Scenes From Beijing
BEIJING -- It is a professional badge for journalists at every Olympic Games: Write a column or a story that attempts to capture the
If the Summer Games were ever held in New York -- heaven help us -- the subway would be an easy choice for the canon. In one of our earliest days here,
At one of the transfer stations (Dongdan) on the way to Tiananmen, we chatted up a father and his little boy. The conversation was short and choppy but their exuberance over the Games was not lost in translation. Our next subway came quickly and we forget to ask the boy his name. Rebecca suggested we call him Di Di, which means "Little Brother" in Chinese. Somehow I'm thinking his father is letting him watch the Closing Ceremonies tonight.
Farewell, Little Brother. Hope you enjoyed the show.
BEIJING -- Among the most talented
BEIJING -- Forget the Birds' Nest and the Water Cube. For the best competition atmosphere at the Games, head a few blocks west to the gymnasium at China Agricultural University, home to wrestling at the Olympics.
Under the leadership of venue presentation director and head announcer
Here's just a sampling from the playlist:
Wrestling is the only sport here where music is played during the matches themselves, a feature Berger fought for. The Beijing organizers were worried about competition interference, but Berger, an experienced sports announcer and event producer, convinced them tunes would only enhance the overall experience.
"My vision of Olympic wrestling is that it's like a movie," says the retired Marine major and sometimes-wrestling referee. "There are exciting parts, parts when you want to sleep. I know when to talk, when not to talk, and the type of music that doesn't interfere."
Berger also did music production in Athens, where the Olympic planners' primary concern was getting rights to play the songs. In China, however, BOCOG wanted only to check the lyrics. Berger chooses the perfect for every moment -- when young American
BEIJING -- No. 305 on your menu, but No. 1 on your plate at the South Silk Restaurant, a lakeside bistro within hailing distance of the Forbidden City, is Hot Fried Wikipedia.
I cannot attest to its gustatory delights, having chosen to go with the exact menu of the accommodating Spanish embassy official who was seated at an adjacent table and who spoke excellent restaurant Mandarin.
(Ordering in a restaurant in this exotic locale is an exercise in infantilization. I feel empathy for all those young baseball players from the Dominican Republic, who, for the first year in the United States, walk into a place with American teammates and order "Same Thing," every day.)
As for the Hot Fried Wikipedia, my rule of thumb: Never trust anything that depends on diner's input. After the meal my companion,
BEIJING -- Although bus lines shuttle journalists between the Main Press Center (MPC), our hotels and the competition venues, to venture outside the Olympic bubble, it usually becomes necessary to take a cab.
I haven't tested the claim that local cabdrivers have learned English, since I've been trying to practice my Mandarin, but I have found most cabbies to be genial and eager to make a good impression on their foreign fares. On more than one occasion I've been asked by an anxious driver what my colleagues think of their fair city.
I'm going to turn the question around. Here's what I think of my Beijing taxi experience:
He apologetically replied that he was getting ready to go home after a 12-hour-plus-long shift, and he lived in a suburb far south of Beijing. Guessing he didn't expect we needed to go far, I told him it would be fine if he dropped us off somewhere nearby where we could easily find another taxi.
He agreed and even turned off his meter. He ended up driving us another 10 minutes for free, occasionally getting out and chasing down cabs on foot to try to secure us another ride. When he finally found a taker, I tried to pay him for taking us part of the way home, but he refused.
"When you come home [we had chatted about my family roots]," he said, "we've gotta take care of you."
It was close to 3 a.m. and we were drowsy from the greasy food, but we were jolted awake several times during the ride by our lurching vehicle.
"Geez, this guy really can't drive stick," I remarked to Epstein.
I don't like being confrontational, so instead of speaking up I usually just try to give people a Look. Except I couldn't catch the cabbie's eyes in the rearview mirror. Because they were closed.
For some reason, neither Epstein and I had the presence of mind to say something to our driver at that point; so for the rest of the ride we nervously sat in the backseat and watched our lives flash before our eyes as our driver weaved toward the guardrails.
Somehow we made it home in one piece. I can only hope the same for Sleepy, our cabbie. --
BEIJING -- If you want to understand the fervor for hoops in China, one option is to attend an Olympic basketball game. Or you can do what SI's
For just 15 yuan (a little more than two bucks), you can run for as long as you want in Beijing's answer to Rucker Park: five pristine two-color courts featuring goals with square glass backboards and breakaway rims. Unlike the Rucker there's no emcee (not yet, at least), but there is a thriving hoops culture that includes plenty of NBA jerseys, ankle-breaking guards and a few guys with serious hops (though, regrettably, no Mandarin trash-talk).
Ten half-court games were being played by the time we arrived, so Alex and I called "next" at one of the 3-on-3 games and picked up a teammate in
Pickup basketball in China has a few odd customs: players don't check the ball before starting play, and after the ball goes out of bounds the action resumes from the baseline, not the top of the key. For some reason games were also played to four. ("When in Rome..." Alex said.)
Otherwise we might as well have been playing in Manhattan. One short kid in checkerboard Vans started taking us apart on the dribble to the point that I dubbed him "Little Iverson." And though I was able to use my long arms for a couple blocked shots, the guy I was guarding hit a few buckets in my face with textbook jump-shot form.
Thanks to some timely outside shooting by Alex and Bing from Nanjing (and one dynamite half-hook by yours truly) we kept the court for four games. But eventually Alex and I showed our lack of conditioning and wilted in the noontime sun.
At least that's my excuse for getting smoked in the last game. No lie: these guys can play.
BEIJING, SHUNYI, MING TOMB RESERVOIR -- When you're a utility player on the SI Olympic team, you end up visiting quite a few of the 31 competition venues in the Beijing Games. It's interesting to see how common features vary from venue to venue.
After staking out a work area in the press room, follow the signs to the press tribune, the reserved section for media to observe the competition. There are tabled areas, which allow you to observe the contests more closely on the closed-circuit televisions sitting on the tables, and non-tabled seating areas at every venue.
Before competition ends, take note of where the mixed zone is. This is where the athletes file out immediately following their events, and your first opportunity to get your questions in. Although some mixed zones don't always draw a huge crowd, it never hurts to get there early and check your personal space issues at the door. Also, for the sake of everyone else, please don't forget to shower beforehand.
If you didn't get a chance to ask all/any of your questions in the mixed zone, medalists conduct a press conference immediately following the victory ceremony. Interpreters are usually on hand for each of the medalists' native tongues, and the opportunity to listen to journalists from other countries do their work is one of the beautiful idiosyncrasies of covering the Olympics. Sure, you may never have to use that 10-minute response from the Turkish weightlifter, but it's all about the
Finally, if you just need to take a break, visit the media lounge at every venue, where Ritz crackers, Oreo cookies and moon cakes are always in stock. Pretty ladies in formal outfits (either flight-attendant type skirt suits or even silk "qipaos") artfully arrange the snacks on trays, and even push the button on the coffee machine for you (perhaps not trusting that you can successfully avoid scalding yourself and causing an international incident). If you're lucky, your machine will have options for cappuccino, mocha and hot chocolate as well.
Most media lounges are fairly simple break rooms, but they all feature flat-screen TVs so you can track all the competitions. The best lounge is 33 kilometers north of Beijing at the triathlon venue, which is converted from an old water park. The triathlon's lounge is an open-air series of Ming dynasty gazebos connected by stony paths. It still serves the same bananas and moon cakes, though.
BEIJING -- Eight gold medals by
After winning China's eighth gold today, women's table tennis coach
Today, we tracked a day in the Olympic life of China, from the Shunyi rowing facility where China won its first Olympic gold in the sport; to shooting, where a mistake by, whoops, an American, pushed
And that's just one day. Still to come this week for China: men's basketball, where China has advanced to the quarterfinals; the table tennis singles events, which should net a glut of medals for the home team; and the marquee event of the Games, the men's 110-meter hurdles, featuring 2004 Athens gold medalist
SHANGHAI -- Unshowered, unshaved and smelling like a mix of stale sweat, post-deadline Tsingtaos and the giant bowl of noodle soup I'd devoured at 1 a.m., I arrived at Hongqiao airport wondering if I'd make my flight back to Beijing after oversleeping my alarm clock on Saturday morning.
Haggard journalists are the (literally) unwashed masses this deep into the Olympics, and for one morning, at least, I was neck-and-neck with the Bulgarians on the Stench Scale. When my cab pulled up to the departure terminal I fully expected to 1) miss my 8:15 a.m. flight, and 2) get a stern lecture in Mandarin from the gate agent on my punctuality, to say nothing of my hygiene.
But I forgot one thing: I had The Golden Ticket.
Thanks to the official yellow Olympic credential hanging around my neck, I got the sort of welcome from Shanghai Airlines that would make a maharajah feel self-conscious. First a lovely young gate agent grabbed my bag and escorted me to the front of a long check-in line.
Then the gate agent took me past 60 people to the head of the first-class security line
But maybe none of it should have been surprising. When I landed at the same airport a day earlier, another young host had whisked me off the jetbridge and competed with two of her colleagues to see who could be the first to pull my luggage off the baggage-claim belt. When she lost out it looked like she wanted to cry.
Or maybe it was just the way I smelled that caused that reaction. Next time I'll do her the honor of taking a shower beforehand.
BEIJING -- Oh, the things that go on inside Olympic arenas. Friday night at the highly-anticipated women's volleyball match between the United States and China, the announcer took pains to announce in Mandarin -- but not in English -- that booing the athletes was inappropriate behavior at a sporting event. Fair enough. (P. S. Didn't work; when the score got close, the highly pro-Chinese crowd booed anyway. And that didn't work; the U.S. won the match.)
But turning politically-charged patriotic songs into popular sing-along songs? No problem. Techno music at sports events is nothing new, but how about techno versions of Young Pioneers songs with lyrics like "The five-star red flag flutters in the wind, the sound of victory resonates, a song to our dear Motherland ... "?
Who said these Games weren't political?
"Ugh, I haven't heard that song in years!" wrote one on a Chinese-language online message board. Another Chinese allowed that the song has gone through many iterations of lyrics over the years (including some that make fun of the original). Still, she said, the version she learned in first grade was definitely on the political side, and singing it in an Olympic venue didn't seem like the best choice for a Games that the hosts have insisted has nothing to do with politics.
Maybe it was just all about giving the competing teams some familiar music to play to, and the spectators something to cheer. Bare-midriffed pompom girls cheered in that familiar American-collegiate way during the U.S.-China volleyball game too, and danced to thoroughly unpolitical techno dance numbers of their own. And what music was played as entertainment during the U.S.-Greece men's basketball game? Zorba the Greek, of course.
BEIJING -- Blue skies over Beijing today. No lie. It's the
"With powder white clouds in the blue skies, the most picturesque weather of the Games greeted competitors as the athletics began at the National Stadium," wrote
The International Olympic Committee's medical commission chairman,
BEIJING -- Despite the recent revelations of several Spanish teams making bafflingly politically incorrect caricatures of their hosts, Chinese fans seemed to bear no grudges during the Spanish women's basketball team's preliminary round game against the U.S. (Granted, the women's hoops players weren't among the athletes photographed tugging on their eyes.) In one corner of the stands, up at the very top, a large group of fans banged inflatable boom sticks together in rhythm to a coordinated cheer.
Since Beijing crowds have been nothing but supportive of all competitors during these Games, it was hard at first to tell which side they were more pulling for, until I caught wind of what they were yelling:
Or are these gestures simply not as big a deal to the Chinese-in-China as they are to people (of any ethnicity) in countries like the U.S. and Great Britain, where populations are much more racially diverse and therefore more sensitive to and aware of historically racist signifiers like the slant-eyed gesture? --
BEIJING -- On Wednesday,
It also gave Jingwen and me the opportunity to change out of our grubby fieldwear and into actual dresses, which turned out to be only sort-of appropriate, as we were surrounded by men, women and children in varying types of attire, from full formal
My prejudice was unwarranted, however. The most devoted opera fan sitting nearest us happened to be a Buddha-bellied gentleman in aforementioned suspicious undershirt, whose knee-slapping and enthusiastic clapping indicated he was more into the music than I was.
(Jingwen was distracted by the presence of microphones to amplify the sound of the orchestra and the singers' voices, which she said the Metropolitan Opera in New York never uses. My inexpert ear didn't detect any difference in sound quality until the speaker in front of us began to pop.)
Judging by the cheers and applause, the crowd appreciated and recognized the Italian classics performed by Mexico's
The biggest audience response came when Licitra sang a traditional
Clearly, whether in Italian or Chinese, music is the universal language.
The official Olympic rules make it clear: There is to be no scalping of tickets at these Olympic Games. And it's a sellout, too, say organizers. So if you don't have your ticket and nobody wants to sell you one at face value, you're sunk. Got that?
Good. Now make your way to Scalpers Row, a.k.a. the stretch of sidewalk along Beichen West Street that starts at Beijing's northern central fourth ring road, just west of the Water Cube. For perhaps a quarter-mile walking north, parallel to the Olympic Green but outside its gates, you'll find all manner of tickets being sold by China's scalping set. In Chinese scalpers are known as the
The going rate for afternoon session volleyball tickets, face value 80 renminbi (RMB), just over US$11.50, was 500 RMB ($72.85). A track and field ticket with a face value of 800 RMB was going for 3,000, according to my would-be Chinese seller. Because this was a Chinese guy talking to an American woman in English, though, the first price was probably higher than the tickets would actually sell for. If I'd pulled out my Mandarin on him, the price would have gotten lower pretty quickly; the general rule of thumb in this town is that foreigners are asked to pay about three times the actual cost of anything negotiable, but that heavy negotiating will usually get the price down to a reasonable level.
There's not a lot that's reasonable, though, about BOCOG claiming not to have knowledge of Scalpers Row when the tickets are being flashed in midair, with police standing right there, in the middle of it all, doing nothing. It's a shame because some venues (not all) do have a lot of empty seats, and it looks as if scalpers have taken over from legitimate ticket vendors as the only way for foreigners to buy tickets at these Games. Add that to the frustration some national teams have felt at the low number of tickets offered to family members of Olympians and the ticket scandal in the U.S., where at least two firms were selling bogus Olympic tickets online, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars each, and you've got to think there's a better way to put people in seats at an Olympics.
Until then, bring on the yellow cows.
Here, Mel surveys the scene at The Great Wall:
BEIJING -- On a night of stunning matchups at the Beijing Olympics -- Japan-Cuba in baseball and China-Brazil in men's soccer -- it was arguably a nearly meaningless match in pool play in the women's Olympic volleyball tournament that generated the most electricity.
China faced Cuba on Wednesday in Pool A at Capital Indoor Stadium. Both teams are guaranteed entry into the eight-team elimination round because of their won-loss record so far in the tournament, so consider this match more a scouting report than a decisive statement.
But don't tell that to the sellout crowd that started chanting
These aren't just any two teams, of course. China's the reigning Olympic champion; Cuba won the three Olympics before that. China is competing in its home country; Cuba is fighting to improve on its bronze-medal showing in Athens. China's fans are so rabid you'd think anyone with a Cuban passport was turned away at the door; Cuba's coach,
In the U.S., indoor volleyball is considered a "minor sport," one of those quaint ball games that generates next to no media, next to no money and peaks at the NCAA level. The national team is all but unknown. Its sexy cousin, beach volleyball, gets all the press and all the cash. But in China,
That's right. In China, you can have a volleyball version of Yao Ming.
The night started out a cakewalk and ended up a gauntlet. Team China looked like it would dispatch of Cuba handily after winning the first two sets in 40 minutes. The momentum was still on China's side early in the third; it led by as many as five points before Cuba got back to even at 15-all. China wouldn't lead again in the set.
The fourth was the true battle; stunning hitting by
From there, the advantage was Cuba's, and the decisive fifth set was over in just 15 minutes. The whole way through, the crowd was popping. Cheerleaders tossed pompoms and the walls shook with cheers. After it was all over, the crowd applauded both teams.
Was this a preview of the Olympic final or just one hell of a night of women's volleyball? Either way, I floated out of the arena, thrilled that these two teams played to such a high level so early in the tournament and that the fans here are knowledgeable enough to appreciate it.
Minor sport, you say? The Chinese fans would laugh at you. More seats for them.
BEIJING -- When
Boldon talked with a group of writers Wednesday afternoon in Beijing after a press conference with USA track athletes. The questioning quickly turned to Saturday night's 100-meter final.
Asked if he thinks
On world record-holder
"Dennis said you tend to panic more when you've been there before,'' said Boldon. "That rang true for me. When something goes wrong, you go, 'Uh-oh, not this again.' Therein lies the disadvantage of somebody like
Boldon does expect Powell to get out fast, but for Bolt to run him down. But if Bolt gets a great start, like he did in his world record race on May 31 in New York? "Forget about it,'' says Boldon. "You guys can put down your pens. Everyone is intrigued because it's the 100 meters and they're all beaten each other. But if Bolt gets the start he got in New York, it's over.
Boldon also does not expect Chinese hero
BEIJING -- Fresh from his appearance in the opening ceremonies, 26-year-old piano prodigy
Lang is one of the international Chinese superstars that the Beijing Olympics organizers have called on to promote the Games. His flashy style-spiky hair, flamboyant playing and even his own
It's not the 1909 T206
BEIJING -- Strange scene in front of the Main Press Center today. The world's media was greeted by a 20-foot Chinese armored vehicle as they entered the facility. Certainly, Beijing's preoccupation with security has heightened in the last days, though many ambled into the press center barely batting an eye. Some journalists even posed in front of the tank, no doubt keeping in the Olympic spirit of peace and harmony. The vehicle sat idle in front of the media security check station, with soldiers sitting stiffly in both the front and back of the vehicle.
"That's the decision made by the relevant authorities," said Beijing Games Executive Vice President
BEIJING -- What were they thinking? It's a question that crops up all too often when it comes to Spanish sports and racial sensitivity. And now the Spanish basketball team, the reigning world champions, have added another confounding chapter to a disgraceful timeline. In a full-page ad in Spain's best-selling newspaper, the sports daily
The advertisement was for a courier service that sponsors the Spanish Basketball Federation, and apparently not a single player on the Spanish team thought that a slant-eyed gesture might not be the best image to project to the Olympic hosts.
In 2004, Spanish national soccer coach
So one incident deserves a slap on the wrist, some serious discussion, and perhaps sensitivity training, but how about three that are so egregious they draw the world's ire? You would think that Spanish team members and Lakers forward
BEIJING -- On Monday morning, I hopped into a cab bound for InterContinental Hotel in Beijing's financial district, where the U.S. men's and women's basketball teams are holed up during the Games. A crew from the men's team was taking a sightseeing trip to the Great Wall, and officials invited a few media members along for the ride. Buses were leaving at 9 a.m. sharp, and I was stuck in some rush-hour traffic.
I made it on time. The U.S.-China men's game tipped off after 10 the previous night, so most players chose a few extra winks over the field trip. Only
Once there -- it's about a 90-minute ride from downtown Beijing -- the crowd gave Bosh and Prince their space. Sure, a few folks snapped pictures and asked for autographs, but this wasn't
I didn't realize that you had to take a ski lift to the Wall. I'm absolutely terrified of heights, and my palms started to sweat. I piled into the lift with Prince, his wife
Of course, the Wall was breathtaking. It rained on the way up, and the sky was overcast. But you could still take in the views. You get a workout walking the Wall, too. In the distance was a portion of the Wall that seemed to rise into the sky. We didn't have time to hike it though; I'll have to make it back one day.
The most surprising part of the trip was the toboggan. It turns out you can slide down the mountain on a quasi-bobsled track, and even pick up some pretty decent speed. The heights wouldn't bother me here, since the track was attached to the ground. It was nearing 2 p.m., our departure time, when I got in line. Again, Coach K wouldn't mind deserting me at the Wall. I breathed a bit easier when I spotted two of his Duke assistant coaches,
The slide was a bit disappointing. A kid four sleds ahead kept getting stuck, slowing traffic. I never really picked up full speed. Bummer.
There you go again with the complaining. Shut up: you just got to see the Great Wall. --
BEIJING -- It's one of the cardinal rules in American sports journalism: There's no cheering in the press box. But if you spend any time covering international soccer, you'll quickly learn the cardinal rules of one country don't always extend to our colleagues overseas.
Case in point: The Nigerian journo who sat in front of me during Sunday's Japan-Nigeria soccer game in Tianjin. After the Super Eagles took a 1-0 lead, he pulled out a green-and-white Nigeria flag and started waving it like an African matador at the rest of us.
It brought back memories of my first World Cup in 1998. After Nigeria had upset Spain 3-2 in Nantes, the Nigerian journalists turned the postgame press conference into a dance fiesta, celebrating so much that Spanish coach
Of course, that rampant fandom cuts both ways, and when a team
Siasia responded with the weariness of a man who is used to this sort of thing. "Well, you're not the coach," he said. "I am."
If that's how the Nigerian press corps responds when the Super Eagles win, I can't wait to see what could happen if they're eliminated by the U.S. in Beijing on Wednesday.
BEIJING -- Stuck in Beijing without a ticket to see
Well, here's an excursion you can't duplicate anywhere else. Hop in a taxi and ask them to take you to the Panjiayuan Market, the largest flea market in Asia, also known as the Dirt or Ghost Market. (No one's exactly sure why it's the Ghost Market. One theory is that on weekends people start ghosting in at 4:30 a.m. in order to get first pick of the goods, most of which have been brought in from outlying towns and provinces.) The market is located in the Chaoyang District on the west side of the Panjiayuan Bridge in a huge, walled, open-air square measuring some 48,500 square meters.
Therein you will find some 3,000 stalls and shops manned by 10,000 vendors whose wares spill out onto the sidewalks: Antiques, crafts, jewelry and collectibles you won't find in any department store. A partial list of what caught my eye: Violins, jade flutes, swords, a ceramic bust of
Be prepared to bargain. Hard. The fact that you look like an American tourist, I was told, at least triples or quadruples the asking price, which may still seem reasonable. But failure to bargain is to miss out on the fun. Start with a counter offer about one-third of the asking price and go from there. They won't speak English, so be inventive. One vendor and I did a hard negotiation on the keypad of his cellphone. They'll come down, you'll go up, and everyone will go home happy. On a weekday morning, when I went, it's pleasantly uncrowded, but many of the booths were empty. On weekends, the market's reputed to be chaos.
Afterwards, I felt the need for some comfort food in a comfortable atmosphere where I could watch the Games on a flat screen, so I took another cab to Frank's Place, the oldest sports bar in Beijing. Located in the Lidu area opposite the Rosedale Hotel, Frank's Place has eight big screens strategically placed so there's no such thing as an obstructed view seat. Offering a huge selection of cold beers, draft and bottled, and good, simple fare (burgers, German-styled bratwurst and kraut, English fish and chips, meatloaf, sheperd's pie, ribs, lasagne, an all-day breakfast, meatballs, etc.), cooled by a breeze wafting through the open-wall windows, Frank's was a welcome oasis away from the Olympic madness just a few kilometers away. I was one of a dozen customers there for lunch. No doubt at night Frank's sees its own share of madness, but all the reviews I read report it's a dependably friendly and comfortable place where expats congregate after work. Just the spot for some Phelps watching.
But not as cool as the swimmer I saw two races before Phelps' heat.
"I think the blue skies will come, especially after today's rain. I've got my fingers crossed," said
BEIJING -- I overheard someone saying that Friday night's Opening Ceremonies cost $350 million. Impossible, I thought -- until I watched them unspool, and began gradually to realize how very possible that might be.
Guess they didn't need
Got a good sense for what stories get play in the state-run Chinese media, too: There were supportive cheers for the Iraqi delegation, and ho-hum silence when Sudan marched in.
Not sure why so many heads of state like to deploy that thumbs-up,
And what's up with
Cheerleading with North Philadelphia characteristics: Those cheerleaders girdling the infield during the parade of athletes clapped and swayed for more than 2½ hours on an insanely hot and humid night. Had me thinking of the
A columnist in a local English-language magazine,
As opposed to pleasant vomiting, apparently. But I digress: The columnist has no patience for English puns on Chinese, especially "on the interrogatives 'who' or 'when' and the family names of the Chinese president and premier, respectively. I know you're thinking, 'Hu knows Wen I'll get another chance like this?' and I feel for you, but just resist it, O.K.?"
But I couldn't. A four-hour Ceremony is an invitation to bilingual mischief. The first bit occurred during the "Starlight" portion of the evening, when a few of the twinkle lights on the performers' green jump suits suffered wardrobe malfunctions, and the phrase "Hu's Crying Now" flashed across the brain.
Later in the Games, as
Counterbalanced of course by volleyballer
So, with a tip of the hat to sometime SI contributor
If any of these stories develop over the next 17 days, I invite the English-language press,
Catching some filamentous algae off the coast of Qingdao, windsurfer can do no better than bronze
Promising young judokas await retirement of Chinese women's champion so they might move up in team pecking order
Chinese security agents use bribes to infiltrate East Turkmen terror cell
After bagging a doubles medal in women's badminton, Chinese pair head to Houhai District to celebrate
Beijing International School redoubles efforts to teach Chinese to expat kids
New Jersey Net agrees with coach's plea that he concentrate more on passing
After missing out on a medal, champion quits diving and sets sights on Math Olympiad
After bagging a medal in the men's trampoline, gymnast stays up to meet deadline to enter etchings in Cultural Olympiad
As I said, it was a long four hours.
BEIJING -- It was neither Beatlemania nor a Red Guard protest. Instead, the scene outside our hotel early Friday evening was one that could only have taken place in Beijing on eight-oh-eight-oh-eight:
As our media shuttle approached the entrance to the Foreign Experts Building (
(I'm surprised that a group of people bearing the yellow stars and crimson backdrop of the Chinese flag often still instinctually connotes, in my mind, images of political propaganda. I have to remind myself that a face-painted heart or a flag-inspired temporary tattoo can mean the same thing here as it does in Brazil, Italy or the U.S.: patriotism borne from sheer fannish enthusiasm, no militant overtones involved.)
It turns out this dedicated crowd was simply trying to make its way as close to the Olympic Green as possible (the F.E.B. is about a 20-minute walk away) to view the opening ceremony, but was being stymied by pedestrian traffic control that had halted onward progress just outside our hotel gate. Despite the stifling humidity (the warmest of my four days in China so far), the throng was relatively patient and upbeat, their collective excitement over the finally-here Games overriding most physical discomfort.
Zhang, a publicist ("We feed off the scraps of you journalists" -- I believe it is the other way around, my friend), had gotten the day off from work and, like everyone else in the mob, had been migrating toward the Olympic Green live viewing site since early afternoon.
"Those of us who don't have tickets are just trying to get as close to the action as possible," Zhang said, dabbing at his face with a soggy tissue. It didn't seem to work; fresh beads of perspiration immediately sprang forth all over his nose and forehead.
The hotel attendants dutifully forming a barrier between Zhang and me remained silent, but I could see the barely contained awe and amusement in their youthful faces. Everyone, from the opening ceremony pilgrims to the police to the nearby residents unsuccessfully trying to take their usual shortcut home, understood the logistical necessities of this remarkable situation.
And after the crowd was finally herded back across the Badaling Expressway, members of the uniformed hotel staff, temporarily dropping their professional detachment, ran out into the street to take pictures of one another in front of the unusual scene that had taken place outside their work.
As he was shepherded away, Zhang pleaded with the attendants: "Please, I have to use the restroom. How am I supposed to use the restroom?"
BEIJING -- This bad boy that you see in the picture to the right is the CRH (China Railway High-speed) train No. C2032 that I took on Friday afternoon from Tianjin to Beijing after covering the U.S. men's soccer team's victory over Japan on Thursday night.
The CRH may look like your ordinary European TGV or ICE high-speed train, but it's not, as I quickly learned after taking my $9 second-class seat. We steamed out of Tianjin's futuristic new train station and kept accelerating ... and accelerating ... and accelerating.
A helpful electronic sign in my car kept us on top of the pertinent numbers:
Then two minutes later:
Until finally it read:
I did the math in my notebook. We had hit 217 miles per hour. Indy Car speed. Inside, though, it was remarkably quiet. Government-paid train attendants wheeled through the aisles passing out bottles of mineral water with the name "Tibet Spring" (which presumably doesn't carry the same meaning as, say, "Prague Spring").
And then, before I could even relax in my seat, we arrived at the majestic Beijing South railway station, which is so new that it still smells like sawdust.
I called SI photographer
"Bob, how long did it take you to drive?"
"A little over an hour-and-a-half."
The train had made the trip in exactly 31 minutes.
NEW YORK -- While a vast majority of Americans won't see any opening ceremonies footage from the Beijing Olympics until tonight, several hundred students, teachers and community members congregated early Friday morning in an auditorium on the campus of Columbia University to watch the Games get underway -- by any means necessary.
They showed up before 7 a.m. local time, wearing Olympic T-shirts and waving Chinese flags, creating a festive atmosphere despite the unusual time of day.
"It was everybody's idea," said
Organizers logged on to a streaming broadcast from CCTV1 -- China Central Television's national network -- and fed the video onto a large screen before a packed audience in the Schapiro Engineering Center. While viewers in the U.S. were blocked from viewing the footage on non-NBC sites, the CUCSSA circumvented the blockade by using a proxy server located in China, essentially tricking the streaming server into thinking the computer was stationed in a country where the broadcast would be permitted.
Zhang wasn't worried about NBC officials raiding the auditorium early Friday morning. "The Internet is open to everybody," Zhang said. "It wasn't hard to find."
Many observers have attributed a perceived deterioration of the Olympic spirit to the rampant commercialism surrounding the event. (NBC Universal announced on Thursday that it has reaped more than $1 billion in advertising revenue for the Beijing Olympics.) But none of this criticism hit home personally until last week, upon my realization that the opening ceremonies would be broadcast on a 12-hour tape delay in the U.S. to accommodate a prime time audience -- and attract the more lucrative advertising dollars.
Isn't the point of the opening ceremonies to bring the world together in a simultaneous human collective experience? Doesn't the torch lighting lose a bit of dramatic impact when you know it happened a half a day ago?
Upon further reflection, I'm surprised I was surprised. You can't blame NBC for getting the best possible return on their $894 million investment. It's just unfortunate. We've heard so much about the network's projected 3,600 hours of coverage across seven channels and NBCOlympics.com -- by far the most ambitious broadcast plan for any sporting event in history. In an age where such a daunting undertaking is feasible, it's underwhelming to watch an event like the opening ceremonies on a 12-hour delay.
But observing the scene early Friday morning in Morningside Heights, it became clear that the Olympic spirit doing just fine. And no network embargo would be airtight enough for Chinese-Americans determined to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with their homeland.
As the auditorium filled to capacity during the hour leading up to the 8:08 a.m. start time, Chinese-language commercials for Red Bull, Sinotec and Coca-Cola crossed the screen while onlookers chatted away. One particularly amusing
The quality of the picture was quite good considering the size of the screen. Perhaps not the pristine high-definition picture NBC will beam into American homes tonight. But at least it was live.
Friday morning's screening was so popular that Zhang was forced to turn people away throughout the morning, directing latecomers to a second viewing room in the nearby philosophy building.
When the house lights went down and the ceremony got underway, the entire room stood (and sang) for the Chinese national anthem.
At 8:20 a.m., about 12 minutes into the ceremony, the stream started to get choppy and eventually crashed. After some frantic jimmy-rigging the organizers got the video back up and running seven minutes later: When four puppeteers on a gigantic moving platform suddenly appeared on the screen, cheers from the audience replaced the nervous chatter.
The various segments of the ceremony detailed 5,000 years of Chinese history using a cast of approximately 15,000 performers, celebrating everything from calligraphy to space exploration. The crowd erupted into applause when a giant blue orb sprung through the ground with gravity-defying acrobats circling in orbit.
"It was showing the world our history from very ancient events up until now," said
A brief shot of
When famed soprano vocalist
"It was a symbol of peace and represents the wants for all people in the world," Yu said. "It was really fantastic for all Chinese people, especially in 2008, when we suffered from terrible things, with natural disasters and political things."
Yu is looking forward to watching the table tennis, badminton and swimming events. He's also excited for Sunday's men's basketball tournament opener between China and the U.S., even though the Americans are considered prohibitive favorites.
"If you win or lose is not most important in the Olympic Games," Yu said. "What is important is people coming together."
BEIJING --One of my favorite experiences covering the Athens Games was a trip to the "International Zone" of the Olympic Village, the place where athletes from all over the world gather to eat, shop, ship packages, or get a buzz cut. I'm one of those guys who watches All-Star games to see all the different uniform colors mix, so imagine my delight seeing Cuban blue, Russian red and South African green and gold. While Athens was a bit of a bust bowl, Beijing's digs have trees, manicured shrubs, and garden paths. Say what you want about the air here but the village grounds are clean and green.
BEIJING --Earlier this week I attended a banquet hosted by SI China, which is
Sorry, but I've got dogs on the brain. I was seated at a table with a dozen or so locals from Beijing, one of whom spoke excellent English and served as table translator. The U.S. Cycling team served as the launching point for the evening, and they were roundly mocked by the locals for getting off the plane at the Beijing Airport wearing surgical masks. I admit it wasn't their finest diplomatic hour, but the truth is the air here has a gunmetal sheen that burns the eyes and an acrid flavor that tickles the lungs. I had no desire to offend my hosts, but when I was directly asked if the air quality in New York was any better, I opined that New York smelled like Switzerland compared to Beijing. When my hosts looked at me skeptically, I softened the criticism, adding that Beijing's air quality compared favorably to Elizabeth, New Jersey's, circa 1973. That seemed to satisfy them. At the very least it confounded them enough to change the subject.
(A confession: I'll never be a diplomat. I learned this only while reading my new favorite paper,
Wear out all ... offend none ... Genius!
Food started to come, arriving in great platters. Wine followed. It was a 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon with which I was unfamiliar: Great Wall Red. The first sip was something less than ethereal, but I soon became accustomed to its taste and revisited my glass often. Usually it was to wash down some strange bit of meat my friends kept spinning in my direction. The boiled chicken that was delivered in bite-sized pieces included the poor fowl's entire head. It looked exactly like the head of the rooster on the Kellogg's Corn Flakes box, with its small boiled beak and raspberry-red crest. No one ate this delicacy, so the chicken's head kept spinning around the table, eyeballing me. It reminded me of the time I watched a cockfight in Thailand. One rooster lost, but was still quite alive when his owner snatched him up. I asked the man what he'd do with the rooster when he got home, expecting him to describe some home-styled veterinary procedure.
"Soup!" he said.
The story got a lot of laughs from my new friends, which emboldened me to bring up an editorial I'd read that morning in
"Oh no," she answered with a convincing frown. "I've got a lab and a golden retriever. I could never eat dog."
"You keep dogs in Beijing? Don't you worry about them?"
She laughed. "Lots of people have dogs in Beijing, more every year. They're safe. It's in the country you have to worry."
According to Lilly, in rural areas of China, come the fall and winter, you'd better hang onto your leashes and keep close eye on your pets. Then she related the story of the family in a housing complex who returned from an evening out to find their Rottweiler gone and blood all over the floor. Never saw it again, though they successfully sued their neighbors and got some sort of settlement. Even in America, land of the lawsuit, I'd never heard of someone successfully suing his neighbor for eating his dog.
BEIJING -- Photographers screamed, girls squealed, but
The 12-time Grand Slam singles winner, who will play Russia's
"If I want No. 1 back, I have to play rock solid, and that means winning many tournaments," Federer said. "The last couple of weeks I lost matches I should not have."
Plenty of tennis players give lip service to the Olympics -- a bonanza to market their brand globally -- but Federer's lust for gold seems genuine. As a boy, he watched countrymate
"[Winning] would mean as much to me as a Wimbledon victory," Federer said.
Someone asked Federer to compare his Olympic experience eight years ago in Sydney (where he met his girlfriend,
"Well, we've been together for eight years," Federer said, smiling. "The flag was only for 10 minutes. So I'll pick 2000 as better."
BEIJING -- A 20-minute cab ride away from the monolith city-within-a-city that is the Main Press Center lies an oasis of metropolitan greenery known as Chaoyang Park, or "Rising Sun" Park. Orange dragonflies buzz about and white poplars sway in the breeze, which wafts in occasionally even in the 92-degree, muggy heat.
Within the park, Speedo has commandeered the Jintai Art Museum and installed a curious exhibit of swimsuits through the ages. Spread out through the circular upper level of the gallery is an array of Speedo-sponsored athletes, each entertaining questions from a select group of reporters, while marquee names
"It was something I'd seen in pictures everywhere and it was great to actually be there," said Finchum, 19. "Then to
BEIJING -- So it's not Kress or the Villa in Hollywood, but one of the hottest spots in town is Team USA's High Performance Training Center at Beijing Normal University, a facility about 20 minutes of a looping cab ride away from the Water Cube (the Games' swimming venue). It's as close to a red velvet rope as you can get for the polo-and-khakis set, with an escort to a security screening checkpoint and an awaiting shuttle to take you two minutes around the corner to another complex. That's followed by a third greeter to lead you to that most American of sights -- a multihued 24 Hour Fitness gym replete with elliptical and resistance machines.
Beach volleyball star
After a 20-minute delay (Coach K explained that the men's team just got into town from Shanghai and they all wanted to go to the Olympic Village), during which a karaoke version of
BEIJING -- Imagine you are riding the Boston subway to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game, and on the train's video screens portray the basics of baseball, educating spectators on the rules and fundamentals of the game so that they might better enjoy their experience. And this is an entirely visual experience, soundless so as not to fight the inherent rattling and screeching.
This is what I was thinking on Wednesday morning as I rode the crazy-crowded Beijing subway system to visit Tiananmen Square (figuring once the Games begin I might not get another chance). The cars were outfitted with wall-mounted video screens explaining the basics of Olympic sports. On my trip, I got lessons in soccer (which I didn't need, although they did a nice job with offside) and table tennis (which I did).
That experience was not nearly as strange as what took place in Tiananmen Square itself. As I was standing with a small group of
That, or she mistook me for
BEIJING -- After a half-dozen trips to Beijing, I've come to mark each visit by how I sweated off jet lag upon arrival. A pattern emerges, and it tells the tale of a city transformed in less than two decades. Transformed -- and disfigured.
In 1990, I rented a black Flying Pigeon bicycle from the bellhop at my hotel and, slipping into the school of similarly creaky one-speeds, sailed past the Gate of Heavenly Peace and into the city's backstreets. In the capital of a country only just thrown open by
A dozen years later, I could swing by the basketball courts of Dongdan to play pick-up with guys who had as keen a sense of streetball style as any of their Stateside counterparts. I'm not the least bit surprised to learn that, today,
And this week? After a glance outside at the traffic and the haze, I confined myself to the treadmill in the hotel fitness center.
I checked into that hotel, by the way, with an acute sense of false pretenses, for it's called the Foreign Experts Hotel. Generic names are all the rage in
Even from that adjacent Fourth Ring Road, the signature latticework of the adjacent National Stadium, a.k.a. the Bird's Nest, remained shrouded yesterday morning by the soupy air. In clearer, nearer focus was the not-yet-completely-occupied skyscraper informally called "the Torch Building." Its nickname comes from the architectural pompadour on top, but every bit as arresting are the huge Jumbotron screens that loop Olympic-themed video shorts and are likely to cause traffic accidents.
This northern fringe of the city, home to the main cluster of venues and the Olympic Green, is new Beijing. Old Beijing, with its walled courtyard homes and communal living, is vanishing. World-weary Beijingers joke that
A visitor, upon hearing that the air here can reach four times the level of particulate concentration considered safe, might be moved to wonder if the local fans' idiom for "Let's go!" isn't ill-chosen. It translates literally to "Add oil!"
I understand that it's not the place for a Westerner to begrudge another nation simply because it has come to progress and creature comforts later than mine did. But if there's a melancholy tone to dispatches like this one -- a report that, a couple of days before the opening ceremony, organizers surely hoped would be more anticipatory and celebratory -- it's because I remember Beijing when it was a regal place with a lollygagging pace that wore its past proudly.
How to placate spoilsports in the press like me? Blocking access to Web sites, as organizers have done at the Main Press Center, is not a good start.
Better to put us up in the Foreign Experts Hotel, in the hope that flattery will get you somewhere.
QINHUANGDAO, China -- It took me just two hours to cover the 200 miles east from Beijing to this coastal city where the United States meets Norway in the Olympic women's soccer opener on Wednesday. The high-speed train was a model of efficiency, comfort and service, and it left me wondering why we can't get the Chinese to come fix Amtrak.
But then it took the same two hours to cover the three blocks from the Qinhuangdao train station to my hotel, and somewhere along the way I think my head exploded.
The Chinese are so eager to please their Olympic guests that they're killing us with kindness. And I'm so eager
Everything was looking good when I arrived at the train station here just after 9 a.m. with
9:10 a.m.: Smiling local organizers welcome us into an air-conditioned waiting room and promise that a shuttle bus to take us to our hotel will arrive soon.
9:10-10 a.m.: We wait patiently while being entertained by the absurdly cute
10 a.m.: Losing my patience but still smiling, I get one of the local organizers to write down the name and address of our hotel in Mandarin so that we can take one of the many taxis waiting outside the door.
10:01 a.m.: The smiling local organizer realizes we're making a break for it and shoos us back to our seats. "No no no!" she says. "Take it easy! The bus is almost here!"
10:19 a.m.: Not quite. The bus isn't here yet.
10:20 a.m.: A gigantic tour bus arrives for the seven of us. We pile on. The digital clock inside reads 4:39 p.m., a nice symbol for the odyssey that's unfolding.
10:30 a.m.: We're finally moving! And there's our hotel just three blocks from the train station! Boy, it would have been nice if one of the organizers had told us the official media hotel was only a five-minute walk away!
10:31 a.m.: The bus doesn't stop at the media hotel. Why not? Who knows? We drive 10 minutes to another hotel to drop off some of the U.S. team's family members who are with us.
10:40 a.m.: The official Olympic bus driver is lost. An unplanned tour of Qinhuangdao commences.
10:50 a.m.: The driver turns the bus around and eventually drops off another group of passengers at a third hotel.
10:50-11:05 a.m.: Finally, we're about to head to our hotel! But wait: The bus driver and smiling local organizer are still in the lobby of the previous hotel! What's going on? The smiling local organizer returns to tell us that he and the bus driver are going to go up into the hotel and inspect the quality of the room so that their guests will be happy.
11:06 a.m.: I finally lose it. Ugly American time, baby! Michael and I storm off the bus with our bags, hail a cab and show the driver the name and address of our hotel.
11:10 a.m.: Two hours after arriving at the train station, we pull into the driveway of our hotel -- just three blocks from where we started.
11:30 a.m.: I stagger into my hotel room and swallow a small pharmacy's worth of Advil.
11: 35 a.m.: A smiling hotel greeter knocks on my door and presents me with a lovely fruit basket. "Welcome to Qinhuangdao!" she says.
11:40 a.m.: The smiling head hotel greeter knocks on my door and presents me with three shiny booklets:
"The output of the sewage is 260m3/d. The sewage from kitchens goes to the outdoor drainage after the disposal in grease traps, then it goes to the second sewage biological chemical treatment spot, finally, the water is drained to the civil rain water drainage while rainwater in outdoor drainage also goes to civil rain water drainage."
11:41 a.m.: "Welcome to Qinhuangdao!" the head greeter says with a smile. "Thank you!" I say, smiling right back.
BEIJING -- The first significant meal at a foreign Olympics is an important one, as potentially tricky to navigate as white-water canoeing. At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, I went liquid at
Technically, my first meal in Beijing was a pair of chicken skewers over greens in the Media Press Center, but that was merely a prelim. On Tuesday night, we headed to Dayali, a chain restaurant that is a healthy 10-minute walk from the Media Press Center. The eatery's name translates to Big Pear. (
Some of the dishes offer fables as their titles. "The clever and dexterous woman hand rips the cabbage" costs 16 renminbi ($2.33) while the "soft-shelled turtle soaks the cake" will run you five times as much. Our group of nine enjoyed a feast of familiar names (Chinese broccoli, roast duck, scallion pancakes, fried rice, quince, rice-coated meatballs) but with an unusual taste. Reporters
We washed things down with Yanjing beer, and peach, pear and sour date juice ("First bitter, then sweet," Rebecca said, explaining that the sour date aftertaste was worth the initial ordeal.) When a steaming pot of duck soup (made out of the carcass of the duck) arrived to conclude the meal, I heard at least two Marx Brothers references. (Gold and silver medals to