaning, the big winner is the Chinese."
One person conceded that America's higher total medal count indicates that Americans are more well rounded across a broader spectrum of different sports--they're just not as good at the sports they're good at as the Chinese.
My favorite answers had to do with the intrinsic superiority of gold, the substance. One woman said gold is worth more, and therefore should be the way we decide overall victory. Another gentleman simply reasoned: "Gold is the most heavy." Enough said.
In the past few years, Beijing has begun star rating their public bathrooms in an effort to make the city more attractive to tourists. In my city wanderings over the past few weeks, I've had the honor to sample a few of these. This week, for example, I took a day to do some much-needed sight-seeing and visited the Forbidden City, which boasts a gorgeous four-star commode. And, a little over a week ago, I had the opportunity to visit an authentic no-star facility on the other end of town. Without further ado, here's news you can use on what to expect (men, at least) when making pit stops in the ancient capital (note: I didn't see any five or three stars):
4 star: Squeaky clean, plenty of sit-down toilets, some with toilet paper. Someone is actually cleaning each 4-star bathroom as I'm in it, and I have the feeling that it's where they spend their entire work week. They always seem to be cleaning the sinks when I'm in a 4 star, and I have yet to be able to wash my hands in one. Smells like cleaning product.
2 star: Mostly squat toilets, except for one sit-down toilet for the disabled. Stalls have doors and divider walls, but no toilet paper. Doesn't smell like cleaning products.
1 star: Not much different than 2 stars, but minus any of the charm, and sometimes minus the stall divider walls. Smells like you would expect.
No stars: No doors, no divider walls, no stalls per se, holes in the ground, and a row of seven or eight men squatting cheek-to-cheek, reading newspapers and smoking, a couple on cell phones. Quite a collegian vibe, actually. Seems to be a no-eye-contact rule. You have to smell it to believe it.
A few blocks from Tiananmen Square is Wangfujing food market, where if you can put it on a stick, they've put it on a stick. Like these absolutely delectable silkworm pupae and cicadas (I think? Is there an entomologist in the house?). As I was taking the photo, the vendor stuck a cooked version of the insects in my face and insisted they were delicious, would I try? I'm usually pretty adventurous with food (on various continents I've swallowed jellyfish, antelope, pigeon, sea urchin, Spam) but something about the thought of that crunchy exoskeleton, that slimy, slippery center--I suddenly remembered that there was some pressing emergency breaking urgent news that I was late for and made a quick getaway. On the way out of the market, I also passed these beckoning lovelies (which actually didn't look half bad, cooked):
BEIJING --- Good thing we brought the ladies here.
American women are doing some very big things for the US of A as the Beijing Olympics wind down. As I write, five American women's sports teams will either be playing for a gold medal or are on the verge of playing one, over the next 30 hours.
Softball, water polo and soccer will be trying to get past Japan, Hungary and Brazil, respectively, Thursday night, Beijing time. Volleyball will play the China-Brazil winner in the gold medal game on Friday night. And basketball plays Russia in a semifinal match this evening.
And that's not counting the unbeatable Beach Volleyball duo of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, or, as I like to call 'em, Bambi and Thumper, who romped to the gold without losing a set.
Two big thumbs up for the volleyball ladies, who advanced to their championship game the hard way, toppling ancient nemesis Cuba in straight sets at the Capital Gymnasium yesterday. Nine days ago the always formidable Cubans had beaten the Americans in straight sets during preliminary play. But Team USA was dominant on Thursday, blowing the Cubans out a score of 25-20, 25-16 and 25-17.
Is it any longer necessary to point out that none of this would be happening without Title IX? Its effect on our national sports landscape can never be exaggerated.
Wouldn't you pay cash money to see players on all these great teams mix and match in some sort of Superstars competition?
Tiananmen Square -- The Olympics may be in its final days, but the spirit remains strong in Beijing - even among the toddler set. One-year-old Zhang Minghou strolled around this historic square one evening this week, attracting a crowd with his distinctive buzz cut. At a time when most Chinese fans support the games by waving Chinese flags or painting the Olympic rings on their face, this boy - or actually his parents - refused to be predictable.
After my duck dinner tonight -- and in this town you get the whole bird (Peking-style breast, shredded legs and wings in black bean sauce, duck soup), I opted for the roasted durian cake for dessert. Durian may be the most loved and loathed food on the planet. It's a spiked fruit which grows on trees in southeast Asia and can get as big as a basketball. It smells like sewage, but tastes like custard.
In its raw form, the odor of durian is so offensive that some cities have banned shoppers from carrying it on public transportation. Richard Sterling, the traveling food writer, likens the smell to a blend of pig manure, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. What Anthony Bourdain, who actually likes durian, says about it probably shouldn't be printed in a family blog. (Something about a dead grandmother.) But when I heard that durian tasted like custard, I had to have it. One man's sewage is another man's savor.
I've been a custard fanatic since childhood. Flan, creme brulee, galaktobouriko, even the Gerber baby version of the stuff, which I was still spooning up as a teenager. But durian figured to be a true test of my love. I've never gone to a market to buy one (although I'm told you can get them at the Super 88 in Chinatown) and I've never seen or smelled anyone cutting one open and I've never tasted it straight out of the husk. I've sort of crept up on durian, an inch or two at a time.
The last time I was in Beijing, I had durian-flavored ice cream and it was terrific. This time, the fruit was shredded and baked in a flaky crust, so it was closer to the real thing. I broke off a piece and took a sniff and got just enough of a whiff to know why people carrying a whole durian on a bus are regarded about as cordially as lepers. Imagine a backed-up squat toilet at the Forbidden City on a hot August afternoon. Overpowering is a gentle word for it.
But I'll testify that the taste of durian is exquisite -- sort of a creamy almond -- and I ate every speck. I'm sure that the shredding and the baking eliminated much of the foul odor, but still I've decided that I'm ready for the next durian level. Maybe a plate of the cut-up fruit. I'm sure that Peanut, the tiny kewpie-doll `senior minister' at the South Beauty restaurant downtown, can have one carved up for me tomorrow night.
I'll concede that durian is not everyone's dessert dish. Alice Park, my cosmopolitan New York colleague and fellow foodie, graciously declined when I offered her a bite. She's been in Asia frequently and she's familiar with, and usually keeps at nose's length, the most extreme of the funky foods. "Ever had stinky tofu?", she asked me. It's tofu marinated in a putrid brine and the smell has been known to make Westerners run screaming into the street. If it tastes like flan, though, I'm in. Or maybe not.
After the USA men's basketball team blew out Spain recently, the majority of the Spaniards wanted nothing to do with the American media. Considering how Spain got drilled after expecting to be competitive against the U.S. and the racially insensitive ad its players were recently involved in depicting themselves as stereotypically Chinese by making their eyes slanted, it was probably best that they kept their mouths shut.
But Spain guard Juan Carlos Navarro, formerly of the Memphis Grizzlies, did come out to talk to the Spanish media for about five minutes in the mixed zone interview area. After he was done with his home country folks, I asked him a question. He responded by saying, ďMy English not very good.Ē
I told him, ďWell, it was really good when you were playing for the Grizzlies. I interviewed you once by your locker.Ē
Navarro was stunned when I called him out and I could see that he understood every word. If they beat the Americans, Iím sure his English would have been better than mine.
I must admit, I was in tears during the down moments of the USA womenís volleyball victory over Italy on Tuesday night. A Chinese dance team comprising of men and women came out and did one dance routine giving tribute to playing the game of volleyball. The other was in funky hip-hop fashion. The men were particularly awful, but seemed to be having a great time smiling and grooving in the process. They reminded me of when Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri played the Spartan cheerleaders in the old Saturday Night Live Skit, but ten times funnier.
Itís always interesting to go to different sporting events across America to test the different cuisine at different stadiums. Just last month I had a great grilled bratwurst at a Chicago Cubs game. So what type of food do they have for the hungry fans in Beijing at the Olympics? Cold hot dog in a bag. A giant helping of Peach yogurt (which is actually tasty). Popcorn in a movie tub that didnít come out a hot popper. Spicy rice cake snacks. Pringles. Snickers. Ritz crackers. Ramen-like noodles with beef put in hot water. If youíre going to come to an Olympic event, I suggest you get something to eat before you get here.
I was told by several people before I came to Beijing that trading Olympics pins is a big deal here. They actually have people on the sidewalk outside the Main Press Center at the Olympics sitting on the ground that do nothing but trade pins all day with people from all over the world. Unfortunately for us Globe writers, the only thing we were given were ink pens. The pin enthusiasts didnít seem interested in those.
Riding a cab in Beijing is an adventure. And they donít call them cabs, rather taxis. These tiny cars look like the ones that fit 20 midget clowns at circus. I donít know how many times I saw my life flash before my eyes while a bus seemed to be coming in my direction or after two taxis nearly came to blows. Also, humans donít have the right a way here. Buses and cars do. So if you get hit by a bus or a car, itís your fault partner. Amazingly, there are few very accidents.
The China Daily newspaper is definitely very PG. There will be nothing bad said about China in the publicationís here, guaranteed. Remember when the U.S. menís volleyball coachís wifeís father was stabbed to death at the beginning of the Olympics? The next day it was about a six paragraph story with bare minimum information in the China Daily. Sad. No public apology to the family either.
China's State Television CCTV has its own brand of ESPN SportsCenter-type show that seems more The View than sports news. While one athlete was being interviewed, there was some sad music being played in the background. I asked a Chinese person nearby why the sad music was playing. They answered, ďBecause he is telling an emotional story.Ē
Chinese from China that I have asked about Chinese food in American said they have never heard of a fortune cookie, orange chicken, crab rangoon and sweet and sour pork. I feel like Iíve been hoodwinked back in the States for a long time. But I do appreciate not getting chicken with the head still on the plate back home as is the case here and a dish called fish that tastes like pork.
If you do come to Beijing, you must go to the Silk Market for entertainment purposes. For Californians, itís kind of like going to the swap meet. Iím 6-foot-7 and a big dude, and they swear they got some jeans and T-shirts that fit me. If I have to go to Rochester Big & Tall to get my gear outside the Natick Mall back home rather than get something inside the Natick Mall, Iím sure I canít get things here where the average dude is about 5-5 and 120 pounds. But they tried to trick me into buying something any way. I must admit, I got hoodwinked on an 80GB IPod that I bought for the same price I could have bought it in Boston. I did get hooked up on an MP4 camera with HD video, music and games that isnít being sold in the U.S. yet. The lady thought ESPNís George Smith, Boston Globe assistant sports editor Gregory Lee and myself were famous after they saw the word ďNBAĒ on my business card. I told them George was a big TV star back home, which he is, and that Lee was USA forward Tayshaun Prince. They gave me a discount on the camera phone after we signed a couple T-shirts.
One woman also went ballistic on me when I told her I didnít want to buy a scarf. She told me she was upset and she would cry if I didnít buy it. She also got loud and I told her she needed to cool down on the acting. Her act ended up working since I ended up buying. I guess Iím a sucker for potentially crying women all over the world.
At USA menís basketball practice on Tuesday at Beijing Normal University, several of the players were going crazy over former U.S. gymnastics star Dominique Dawes, a very stunning woman who is working for Yahoo! At the Olympics. One, who I will keep anonymous, said he has had a crush on her since he was a kid and was giddy. Yes, these guys have millions of dollars and are famous, but that doesnít mean they got game when it comes to the ladies.
One night Globe co-worker Patti Wen, who is Chinese, took Greg and myself to a Chinese restaurant in an alley somewhere in the heart of the town where he could get Peking duck. The food was delicious and service was phenomenal. Afterward, she took us through some back alley way in the dark to go to our first visit to the Silk Market. I felt like I was in the real hood of Beijing and for a while it seemed like two dudes were following us. The last time I had my antenna on that high was when I made the mistake of picking up a girl for a date late at night in South Central Los Angeles about 10 years ago on a street where the street lights weren't working. I didnít think they had hoods in Beijing. Remember what Ice Cube once said, ďEvery hoodís the same.Ē I guess such is the case whether in the U.S. or China.
I decided to do something real different to capture the Olympic experience.
Following the American's 9-1 beatdown of the Chinese in baseball last night, I decided to hang out with a hotel staffer who was born in Brazil, but is Italian and speaks five languages.
She brought along some friends who are from Germany and Holland. So we decided to take a ride on the subway. Let me tell you something: That was an experience. We had to take two trains to get to our destination (more on that shortly).
So as we were riding, I was talking to my new Dutch friends about sports in Europe and America. I must say the passion in Europe is the same passion we have in America. I may not like European football because I may not know it, but I can feel their passion.
As I was riding the subway, I was people gazing. It was like I was on the T. There was a guy with a Red Sox cap. Across the way, there was a girl with a Yankees shirt. I saw a kid with spiked hair. I saw a dude sporting the Marilyn Manson look, black nail polish included. There was one guy that took the cake with me: A Chinese dude sporting an Afro puff. He looked like Ben Wallace getting ready to hit the basketball court. I am just saying...
So then we got off the first train and moved onto our second train. Let me tell you, I felt like I was in a space capsule. It was a brand new train. It moved smoothly. It was constructed like a New York City train in terms of the connection of each cab. I felt like I was a bullet being shot out of a gun. That train put American trains to shame. Iím just saying...
Partying at the Holland Heineken House
So we made it our destination: the Holland Heineken House. It is a beautiful palace where the Dutch party every night. Of course there is a lot of Heineken. There are a lot of Dutch and Heineken clothing for sale and good prices (I need to go back and collect some orange gear).
So as we were walking, we had to trek inside the building, then outside to a beautiful courtyard. Then there was another building where the Dutch were partying and singing their native songs and dancing to their favorite music. At that time, they were celebrating their medal winners on stage. And guess who was on the stage as the MC? Dave Chappelle. He was so funny speaking broken Dutch to the crowd. It was just a special treat to see him. I guess he got paid some nice Dutch money. Iím just saying...
I performed a 100% un-scientific survey on the streets of Beijing this weekend, to find out just how much or how little folks here knew about our fair city. The results are in this video (above). It was kind of eye-opening, firstly because you realize that The Hub of the Universe is probably not thought of as such by the billions of people that make up the rest of the world. Also, Beijingers screw up their faces in perplexity when you speak of these "Boston Red Sox". Yet about a third of them can name the starting lineup of the Celtics. When you step back, it's actually super impressive what people do know. For comparison: before the Olympics, how many Bostonians could say anything specific about what's in Beijing, AND say it in Mandarin?
I hope everyone had an excellent weekend.
My weekend was pretty ho-hum. I spent some time working and some time checking out the sights. I offer these thoughts as I sit here at the USA-China baseball game where the Americans lead 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning. The USA should be leading by more. Chinaís pitcher is throwing some junk. He has been under 80 mph with his pitches throughout the night. Iím just sayingÖ.
Well, I really miss America. Here is why: Although I have a nice big bath tub and a huge shower, the water here stinks, literally. When I brush my teeth, I have to use bottled water. I am forced to take showers or baths because I donít want to be funky like some people around here are while I am walking around. I aim to be so fresh, so clean (my OutKast reference for my homie back at home). Iím just sayingÖ
I also miss American food. Although we have McDonald's here, what I need is the McDonaldís side hustle -- Chipotle. I am in need of a chicken burrito. Speaking of food and beverages, I am also suffering withdrawal from my favorite drink Ė drambue and ginger ale. However, I have been drinking a lot of beer and wine. But it still does not quench my drambue urges. Iím just sayingÖ..
I was riding on the bus back to the hotel from boxing and this Italian guy sat next to me and he was explaining his love of boxing to me. He writes for a magazine outside of Sicily. Though his English was rough, I could understand the language of boxing. He tells me that he goes to all the big fights in Las Vegas. What kind of budget does he have? Perhaps American newspapers could take some notes from him as our travel budgets have been slashed. Iím just saying...
Speaking of travel, the Boston Globe staff is staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. It is conveniently connected to the main press center, the center of all information and access. We have been getting a little haterade from some of our media friends, getting sarcastic remarks like, ĎYou are really slumming here.' Big props to my predecessor, Reid Laymance, for having the foresight in selecting this fine spot. You canít put a price on convenience and comfort when you are staying in a foreign country like China for three weeks. Iím just saying...
CHAOYANG PARK RESTAURANT ROW -- I saw the most disturbing sight tonight after passing through the brightly-lit restaurant district near Chaoyang Park. It was just after 10:30 p.m.(Beijing time on Saturday) when I heard this stocky Asian man shouting at random people. Near him was an Asian young woman curled up in a ball on the sidewalk. Another Asian guy (with blonde-dyed hair) stood near the woman.
The woman was clearly in distress, and upon closer examination it was clear she'd been vomiting -- perhaps drunk. The shouter kept yelling at concerned onlookers, even sometimes walking to within inches of their face. I couldn't make out what he was saying, but some restaurant workers smoking outside said he was telling people to stop looking at him. After scolding onlookers, the shouter approached the blonde Asian, yelled more, and began slapping him. The blonde Asian just stood there, near the curled-up woman, and took the slaps without reacting.
Perhaps what was even more bizarre was the reaction of the crowd. The dozen or so Chinese observers looked the other way, as if obeying the screaming man. About four Western tourists, who happened to stop by, were clearly upset but didn't know what to do. I went into the closest restaurant and, in Chinese, asked why they didn't intervene in the frightening scene outside. A waitress just told me to ignore it because the woman was drunk and it would do more harm to say anything.
I wondered if she was right, but then the guy kept yelling and slapping - and then kicking - the blonde Asian. The blonde just stood there. The woman remained on the ground. At this scene along the restaurant row of Chaoyang Road West Road near the Number 8 Apartments, more Chinese passersby began stopping. Still, nobody did a thing. The scene seemed to be escalating, and I just couldn't bear it. The woman on the ground just looked so pathetic - and actually sick.
For this Olympic-hosting city that has swelled with police officers, soldiers and security volunteers, I suddenly couldn't find a single one. Then I saw a man in a green soldier-like uniform, and I pulled him over. "Why don't you stop them?" I asked. He went over to the shouting man -- but then turned back as if defeated. "There's nothing I can do," he said. I told him to call the police. He said he didn't have a phone. I offered him my cell phone. He rejected it.
Some Chinese restaurant workers, who had stepped outside, told me not to worry. They said the trio was Korean, and the yeller just wanted everyone to go away.
Yet they were impossible to ignore. The screaming, slapping and kicking was continuing and the situation was clearly getting out of control. I couldn't tell if I was crossing some cultural boundary by calling the police (though I realized I didn't know the number), but I couldn't just walk away.
A pair of foreigners, who seemed to live in this upscale Beijing neighborhood, strolled by. One said the Chinese observers weren't getting involved because if they were seen intervening, while the police came, they would be whisked away too. I suggested we find a way to call the police. The other foreigner, who spoke impeccable Chinese, agreed - and knew the phone number was 110. I gave her my cell phone to call. She told police the exact location and, smartly, that there were a lot of foreigner watching the chaos.
About five minutes later around 10:50 p.m., two police cruisers with flashing lights came by. Several officers emerged. After a minor scuffle, the shouter's voice quieted. The woman stood up, barely. The police took the pair into the cruiser. The blonde Asian was allowed to go free.
The scene quieted down. The restaurant workers went back to their jobs, the foreigners went on their different ways I got into a cab and returned to my hotel - and hoped it was the right thing to call the police.
This isn't usually breaking news, but as you may have read in John Powers's post a couple entries below this one, we had breathtakingly blue skies in Beijing today. Local Beijingers very rarely get to see the Western Hills (more like mountains, in my book), and when they do it means it's a truly clear day (you can see, they're not even that far away). And that's what we finally had today, from sunrise to sunset.
When I drew open my curtains this morning, I was stunned by what I saw. An authentic blue sky, for the first time in the three weeks that I've spent in Beijing over the last year. Not what the locals consider a `blue' sky, which means something just this side of pallid. It was a real azure dome, with wispy white clouds and a sun which for once didn't look like a smudged orange.
Every day since I've arrived in what they call `Greyjing' there's either been a ceiling-to-floor curtain with smothering heat and humidity or rain weeping down for hours. I've never seen what we take for granted in Boston during the summer -- abundant sunshine with a bit of a breeze. After a few days, I wondered whether I should even bother looking out the window.
Today, I was blinded by the light and the unusual clarity of the air. I saw buildings on the other side of the Olympic Green that I never knew were there. Mind you, it wasn't the Athenian blue sky that we were used to four years ago, but it was as close to one as they get around here. So I had to change my plans for the day.
I checked out the bus schedule for beach volleyball, found my flip-flops and shades (which had been gathering dust inside my official Olympic rucksack) and figured on going to check out the Brazilian women, which, after all, is the whole reason why they invented the game. It's the only sport where dental floss qualifies as a uniform and the girls from Ipanema wear it better than anybody.
In Athens, where the venue was right on the water, you could wander down to beach volleyball anytime you wanted to, assured of seeing a balmy breeze blowing the stars around above the Aegean. In Mao's town, when the sky is blue, you run outdoors and stay there until dark. It's as rare as seeing a Norwegian win in platform diving.
So last night I checked out the USA menís hoops team against Greece. Of course the Americans rolled.
But a few things I noticed:
A. Kobe Bryant received the loudest applause when the teams were introduced. Every time he touched the ball, the crowd went nuts. I mean Kobe is nice, but geez ... like he needed any more reason to fill up his already big ego. Iím just saying.
B. There were some stars in the house. Chris Tucker is in China again (minus Jackie Chan). I guess he is trying to plot out another Rush Hour flick since he canít seem to produce any other type of film. My 504 homeboy Wendell Pierce (ďThe WireĒ) was woofing it up after every emphatic slam dunk by the Americans. But the most puzzling sight was seeing former Olympic gold medalist Evander Holyfield was in the house. Isnít he supposed to be broke? Iím just sayingÖ..
C. Why the Greek were fans standing, cheering and chanting the entire game, even when they were getting whipped by the USA? Iím just sayingÖ
Following the game, I went to this area called Sanlitun Bar Street with a friend who lives in Boston. The street is a strip of bars that has outdoor street seating. There were Budweiser, Corona and Heineken bars. We saw a lot of interesting sights there. We saw some working girls. Every bar had hustlers trying to get you to go to their spot. We settled on the Corona joint, where inside there were girls on stage dancing and singing to hip hop. But my question was why were they moving like they were in Robert Palmerís ďSimply IrresistibleĒ video? Iím just saying ...
Man I swear the Chinese does random checks on Facebook, because sometimes when I try to access the site, it does not come on from time to time. I guess the Chinese are putting their billion-person population to work. I guess they think I am going to write about some Chinese propaganda? I better quiet down before they shut down Boston.com while I am in China. Iím just saying ...
While on the bus to the basketball arena, I spotted a Peugeot dealership. They donít sell these cars in America. You donít understand. My first car was my parentsí old maroon Peugeot. Man that was my car. I took it on my first internship to Memphis. I thought I was styling. But one thing I always remember is when I took it to get serviced, the mechanics asked me if the car had ever had a tune up. They showed me the spark plugs and they were pretty messed up. Yet, my dad would tell me I ran down that car. Yeah, right, he never got a tuneup for the car for seven years. What kind of mess is that? Iím just saying. ...
And finally, there has been some controversy in the hoops world here. Spainís menís team posed for a picture in which they were stretching their eyes. There has been a lukewarm firestorm. If the United States menís team would have done that, it would have elicited a much stronger reaction. Thatís the double standard NBA players are always presented with. Sometimes some of my colleagues in the industry just donít want to understand that. Iím just saying ...
From my hotel window I can see the Water Cube in all its bubble-icious wonder. At night, the exterior of the Olympic natatorium turns different colors -- now blue, now white, now pink, now rainbow, and your eyes blur if you look at it long enough. Over to the left, there's a slice of the Bird's Nest stadium, encased in its metal twigs, glowing red from within, with the Olympic flame burning 24/7 above. They're the two most popular and imaginative of the Beijing venues, but they're not the only architectural fantasies at these Games.
The water cube. (AP Photo)
The organizers (and these Olympics are organized to the molecule) could have amazed and amused the world merely with the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, which are aligned according to feng shui guidelines, with the fiery stadium balanced by the watery natatorium. But they've designed all of their venues with the same sense of pragmatic artistry. The tennis court, for example, is arranged like the petals on a lotus flower.
The Velodrome. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)
Tonight at dinner, I had a duck roasted Kunming style. It had been dissected into two dozen pieces, then reassembled with the cooked head and beak. The chef could have just arranged the meat on a platter, but it was important that the diner know that he was eating a duck. That way, nothing gets lost in translation. Even if you can't speak Mandarin, you can find your way to the velodrome. Just look for the spokes on the roof.
BEIJING -- When I first started doing this Olympic business, when you were out of town, you were out of town.
I was walking through the main press center on my way to getting a bus for the table tennis venue Wednesday morning when I passed by a nice high def screen maintained by the Associated Press. They were showing a photo of the Fenway scoreboard after the first inning of you-know-what. Yes, it's a small world after all. I quickly learned it was 12-2 in the fourth, but after that I really was out of touch until returning later that afternoon.
"Did the Sox hold on?" I asked.
Hey, a win is a win. And if the Sox were going to win a game like that you could pretty much figure it would be against the Rangers, who have been all-hit and no-pitch for most of this century.
More observations from Beijing:
- Didn't have another one of those great Olympic moments on Wednesday. You can't hit a grannie every day, you know? But I will say you haven't lived until you're trying to monitor eight table tennis matches at once.
- I'm not sure the ages of all those Chinese pixie gymnasts together add up to 16. I think half of them traded their gold medals for a lollypop.
- The USA and Australian women hoopsters are heading for an epic gold medal game on Saturday the 23d.
- You know who struck out the side in the ninth to close out Canada's 10-0 triumph over China? Rheal Cormier. Yup, Frenchy is now 40 and an Olympic debutant, as they say across the pond. You never know. Reggie Cleveland might be activated before it's all over.
- Had to laugh when I read in the English language Singapore paper that many people were extremely upset when they bought tickets in Hong Kong for Dressage and found out what it was. They were totally bored, and there was a stampede out of there after an hour. One guy was angry with his wife, who had bought the tickets. He thought he was going to a horse race.
- I think the only way to make it to 70 in this country is to stay in the house 24/7, or, at least, never cross a street. A green light for spectators means nothing to either the people turning left or the people going right on red. From the other direction. And these intersections are longer than the left field line at Fenway.
- Can't confirm a rumor that a local paper had Michael Phelps on page 32 of the sports. Then again, maybe they consider that a special number (Sandy Koufax, Jim Brown, etc.).
- In case anyone's wondering, the reason Angola keeps coming back to the World Championships and Olympics is because they're the only team in Africa with a half-decent coach. Nigeria has the most raw talent, and that's been true for 15 years. But they've never had anyone to harness their natural basketball resources.
- Speaking of disgraces, there's no reason for Canada not to be here playing basketball. Talk about a bureaucratic nightmare...
- Just saw a highlight of a weightlifter grabbing the barbell, assuming the position, talking himself into the ready mode, and then just standing up and waving at the weights and walking away. "I don't particularly want hernia surgery," is what he seemed to be saying.
- You know Li Nin, the champion hurdler who lit the cauldron? He owns a line of sports apparel, with retail stores all over the place. His symbol is a swoop that suspiciously like the one popularized by that place in Oregon. No dummy, he. I don't know if he's outfitted the entire Chinese team, but he's got some of 'em, anyhow.
- So the little girl lyp-synched. Marni Nixon sang for Audrey Hepburn in the screen version of "My Fair Lady." Anyway, China wants to show it's a hip 21st century country, right?
BEIJING -- I'd just plugged in the computer at my seat in the press tribune inside the gymnasium today for the women's team final when Nadia Comaneci came by to say hello with Bart Conner, her husband and fellow Olympic champion. Suddenly, the Wayback Machine zipped me back to 1976 and Montreal, where I covered my first Olympics. Nadia was 14 then and in one night she captured the world's imagination.
Bela Karolyi had brought his Romanian kiddie corps to take on the Soviets that summer and Comaneci was his precocious star, the first gymnast ever to score a perfect 10. All it took was one night on TV and every sports editor in the country had phoned his columnist at the Games and ordered him to write about Nadia, the Olympian who needed no last name, the kid who'd broken the scoreboard, which wasn't programmed to go past 9. It was the first time that I saw dozens of grown men running around on the verge of tears. "What do you ask a gymnast?", they were wailing. Especially a gymnast who didn't speak English. (Her French, though, was quite passable.)
Nadia is 46 now, an American citizen with a two-year-old son, and her English has been excellent for years. She frequently turns up with Bart at the big meets and it's intriguing to watch the spectators' delayed reaction as she passes by. She's dark and leggy with an Eastern European glamour and she's always stylishly dressed, so heads turn. Who IS that woman? And then, a few seconds later, the heads turn again. Oh my God, it's Nadia.
For all of us who first glimpsed her 32 years ago, Nadia always will be the self-possessed little girl at play on the balance beam, unaware (or not caring) that the world was watching her. It did not seem possible that she would flip her way into adulthood, that she would outlive both the perfect 10 which she created and the socialist government which exploited her. We figured that she'd remain forever in Neverland, suspended in mid-air like Peter Pan, in a place where she'd never have to grow up.
BEIJING -- Many people think since I am a sports journalist that I get to go to a lot of sporting events. Well, since I have been an editor for most of my career (which started in 1993), I have always worked behind the scenes to make sure the paper is produced on a daily basis.
This year has been a blessing for me because I am now in the position to go to big events because of my job requirements. So this year I went to my first NBA All-Star Game, my first extensive NBA playoffs coverage and the NBA Finals.
Now, I am covering my first Olympics. It has been an exciting time so far. There is a lot of work that goes into preparing the coverage of the worldís biggest sporting event.
Part of the fun of the Olympics is covering sports that I have never done before. Two days ago, I covered my first boxing match. Today (itís Wednesday night, Beijing time), I am covering local judo star Rhonda Rouseyís bid to become the first American to make a bid for a medal in that sport.
The crowd here was festive as we waited for the next session to begin. There are workers here leading a chant behind the sounds of Chinese music. Everyone is getting into the mix.
I say bring in some Michael Jackson, Usher, and Prince and we could get down in here.
Well thatís what would happen if I were running things. Thatís what happens who you have a kid from New Orleans covering judo in Beijing. Iím just saying...
- In most traveling experiences, I am staying in a hotel. Included in the hotel room are the usual things: bed, toiletries that you can take home, towels, flat-screen TV, sofa, mini bar, robes, etc.
But here in (Greater) China there is something missing: In the stand next to your bed you would usually find a Gideon Bible. But not here in China. They donít play with religion here. But in its place, when you slide open the drawer, is a pack of condoms.
I guess here it is OK to say no to God and yes to safe sex. I'm just saying...
- Last night there were some weird nationalism things going on around here. So my man, Marc Spears, and I were at the tennis competition, where we wanted to check out the Williams sisters in a doubles match, followed by Harvardís own James Blake.
So the Williams sisters were in a struggle with the Czechs. The sisters looked like they were not interested in this match until they were down a break in the second set, then they imposed their will and won the match in three sets.
During the match there was a loud Czech fan base. There were also some USA fans. One dude was screaming U.S. of A (beeeeeep). There was a stir in the crowd. There was one Chinese man who was talking major trash against the Czechs. So much so, there were five staffers surrounding the dude. The fans around were screaming to get him out. But he never left. Then about 20 minutes later the dude left his seat and gave the fans a thumbs down. The fans started to applaud his departure.
Whatís up with the trash talking, you knew the Williams sisters were going to kick butt? Just uncalled for.
I know one thing, I will be on my best behavior here. I saw the movie "Romeo Must Die" and I saw where they held Jet Li in the Chinese prison. It was not a good look. Iím just saying ...
- I had a random thought while I was riding the shuttle bus to the Judo site. (I have a lot of random thoughts.) I was thinking: Man, when I leave with Spears to head back to the States, we would need to get two taxis to go to the airport. I will have three bags and I am sure Spears will have the same. Plus my man is 6 foot 7. But the Chinese taxis are small. They drive either Hyundai Elantras or Volkswagens. As a matter of fact, every time I eat, I get small portions. But there is a positive for me. Since a lot of things are made small, my clothing choices are excellent and have plenty of nice-fitting gear. I guess you can call this Gregory Lee Land. Not the U.S. menís basketball team nor Marc Spears, there are no big and tall stores for them. Iím just saying...
You don't have to be an athlete or celebrity to get your picture taken in Beijing. Just ask the Globe's Marc Spears. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING -- Since I began covering the Celtics, the organization's ownership has been very welcoming, from Wyc Grousbeck to Stephen Pagliuca to Robert Epstein to Dr. James L. Cash. So it wasn't a total surprise to get an e-mail from Pagliuca, also known as "Pags," after he, his wife, Judy, their four kids, and a family friend arrived in Beijing for the Olympics last week.
The Pags clan has been to two men's and women's basketball games each, tennis, table tennis, synchronized diving (cool sport that I just learned existed yesterday) and beach volleyball (which actually has cheerleaders). Pags is also very good friends with USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and senior managing director Jerry Colangelo. The Pags clan is staying in same hotel with USAís menís basketball team. Pags has also seen the likes of music legend Quincy Jones and Rush Hour star Chris Tucker are staying at his hotel, too, but was too shy to say hello. The Chinese definitely arenít shy. Iíll get back to that soon.
Well, Pags and I have been trying to link up, so this Wednesday morning I was finally able to catch up with him and his family at the historical Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Before I embarked on a 30-minute cab ride to Tiananmen Square, the cabbie decided he wanted his picture taken with me without asking. I'm a 6-foot-6 tall black dude and I guess there aren't many of us hanging around these parts. I'm not sure why he wanted to take the picture, and it was probably better I didn't ask. The cabbie ended up dropping me off, unbeknownst to me, about a half mile away from Tiananmen Square and just pointed in the direction I was supposed to go mumbling something in Mandarin. Thanks for the correct drop off, buddy. Wish I didn't give you a tip.
Anyways, I ended up getting lost. Surprise, right? I found some information booth and started asking the woman for directions. Next thing I know some cop with a gun on his side started asking me questions in Mandarin like I know the language and acting like he wants me to get lost before he saw my Olympic credential. Some young cat all of a sudden shows up and tells the information counter lady that he will show me how to get to Tiananmen Square. I guess I should trust him. He was only about 5-6, had the spirit of an ambassador for the country and looked harmless so I wasnít worried. The guy was real cool, spoke limited English and showed me the way. Halfway there I gave him by business card so he could understand my name. Some weirdo runs over and tries to read my card after I handed it off. My guide pulls the card away to hide it and gives the dude a get away look. Man, there are some rude people here. They'll just walk up or run up crazy like, get close to you and read your credential or grab your clothes. Back where I come from it could be painful if you try to do that, man. But when in China, you have to adapt to them, not them to you. So after a long walk, we finally get there. It's amazing how huge Tiananmen Square is and it is festive with Olympic decorations all over the place.
I offer the guide some money for showing me the way. He declines and goes on his way. If you're reading, thanks man, that was a real cool gesture. I'd probably be walking to Shanghai if he hadn't shown up. Next thing I know, the stares and the picture-taking start up again. Pags calls and he and his family are about 10 minutes away. After having little choice to take a couple of pictures, I tried to conjure up a distraction. Yes, I got on my cellular phone and called mom to check in. My mom is back in New Orleans and super nervous about me being in China. Hearing about the American being stabbed last week didn't help. So I tell her where I am and she tells me to be careful and watch out, but is also so happy and proud that her son is at the Olympics.
Only one of these men is an NBA superstar. Marc Spears (left) and Shaquille O'Neal.
I can see several novice cameramen staring and waiting for an opportunity to take a pic with Shaquille O'Neal or whoever they thought I was. But me being on the phone keeps them at bay. I also stood near some cops to make myself feel safer with my mom worrying me to death on the phone.
Eventually, the Pags clan shows up. You can tell they've been having a great time. Judy is asking their tour guide and translator a lot of questions. While a little hard to understand, the tour guide is great and explains the history of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which is across the street. We take some pictures with the Forbidden City in the background. Meanwhile, locals at Tiananmen Square start taking pictures of us posing for a picture. Man, these folks need to get out more often, watch BET, American movies or something. But, there really aren't many non-Chinese people walking around, so I guess I can kind of understand the fascination with "Westerners." Not sure why the term Westerners doesnít seem flattering to me, but thatís what weíre called. Guess it could be worse like the guy at the Williams sistersí doubles tennis match I went to Tuesday night that yelled out, ďUnited States of (a curse word referring to your backside).Ē
We end up going across the street to the Forbidden City. The place has to be bigger than Rhode Island. It just keeps going and going and going. It is actually 1 million square meters and the buildings alone account for 170,000 square meters. A million people can fit in there. Wow. You canít understand how big it is until youíre viewing it in person. Awesome spectacle. After we got about halfway through and we were about to take a tour of the Forbidden City museum, I looked at my watch and realized that it was time for me to go. I had a lot of writing that I needed to get done. I said thanks to Pags, his family and the tour guide for letting me hang out and went on my way. You could literally spend all day checking out that historic place.
Getting a cab back to my hotel wasn't the easiest thing to do. I walked about a half mile and made a left down a two-lane street that the police told me to turn on to get a cab. Suddenly, some real friendly woman just comes up to me speaking English and asking a zillion questions. OK, what do you want? I know a hustler when I see one and she was hustling something. Cab after cab after cab was filled, man. She then tells me she has an art store and I should check it out. I told her I'll go in her art store if she helps me hail a cab. She agrees and I check out the store. I'm actually quietly a huge art fan, so I know I'll enjoy this little detour. I actually spent about two hours checking out art stores during a trip to New Orleans during Fourth of July.
She had some very beautiful art and the air conditioning is wonderful. I overhear some American running his mouth in the store and he asks one of the workers in the store why many Chinese donít have tattoos. The guy told him that if you have a tattoo, youíre viewed as a "hooligan" and can't get a job as a cop. The art all had a connection with the history or tradition of China. I ended up buying a scroll on which the words say, "Good Luck." Well, that's at least that's what the lady told me. It could say, "Today's Sucker," for all I know. But it looks cool and isn't that all that really matters? She lives up to her bargain and eventually hails me a cab. What a wild afternoon, but it was cool and memorable. And I got to feel like a celebrity and a circus freak all at the same time. How do you say, ďSay Cheese,Ē in Mandarin?
I was sitting in the bullpen inside the Main Press Center yesterday when a Middle Eastern man with a microphone, cameraman at his shoulder, came up to me. "Excuse me, sir, we are from Al-Jazeera and we would like to interview you," he said. "You have heard of Al-Jazeera?" I assured him that I had, along with everyone else in my country. "I am honored," he said. What he wanted was to talk about the US-China medal rivalry. We chatted for a few minutes and he moved on, in search of another American journalist to interview.
If you are at the Olympics long enough, you are guaranteed to be interviewed by a journalist from another country. Sometimes it's a local TV person, wondering how you're enjoying the host city's famous hospitality. (The usual answer: I wouldn't know. I haven't left the Main Press Center.) Sometimes, it's someone gathering opinions on the Great Issue of the Day (What do think about that Denver guy insulting Salt Lake City?) If you're sitting still long enough at Olympus, one of your foreign colleagues is going to stick a microphone in your face.
Yesterday, the BBC Radio people asked me to come down to the Face Bar for their nightly sports show which is broadcast around the world. I figured that it would be for five minutes, but I ended up staying for nearly two hours, chiming in every so often along with Matthew Syed, who writes for the Times of London and was an Olympic table tennis player for Great Britain. The Face Bar is one of Beijing's hot new upscale places where hip young Beijingers are spending the fruits of capitalism and the BBC broadcasts from a room there. Whenever Matthew and I figured it might be time to catch a cab back to the hotel, a waitress would come in with an oversized gin and tonic rattling with ice and a cold bottle of Tsingtao beer. Olympic journalists (or `Ringheads', as the veterans are known) will talk forever if you merely keep them lubricated.
Usually, the interviews are sporadic, unless there's a huge ongoing story and you've been identified as the go-to guy. That's how it was for me for three weeks in 1994 in Lillehammer during Wounded Knee, the Nancy-Tonya saga which that held the rest of the world in thrall. Nancy Kerrigan, wisely, wasn't talking, so the next best source figured to be the guy from the Boston Globe who knew her. That's how I became the Nancy Guy. Everybody with a camera or a tape recorder wanted five minutes from me. The Japanese, particularly, were fascinated beyond belief. "Only in America," they told me.
Once you've been identified as the go-to guy, the whole world descends upon you -- Canadians, Swedes, Germans, Brits, Chinese. The same thing happened to two of my female colleagues from Portland, Oregon, Harding's hometown. They were the Tonya Twins, and everyone wanted trashy tales from the trailer park. Nobody wanted the figure skating to end more than we did, but we found that the saga never quite ended. Four years later, when we were taking a bus from Tokyo to Nagano for the Games, we made a pit stop at a remote place. "Hey, it's the Nancy Guy," a couple of Dutch journalists called out, as I was walking across the parking lot. This is how a Ringhead achieves immortality at Olympus. Just have someone whack your local athlete with a nightstick.
BEIJING -- You've no doubt already heard about the tank. I must say that it was quite a jolt to wake up, look outside my window and see a baby tank (not Williams) parked outside. That's a way of controlling the media even the Patriots haven't thought of.
More observations from Beijing ...
- One thing no one in this country could never say with a clear conscience: "We don't have enough people to do the job." A clear maiifestation of having 1.3 billion people at your disposal is that every task has someone, plus a back-up, plus a back-up to the back-up. There are people everywhere. I was making printouts in the main media work room the other day when the machine ran out of paper. Seconds later, I heard the patter of feet. A young lady had sprinted from wherever to re-stock the paper. And I'm sure someone was watching her watch me.
- Cabs can be very interesting. Had a cabby on Monday who was happily watching a Sylvester Stallone movie on the TV set mounted over the front passenger's seat. That's right; I said front seat. We motioned to him as we were waiting in traffic that we woild appreciate it if he kept his eyes on the road. He laughed, nodded and said yes. Fortunately, we were soon getting out.
- The surprise team of the men's basketball competition has been Croatia, which appears to have reloaded after a long drought with some kids who can really shoot. They absolutely bombarded the dazed Aussies with threes and then they knocked off Russia the second night...I gotta tell ya'. I didn't travel more than 6,500 miles and expect to see Ed F. Rush referee a game. The idea is to travel that far just to get away from him.
- There is no point to London (host of the 2012 Games) even trying to duplicate the spectacular opening ceremony we saw a few nights ago. My advice is for England to stick to things it has proven it does well. They should simply put on a production of "Macbeth" and then send everyone off to a pub.
- They tell me that yellow thing we saw up in the sky for a spell today was something called the sun.
BEIJING--This city has been very journalist-friendly in my short stay here. But I chatted with a wire-service photographer a few nights ago who has been here for almost a decade and he painted a pretty different story of his years leading up to the Olympics. For taking photos he's been banged up by state security thugs, learned his subjects have been harassed, and had his phone tapped to the point that snoopy security agents would sometimes show up at a subject's house before he did.
Today I got a teensy weensy taste of that hyper-security/paranoia thing. I was shooting video for a totally innocuous, wholly China-positive piece on ping pong in a large neighborhood park called Longtan Park. I had cleared mine and my translator's presence with the park overseers, and they had even assigned a woman to walk step-by-step with me through the park. Ok. Fair enough. But as we moved around the park, I realized I had a larger security entourage. Hanging back politely, just barely trying to conceal that they were tailing me were one standard-issue security officer, and one guy in plain clothes in continuous walkie-talkie contact with someone back at base.
As my visit was coming to an end, my official minder asked me several times, "Ok, so now you will go back to your hotel?" She was baffled when I wouldn't disclose my next move (it was, in fact, back to my hotel, if you are keeping score, China). Before I left, I turned around and gestured for my surprised police officer and walkie-talkie guy to get together for a group photo with my minder. Then we shook hands and said our goodbyes. I asked my translator to thank them for providing such comprehensive security for me while I was in their park.
My security entourage
BEIJING -- I'm just saying...
My friends have been emailing me and sending me Facebook messages about my experiences so far. I hadnít had the time to give greater detail on what I have seen so far here in China.
(So with that said, I will make sure to send a note to all of my friends to read my thoughts and give Boston.com more hits). I'm just saying...
- The hospitality has been superb here. But I must say I think at some point I will get a bit worn by the excessive greetings and service. It started at the airport and I met my driver and was dragging my roller carry-on. The female worker wanted to take my luggage and drag it. I said "Nah, I have it." You know us American men are gentleman. But here it is an insult if you turn down the help. Then at the hotel, it seems like there are five employees for every guest. They even had a person stationed at the elevator to provide you directions in the hotel. At dinner, before you can even sit down to get comfortable, they are asking for your order. Perhaps I will have a greater appreciation when I get back to the States and not get this type of royal treatment. I'm just saying...
- The cuisine has been great, especially at the new Intercontinental Hotel we are staying at on the Olympic grounds. The one thing I have learned is to try everything that is out of your comfort zone. For example, normally I would pass on duck and papaya soup. That was some good grub. Also the duck here is excellent. I have not had much quacking in my life. Authentic Chinese food is good. The Chinese food we are accustomed too is not even close to the real thing. America has cheapened the real Chinese cuisine. I have been pleasantly surprised. I'm just saying...
- When you have a population of over a billion people in the nation one would expect the freeways to be crowded, and they are. To help offset that and the pollution, the government has imposed that only license plates with the last number ending in a odd number drive on one day and then it rotates to the even numbers. The exceptions are taxis and buses. Speaking of public transportation, the buses are always jammed with people. I would never get on those buses. But hey I guess you have to do what you have to do. The taxi drivers here are just like New Yorkers, aggressive and donít care who is in the way. So do the pedestrians, who will walk in the middle of the street knowing they could get hit by a car. I am surprised I have not seen an accident with all of the rubbernecking. I'm just saying...
- The nightlife is pretty good here. I checked out this spot called Suzie Wang one night. The club has theme nights. They even have Latin and hip-hop nights. It is a three-level establishment, which includes a rooftop deck for those who want to chill and have a nice mojito. I think Boston should do some research and bring a club like that to the city. I'm just saying...
Marc Spears shopping.
- The shopping has been great, too. You can get some good deals at spots such as the Silk shopping area, where there are eight levels featuring a variety of goods and services. There you can negotiate prices. I got some great shoes there. But beware men: Any time you are walking down the clothing area, you could get grabbed. I know I was grabbed, pinched and nearly groped by women who were trying to size me up to check out what size clothes I can wear. But the best shopping I have done was with my man Marc Spears (left). Through his connections, we were able to find a tailor who does custom-made suits for great prices. I got three made for the price of $215 each. I got the best material possible. You canít beat that. I also bought some great clothes here that you canít get in America. Boston, you better watch out because I am bringing the funk to the area with the gear I copped. I'm just saying...
More of "just saying" coming tomorrow. Peace out.
BEIJING -- The Chinese government has taken security very seriously around here.
For example, just to get into the hotel and media complex, I have to be screened like we are at Logan International Airport.
We scan our bags, electronics and walk through the security metal checker. If they are not satisfied, you get a more personal search.
When you are done, you go about your business.
But today was different. After I completed the security process, I saw a big Chinese tank (above). I guess they want to make sure nothing bizarre would happen.
So when would they use the tank? Are they expecting an ambush by land? Will they shoot me if I came through with something questionable?
"How would you like your eggs?", Cherry asked me at breakfast the other day. "Over easy," I told her. "Over easy," she informed Edison, who was standing next to Carl at the short-order station in the hotel buffet. Cherry, Edison and Carl, of course, are Chinese and I'm reasonably sure that their parents didn't name them that, even though that's what their nametags say.
One night at the Asian bistro at the Marriott, Shadow was my server. When I was in Beijing last year, I met Calista, Felicity and Elvis. They were Chinese, too, manning the reception desk at the Hilton. Many of the local folks who work for Western companies here, at least those who deal with Western customers, have Anglicized names and most of them are exotic. No Jeffs or Pats or Matts.
It's unclear whether their employers ask them to adopt alter egos to make us often-bewildered visitors seem at home or whether Cherrifying oneself is the cool new thing in the Middle Kingdom, like buying Buick Park Avenues (a hot car here, believe it or not) or rooting for the Houston Rockets (table tennis is so Mao these days). "Cherry is a beautiful name," I told her. "Thank you," she said, smiling. "It is very common."
To make things easier on my 1.3 billion hosts, I have Sino-fied myself. My Globe business card says that I am Pang Yue Han, which roughly translates into Huge (Like Dragon) Promise Writing. It may or may not be common, but that's what the Hilton people came up with when I went down to their business office to have the cards done.
Your Chinese name should mean something and it should sound something like your Western name. Powers may be an easy name to say in County Waterford, but it does not roll trippingly off the tongue here. The closest they can come in Mandarin is Pang, which comes out a bit like Pahn. Yue Han is a generally accepted name for John. I am a big man in this town, two meters tall with blue eyes, so Pang comes across as believable. It's not as lyrical as Dances With Wolves or Wind In His Hair, but Beijingers seem to think it's fitting when I offer them my card (with two hands, name facing recipient) and appear to be amused.
I'm not sure how Edison came up with his name. Maybe he read about the Wizard of Menlo Park in the Chinese version of "Childhood of Famous Americans Series" and fancied himself an inventor. Maybe it sounds something like the name his parents gave him (I figured that Shadow is probably Xia Do, or something close). All I know is, Edison knows his way around a couple of eggs. Tomorrow, I'm asking him to invent me an omelet.
BEIJING -- Been trying very, very hard to resist the Siren call of McDonald's, Official Restaurant of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. There's a big one right in the basement of the Main Press Center here, and it would be very easy to kick back every evening with an artery-clogging Big Mac and fries. They even have Olympics-related brochures (above) at the counter proclaiming the health benefits for athletes (!) of a Mickey D's salad- and burger-based diet (read more here).
Yesterday, I left the confines of the Olympic grounds and walked about 15 minutes to stumble upon a real, honest-to-goodness, slightly dingy, neighborhood noodle shop. It was next-door to a smokestack and a beautician of some sort called, Focusing Attention Scalding With Sharon (see below). This restaurant had no English on the menu, so I had to point to another customer's table to order something. The steaming bowl of beef noodle soup I randomly selected turned out to be pleasantly rich and delicious, as well as extraordinarily spicy. The chili and Sichuan pepper floating in its red oily broth set my mouth on fire, and by three spoonfuls in the front of my shirt was dappled with sweat. The waiter came over to crank up the fan beside my table and aimed it straight at me. By the time I tipped the bowl back to sip the broth, my tongue was numb (Sichuan pepper seeds do that). But it was by far the tastiest, most satisfying meal I've had in Beijing so far.
Back inside the Olympic compound, the hundreds of Chinese volunteers aren't so lucky. They don't get money for staffing the Olympic facilities, and so they have to queue up in a special line (photo below) every mealtime to get paid the only way they can: in McDonald's hamburgers (2 each) and fries (1 regular size). No supersizing allowed, unless you know the right person.
(Text by Patricia Wen / Globe Staff)
BEIJING--On the day of the long-anticipated match-up between the U.S. Redeem Team and China, we went in search of a bar or restaurant where typical Beijingers would watch together on a big-screen T.V. We found such a placeat the Xiao Yu Mountain restaurant in central Beijing. The place, where scores of red lanterns hung from ceilings, seemed an ideal spot to test one thing we had heard from our sports department colleagues: Chinese fans like U.S. players.
Indeed, there were many fans -- mostly young men under 30 -- who named Americans as their most admired. There was a 22-year-old waiter, Huang Hui, who looks up to Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant because he plays "rough and wild." Zhang Rui, 28, likes LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers because he's "a funny guy." And Xu Dan, 26, aspires to be like Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson because he's "a short man" who works hard in a tall man's game.
For the most part, we found that patriotism took a back seat to personal passion. Still, many also named Yao Ming, the 7-foot, 6-inch center for the Houston Rockets, who has been given by China's rulers the status of a national hero, especially during the Olympics. And they wished that China would miraclously beat the U.S. (China did not, losing 101 to 70.)
At a time when China seeks to boost its patriotic image to the world, did those who liked the American players feel disloyal?
Tang Wei, 27, who likes Bryant, shook his head.
"One world, one dream," he said with a smile, repeating the slogan for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
BEIJING--Last week, reporter Patty Wen and I spent some time in this part of Beijing south of Tiananmen Square called the Xuanwu district (the story appeared in today's Globe). The Chinese government doesn't want foreigners like Patty and I (or most of you) to actually see large parts of the Xuanwu district. So they've done about the most low-tech, unimaginative thing you can do to hide something: they built a big honking wall right down the sidewalk, inches from the openings of shops (above photo) so all you see from the street is this:
Preeeeeetty clever, huh? You know that if you hide something, it only gets journalists' juices flowing. So below, dear reader, we proudly present some images from behind the wall.
(Text by Patty Wen / Globe Staff)
BEIJING -- If there is any doubt that the Olympics is synonymous with patriotism here in Beijing, one only had to visit Tiananmen Square, where crowds of flag-waving Chinese gathered Friday night. While most Beijingers chose to watch the opening ceremonies on television at home, this crowd chose the 109-acre historic plaza surrounded by the Mao Mausoleum, the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum.
At first, the crowd was kept behind barricades, and police said they did not know whether the public would be allowed entry. Officers, however, did allow journalists and photographers onto the plaza.
Meanwhile, around 6:45 p.m., a gathering on the east side of Tiananmen began chanting, "Jia You! Zhong Guo!" (Go China!) and "Jia You! Beijing!" (Go Beijing!)
By 7:15 p.m., the chanting grew louder and more intense, and police seemed visibly worried the group would get out of control. Officers began saying over a speaker, "Please quiet down" and "Please take care of your safety." Soon, the crowd -- some with Chinese-flag stickers on their face or "I Love China" T-shirts -- began attracting its own crowd of photographers and journalists. This turned up the volume of the chanting even more.
By around 7:50 p.m., the police opened up the barricades. The crowd roared and raced frantically onto the plaza. At one point, soldiers tried to slow the crowd down. They held hands trying to form their own human barricade -- but with limited success. The plaza quickly filled -- though the place, which can hold 1 million people -- was not packed. By 7:59, hundreds of people watched a clock on the east side of Tiananmen that counted down the seconds until 8 p.m., the start of the opening ceremonies. It was like a New Year's Eve moment. When the 8 p.m. time hit, the crowd cheered again -- and military guns blasted off a couple of rounds.
Chinese athlete Li Ning (lower right) lights the Olympic flame above the National Stadium. (AP Photo)
BEIJING -- When an archer lit the Olympic torch with a bow and arrow at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the show-stopper earned praise and became the so-called gold standard of opening ceremony torch-lighting theatrics. And that has been the case for the last 16 years. But there may be a new torch-lighting ready to vie for the title.
On Friday, gold medal gymnast Li Ning "ran" on air around the stadium to light the torch. Wires and a harness lifted Li to the top rim of the stadium. Suspended in mid-air above 90,000 spectators, he ran around the stadium with the torch in hand. It was so incredible and unexpected, it took a while to figure out just what was happening. Once it was clear what Li would be doing, it was a mesmerizing, slow-motion display. As he ran around the top rim of the stadium, video images unfurled behind him as if they were on an ancient Chinese scroll. The video captured scenes from the torch relay that circled the globe. Still suspended, Li dipped his torch toward the caldron and it lit up, much to the delight of the audience.
The opening ceremonies closed with a barrage of fireworks. It was also shocking that the organizers didn't run out of fireworks long before the finale, considering how often they came into play during the first hour of the ceremonies.
"It was awesome," said US Taekwondo coach Jean Lopez. "The way they lit the torch was amazing. It's always the most anticipated part of the opening ceremonies and I was in complete awe. Beijing has delivered a great start to the Games."
From start to finish, the ceremonies were worth the hype. These types of events can typical turn into cheesy shows, but that was not the case for the Beijing opener. And not only was it artistically interesting, it was an education in Chinese history with easy-to-understand symbolism throughout.
Finally, the United States could learn a few things from the way the Chinese handle crowds. It may not be one of the four great ancient Chinese inventions, but they deserve some sort of recognition for getting 90,000 people out of the National Stadium without any delays. I expected a big hassle leaving the "Bird's Nest," especially since the stadium was unfamiliar to so many people, but it was quick and easy, and I was back to my hotel in 10 minutes. Again, the credit goes to China's army of Olympic volunteers. They were there literally every step of the way, guiding spectators to exits, transportation and hotels. At one point, there were two rows of volunteers side-by-side lining a pathway to guide spectators to the nearest exit. All the while, they waved and said, "Good bye. Thank you for coming." It wasn't a marked contrast from the flashy display of the opening ceremonies, but still a nice, welcome touch at the end of a long evening.
BEIJING -- Half the fun of the Parade of Nations, maybe more, is seeing how each country chooses to dress its athletes. It's no fun to praise the good, so here are some of the lowlights:
- The French are supposed to know about fashion, but the French women were wearing a red leather exaggerated cummerbund that was far from flattering.
- The Hungarian women were in dresses that looked like someone had splattered red paint on them.
- While I'm always a big fan of the fun-loving laid back Australians, they went too casual for the opening ceremonies, wearing track suits.
- And now for the Americans ... what was up with the white scally cap-like hats? They did come across as cool or fashionable unless you looked at Tyson Gay, who wore his tilted off to the side. In general, hats and other forms of headgear are not the best way to go.
The athletes marched in to a medley of international music ranging from Mexican mariachi to Scottish bagpipes. Big cheers went to Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Iraq, Russia, the US and Australia. When President George Bush appeared on the big screens at both ends of the stadium, he was greeted with both applause and disapproving whistles. Meanwhile, the host country naturally received the loudest cheers. NBA All-Star Yao Ming led the Chinese delegation as flag-bearer for the second consecutive Olympics. It was an easy choice because he cuts such an impressive figure with his height.
BEIJING -- It wasn't the security that was tough at the opening ceremonies, but the weather. And we're not talking about rain (there was none) or haze (plenty was visible during the day) created by air pollution. Heat and humidity made the ceremonies mildly uncomfortable to sit through.
By the time I reached my seat on the middle deck of the stadium, I had worked up a nice sweat, and so had everyone else sitting around me. I can only imagine how draining it was for athletes to wait hours to march in, especially with many delegations wearing some for of sports coat or blazer.
No wonder some high profile athletes choose to skip the fanfare. If the weather continues to be dominated by stifling heat and humidity, my sympathies go out to the endurance athletes.
BEIJING -- Security was tight with every crosswalk, every stadium entrance and every off-limits space guarded by a sizeable contigent of volunteers, Army soldiers and police. But it was actually quite easy to get into the stadium as long as you had a ticket in hand. And once you figured out where you were going, it didn't take long to find a seat. And the omnipresent and multi-lingual Beijing Olympics volunteers were only too happy to help along the way. I know who'd I like organizing and running airport security in the US.
The Chinese national anthem is "March of the Volunteers" and there couldn't be a more apt description of the Beijing Games. That's a great advantage of being a country with 1.3 billion people, plenty of volunteers to go around. There are English-speaking Chinese volunteers everywhere, eager to assist.
As I approached the "Bird's Nest" stadium, volunteers directed me to entrance E. Once inside, when I asked again where I should go, a volunteer simply said, "Follow me." No two words are more welcome when lost in a foreign country in a giagantic stadium than "Follow me."
BEIJING -- The Chinese wanted to make sure the opening ceremonies went off without a hitch. And, boy, its pre-ceremony protection was so thorough it cost me a 90-minute walk back to my hotel.
After having a lunch with a friend, I hopped into a cab about three and a half hours before the opening ceremonies for a journey back to my hotel, located on the Olympic Grounds.
When I got into the cab to show the driver where I needed to go, she knew that she could not get me to the hotel. However, I had the hotel worker tell her to get me as close as she could.
So I took the ride with the driver and she let me off at an exit on the interstate. But before that, I saw Chinese guardsmen at every exit, at every overpass, at every bus stop and even standing post underneath the overpasses. They were out in force.
So I started my journey thinking this could be a 20-minute stroll in the humid conditions.
I saw droves of people getting off buses to get into line for the opening ceremonies. I was just looking for a media entrance. The walk was at 30 minutes when I ran into two Dutch journalists, who were trying to accomplish the same thing I was.
So we went to one entrance and were denied. They told us to go to Gate 3. The people there told us to go to Gate 4. Then Gate 4 said to go to Gate 8. Then the woman at Gate 8 said to walk through the Museum of Science, which was a block away.
When we got to the museum, it was closed. So we walked past that and finally, back at Gate 3, we got clearance. So as we were getting out bags through security (another long process), we ran into none other than tennis great Roger Federer, who was getting his car checked before he was set to lead the Swiss team at the ceremonies.
So after we got through that ordeal, we had a long, winding walk through a nicely constructed park with music in the air. We saw a number of companies with stores selling their products and hosting exhibitions.
Finally, after a long 90-minute walk, we made it to our destination. Soaked in sweat, we parted knowing we shared a common bond at the Olympics, themed One World One Dream.
(Did I mentioned that I lost my blackberry in a cab earlier in the day? That's another story in itsself).
Dancers light up the Bird's Nest during the opening ceremonies in Beijing. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)
Even with the intense buildup and hype surrounding the Beijing Olympics, the opening ceremonies did not disappoint. They were everything spectators and reporters have come to expect from the Chinese. Innovative. Filled with technological feats. Uniquely and boldly artistic. Precise organization down to the last detail. There were plenty of surprises throughout and fireworks that would put any Fourth of July display to shame.
A few highlights:
- Countdown with Fou drummers: To start the ceremony 2008 drummers welcomed the world. The Fou, an ancient Chinese drum that dates back to the Xia and Shang dynasties, lit up every time they were banged upon. As a result, the drumming created a synchronized lighting display that left the crowd ooohing and aaahing and primed for what was to come.
- Human brushes: A giant, traditional Chinese scroll opened in the center of the stadium. Dancers twisted and turned on the scroll surface creating a scroll painting as they went. The performance was meant to represent Chinese art, culture and history, as well as remind the audince that papermaking was one if ancient China's great inventions. The hour long staged performance before the parade of nations was a tour de force of Chinese history. And surprisingly, what could have come across as tedious and dry was anything but. The perfect example of that was the movable type performance.
- Movable type: To celebrate movable-type printing, another one of ancient China's four great inventions, a grid of Chinese characters mounted on top of box-like structures took center stage. The moveable type bounced up and down before spelling out the words for "Harmony" and "Peace" in Chinese. The characters then transformed into a computer keybord an artistic depiction of the Great Wall. At the end, the keyboard sprouted peach blossoms.
But the biggest suprise came at the end when it was revealed the keys were operated by 897 performers. Up until that point, the keyboard movements were so precise and well coordinated it was easy to assume it was controlled by a real computer. It took the keyboard performers 10 months to master their jobs.
- The finale: A giant globe rose from the center of the stadium and, in some ways resembled an ancient pagoda top. Then, 58 performers who seemed to defy gravity ran around nine rings on the globe. Again, it took 10 months of training to seamlessly pull of such moves. The performers on the lower half of the globe ran downward to sustain the effect. A total of 14,000 performers participated in the Opening Ceremonies, including 9,000 Army members and another 600 to organize fireworks displays.
So on the evening before the opening ceremonies, I decided to go for a walk and see the Bird's Nest and Water Cube for myself. I hadn't had a chance to see either up close yet, but felt like I knew them intimately from all the media coverage. They're about a 10 minute walk from our hotel, which is inside the high-security Olympics compound. We're separated from actual Beijing by a dense array of high fences, roadblocks, and checkpoints. Only those with proper accreditation can get within a mile of anything Olympics-related, and it means that at night, it's surprisingly--almost hauntingly--quiet in the vast empty space between the glowing Aquatic Center and National Stadium.
I took a couple snippy snaps of the two buildings with my cruddy point-and-shoot, impressed by the austerity and silence of this space that 24 hours from now will be at the center of attention for literally BILLIONS of people around the world. I was about to walk back to the hotel when I heard the static-click of a giant speaker system coming alive. And then, magically, a sound-check unlike anything I've ever heard. My point-and-shoot video doesn't do it justice, but believe me when I say that Freddie Mercury sounds indescribably fantastic pumped through the speaker system of an empty 91,000-person stadium.
In this country, there is only one Chairman, and it ain't Sinatra or Whitey Ford.
You folks have George Washingtons, Abe Lincolns, the famed "Benjamins," and so on. Here it's the Maos, the Maos and nothing but the Maos. His slightly smiling countenance (I'd call it a modified Mona Lisa look) is on the one, the five, the ten, the twenty, the fifty and the hundred yuan ...
Had my first subway experience the other day. Throughout the 20th century, the American standard of reference concerning crowded subways was the Tokyo subway, where they actually employ people to push people into the cars. I believe Beijing will be the standard of reference for the 21st century.
Of course, it was 8:30 a.m., height of rush hour. The first car arrives and I have never seen anything so crammed with humanity. I watch with interest and astonishment as a young woman attempts to exit the car. People here are not good about ceding space. No one made any attempt to help her leave. And she didn't. The door closed, and off she went. She may still be going.
Seconds later, a second car arrived. Again there was no possibility of gaining entry. I decide I will make my move on the next one, and so I did, managing to squeeze in. I was hoping there might be a key stop, a Park Street equivalent, where many people would exit, and so there was, about three stops along. Whew. Now it was just crowded.
Their subway car etiquette aside, the people here have been exceedingly friendly and helpful. I attempted to find a popular Brazilian restaurant the other night, and at least 10 different people tried to help. Two phone calls were made for directions. Of course, I still couldn't find it, but the thought was there. I did find a very acceptable French bistro, so no problem. And I will find that restaurant before I leave.
Tell me if this has ever happened to you. A very nice lady takes me to my hotel room. She checks out the nice HD TV and something is amiss. She makes a phone call. About 15 minutes later a man arrives with an entire new TV, which he installs in about five minutes. With all due respect to the Marriotts, Hiltons and Hyatts of America, that's not happening back home ...
I see that the pampered NBA guys are again passing up the Olympic Village in favor of a high-end hotel. That's too bad. I really believe agreeing to live in the Village should be a requirement for all American athletes. All accounts are that the Village is truly outstanding. It might do our guys good to meet a Romanian wrestler or Turkish weightlifter ...
I was struck by the large numbers of people taking the subway late at night. It was just a Monday, and the town was hopping. The oldest face had to be no more than 30. There is an entire generation of young Chinese who were either very young or not born when the celebrated events of Tiananmen Square took place 19 years ago. And, as colleague John Powers points out, many of them know little about what took place there since the government has made it a taboo subject. But the fact is these young Chinese have a distinct world view. They are both highly nationalistic and aggressively capitalistic. They accept the trade-off of the chance to live like Westerners in a one-party state. This is their China and they plan on taking it somwhere it has never been ...
At last, there is a place where the dollar goes somewhere. My assistant sports editor Greg Lee and I were stuck in a cab for an hour and 20 minutes trying to get from Point A to Point B the other night. The total cost: 66 yuan, or between six and seven dollars. I don't think you'd get off that cheaply in Manhattan.
A Brookline resident, who was a former political prisoner in China and human rights activist, appears to have been detained in Hong Kong as of today, as he tried to make his way into China before the Olympics. In my e-mail in-box, I just received this news from the Initiatives for China, located in Boston.
At approximately 3:00pm Hong Kong time...Dr. Yang Jianli, Harvard Senior Fellow, survivor of the 1989 Tienanmen Square Massacre, former political prisoner, and President of Initiatives for China, was blocked from entering Hong Kong on his way to a humanitarian mission on Mainland China. He is currently held in a detention cell at Hong Kong Airport in violation of his rights as a Chinese citizen with a valid Chinese passport, and also under article 12 of the UN Covenant for Human and Civil Rights to which the Chinese government is a signatory. Please contact your representatives to demand his release and your colleagues and associates to do the same." The site went on to describe Yang as "a former political prisoner who served five years in jail in China for "espionage". He refused early release and served his full sentence so he would retain the right to a Chinese passport. Dr. Yang was released in April 2007 and returned to his home in Brookline, MA in August 1007. Dr. Yang is a legal resident of the United States. Dr. Yang had previously entered Hong Kong as recently as March 2008 without incident.
The news isn't shocking given Yang's outspoken views and the timing of his visit just two days before the Olympic opening ceremonies. Still, if he is being detained in Hong Kong, which is under the Chinese jurisdiction, it is yet another example of how China hopes to stop any sign of political disruption during the games. Updates to follow on what happens to Yang.
Any place that has anything to do with the Olympics appears spotless these days. And that is thanks to workers like Guo-Hua Xiong, who uses a pair of wooden tongs to pick up small stray items, one by one.
The 43-year-old woman, who earns about $35 a week, picked up litter outside a towering Beijing office complex where tourists went to pick up their pre-paid Olympics tickets. Using her tongs to fetch cigarette butts, leaves and tiny scraps Wednesday afternoon, she seemed oblivious to the comings and goings from the offices of CoSport, the official Olympic ticket agency.
The mother of two, who originally lived in the countryside of Jiangsu Province, said she used to run a small store in Beijing, but business was too unpredictable. She prefers her cleaning job because of the guaranteed weekly wages, which sometimes go up if she gets extra hours.
Will she be watching Friday's opening ceremonies?
"It depends," she said, "if I have to work."
Traffic moves through haze in Beijing Monday. (Wire Photo)
My Olympic drug bag is bulkier than usual this time. Jammed in among the various antibiotics, painkillers, antacids and sundry unguents are two inhalers and some industrial-strength Visine. When Dr. Kim, my modernly thorough internist, noticed during my annual physical that I had a bit of lingering congestion in my lungs, she promptly wrote out prescriptions for Fluticasone and Albuterol. Fluticasone is a corticosteroid used to treat asthma (which hundreds of Olympic athletes suddenly discover they have when the Games are nigh). Albuterol is a bronchodilator for folks who have trouble breathing.
Athletes aren't the only ones who self-medicate at Olympus. The media people do, too, just to stay up and running for nearly a month. Those of us who've been to a few Games in places like Sarajevo and Nagano, learned through sometimes painful experience to bring our own stash of remedies just in case we can't find a doctor or a CVS. In 1980, I arrived in Lake Placid with a nasty strep throat, when every breath of the February air felt like a blowtorch. All of the village doctors apparently had rented their houses and jetted off to the Caribbean. So I ducked into a package store on Main Street, bought a large bottle of Russian vodka and did the numbness cure until I could get to the Olympic village and bum a handful of penicillin pills from the US team physician.
Now I bring my own, left over from the prescription that Dr. Pickett, my painless dentist, once gave me after I'd had a root canal on the eve of another Olympics. I'm sure that the pills are well past their use-by date, but it comforts me to have them in my Ziploc. Also in my bag are bottles of Omeprazole and Lansoprazole for acid reflux, Fexofenadine for allergies, a handful of tablets of Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and Roxicet (in case a tooth abscesses, as one did at 32,000 feet en route to Moscow), a tube of Erythromycin for conjunctivitis, Bacitracin for cuts and scrapes, Cepastat lozenges for sore throats and a supersized box of chewable Pepto-Bismol for the kind of gastrointestinal rumblings you don't want overseas.
All told, there's enough stuff in my stash to get my medals taken away. The only thing I'm missing is a few Chinese herbal remedies. If I'm feeling a bit droopy, I might drop by the night market, pick up one of those monster ginseng roots as big as your forearm and gnaw on it twice daily. There's always room for another cure-all at the Games.
The video above is a short timelapse of dawn over part of Beijing. The soundtrack is some drive-time radio I tuned into as the timelapse was being taken. As you'll hear, I caught a good chunk of English-lesson radio, which was also playing in several of the cabs I've taken. In the lead-up to the games, English newspaper The Independent reported, Beijing cab drivers were encouraged to learn not just basic English but also chit-chatty English like, "Is this seat taken?", or, "Did you know China raised petrol prices for the first time in 18 months the other day? Analysts say it is because of the rising cost of oil around the world." I've yet to have a cab driver who can say more than 'hello,' but this is totally fair in my opinion since it's almost all I can really say in Mandarin.
Also of interest in the video: the morning sky is clear blue. As in, no perceptible smog. Which, until today (Monday, which is on the gray side) has been my experience of the past week Beijing.
I've been getting into China Daily, which, according to my Rough Guide, is the only English-language newspaper in mainland China. I tried to read more about it on Wikipedia, but the entry doesn't load--usually a sign it's been blocked by The Great Firewall (as are a slew of other sites, even for visiting journalists). My Frommer's Beijing guide says it's a government-distributed "propaganda sheet." From what I've read so far, it's a little sad. For a taste, check out these alarmingly defensive Olympics-related articles from the last few days:
The haze that reduced visibility for a few days till Monday did not mean Beijing's air quality was bad, a senior city environmental official said Tuesday.
"Clouds and haze are not pollution. This kind of weather is a natural phenomenon. It has nothing to do with pollution," said Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing municipal bureau of environmental protection.
Photographs do not always tell the real story, he said. Some media agencies have projected the haze over Beijing as smog, and deliberately used it as a sign of the high pollution level in the city.
Such photographs "don't tell the truth", he said. "We don't approve of their use to pass judgment on the air quality ... you have to look at the complete monitoring system, and analyze the data scientifically."
As the Beijing Olympic Games approaches, the preparations for the world sports gala have intensified and with all these there is an atmosphere of openness.
Things which were previously regarded as taboos are now put in the spotlight for public discussion.
[One] thing that testifies the country's openness is its permission of the sales of some foreign publications to domestic and foreign readers in the Games venues and dozens of hotels.
Such unprecedented openness and transparency originate from China's self-confidence, which is based upon the country's belief in the improved perception and judgment of its people after the country has experienced decades of rapid economic and social development.
China's rapid economic development has brought to the people the best-ever benefits they have enjoyed in history, and the Chinese people should have a sober judgment about this. In today's society with developed information technology, no information can be blocked from the public.
The developed network of information has cultivated a reasonable perception among the Chinese people about the country and its future, which will not be influenced or changed by a few twisted reports.
Here are some photos I took of Chinese tourists posing for photos (not mine) in and near Tiananmen Square. Moods at the Communist monuments ranged from stoic to ecstatic.
Left: Statue of Communist heroes. Right: Portrait of Mao Zedong, hanging from Tiananmen Gate
Mao Mausoleum, inside of which Mao's embalmed remains are on display. Long lines form daily to get inside.
Another statue of communist heroes.
What do you get when you combine a) big box retail with b) rapacious, out-of-control, dense urban expansion in the form of soulless glass-box skyscrapers?
You get Central Business District, lovingly referred to as CBD, which is the neighborhood of Beijing we're staying in for a few days. It's a lovely place, lacking human scale, full of faceless offices and gaudy block-wide malls, where the layout is user unfriendly and entrances are hard to find.
And it's growing. Everywhere is the tink-tink-tink of hammers and chisels (actual motorized construction has been halted throughout Beijing during the Olympics to lessen smog levels).
This is not a diss on Beijing. In my extremely short time here I've visited achingly charming city parks and public spaces. But going for a walk in the CBD is like walking around the outside of an American mall that goes on for miles.
It's also the first place I've ever seen that's managed to take the two great tastes of big-box retail and faceless glass-box skyscraper and show us how great they can taste together:
One of many Wal-Mart skyscrapers
Greetings from Beijing, where I will be shooting video and taking the occasional photo for the Globe and Boston.com during the next few weeks.
Good news to report for anyone headed to China to watch or cover the games: if you're properly credentialed or visa'd, getting into China is a breeze. Which might not sound like breaking news, but China has a pretty serious reputation for bureaucracy (especially for journalists, especially at airports and border crossings). AND, prior to departure I had neglected to fill out an Equipment Declaration Form (in triplicate), meaning I had not received the REQUIRED Equipment Confirmation Letter, and so I was mentally preparing, the entire 17 hour flight, to do a whole lot of repentant paperwork and question-answering under a naked lightbulb upon arrival.
Not so. From the moment I stepped off the plane into the massive new (and new-smelling) Beijing Capital International Airport, I felt like one of the first customers at a newly opened restaurant that is striving for a high star ranking. In the mostly empty arrivals lounge, college-aged Olympics staff snapped to attention and stuffed helpful pamphlets into my hands. Lines moved quickly. A super-friendly immigration officer could hardly wait to stamp her approval into my passport, and a machine in front of her desk (pictured above) invited me to rate her service (I abstained). And, at customs, it turned out that a simple explanation for why I had not filed the dreaded Equipment Declaration Form (in triplicate) was an acceptable cover story for why I could not present a signed and stamped Equipment Confirmation Letter. An Olympics staffer was summoned, and they helped me handwrite all the appropriate forms (in triplicate) on the spot.
From a little reading, I see that a lot of this customer-service approach to immigration is newish, maybe part of China's Olympics reinvention of itself. But I guess it says something about customer service, because leaving the airport--hours earlier than I had anticipated--I found myself buying into Beijing International's cheesy slogan a little: "Harmonious Airport, Dreams start here."
Beijing Capital International Airport, as well as almost every other square foot of Beijing, is festooned with Olympics banners, posters, and displays.
Look for contributions from the following Globe Staffers in Beijing:
- John Powers
- Shira Springer
- Bob Ryan
- Marc J. Spears
- Gregory Lee
- Scott LaPierre
- Patricia Wen