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Olympics

Scenes From Beijing

SI.com's team of writers, reporters and editors in China will provide first-person snapshots from the Summer Olympics as part of our Scenes From Beijing diary. Our staffers, along with some fellow Time Inc. colleagues, will contribute items through the end of the Games.

The Olympic spirit is alive at any age

BEIJING -- It is a professional badge for journalists at every Olympic Games: Write a column or a story that attempts to capture the real host city, the mythical place that offers insight into the soul of a people.

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, David Epstein, Rebecca Sun and I rode the Beijing subway from our hotel to Tiananmen Square. The subways were fast, clean and cheap, and volunteers were everywhere. But the influx of people -- at least on the day we rode was so overwhelming that each of us were jostled around the subway car like a piñata. Our Olympic badges, among other Western traits, made us stand out like bad fruit. It was an interesting sociological moment, if nothing else.

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. -- Richard Deitsch

BEIJING -- Among the most talented Sports Illustrated staffers in Beijing is Mike Wolf, a senior systems adminsistrator who provides technology support for both the magazine and SI.com. Wolf and fellow tech wizard Phil Jache have been in China since July, setting up the SI offices and troubleshooting any and all problems. Over the past month he has chronicled his adventures in his personal blog Clinky the Boy Robot, which he has graciously allowed us to post here. Take a look: The dude has an eye for the offbeat and interesting. -- Richard Deitsch

On the scene with ex-Olympian Mel Stewart

BEIJING -- A member of two U.S. Olympic teams, Mel Stewart won two gold medals and one bronze at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and he held the world record in the 200-meter butterfly from 1991 to '95. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Stewart is now an actor and screenwriter. He will be creating video blogs about swimming in Beijing for SI.com throughout the Olympics. His Web site is Gold Medal Mel.

Here, Mel chats up former gold medalists Gail Devers (and her favorite cute daughter) and Gary Hall Jr.

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Let's get ready to rumble!

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 Ken Berger, a 20-person staff -- including co-announcers, DJs and video crewmembers -- keeps spectators pumped with a steady stream of techno, metal, rock and the occasional Chinese rap.

Here's just a sampling from the playlist: Hey Mickey by Toni BasilWe're Not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister Rock You Like a Hurricane by the Scorpions Ladies' Night by Kool & the Gang (played during the women's wrestling sessions, obviously) Candyman by Christina AguileraThe Rock Show by Blink-182

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 Henry Cejudo won the 55-kilo men's freestyle gold, he instructed his DJs to spin Thunderstruck by AC/DC. -- Rebecca Sun

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Call it Hot Fried Wikipedia

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, Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times, and I kicked around Tiananmen Square where we were greeted by a tall man hoping to have Kosovo recognized by the IOC and some giggling students who wanted to have their pictures taken with graying Westerners. We walked past Mao's portrait in the Forbidden City. The likeness is remarkable.-- Michael Farber

Taxicab confessions at the Olympics

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:

The Good: SI writer-reporter David Epstein and I found ourselves near Tiananmen Square in the center of town around 1 a.m. one night after reporting a late-breaking story. We hailed a cab and gave the driver the name of our hotel, about half an hour to the northwest. I noticed our driver wince, so I asked him what was wrong.

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."

The Bad: Nothing too bad. The first time I came to China, six years ago, lane lines were merely decorative paintings on the road. The city has gotten much stricter about speed limits, putting an end to most white-knuckled rides. Some drivers have the radio on in the car, but I have yet to find one talking on the phone, unlike New York City cab drivers. The one time a cabbie was marginally rude to us (giving a slightly sarcastic retort when we asked if we could exceed the four-passenger maximum), he was roundly chastised by SI interpreter and Beijing native Jingwen Wang and, chagrined, took 20 percent off our fare.

The Ugly: Once again, Epstein and me on the outskirts of town in the middle of the night after covering a basketball game and eating a late-late dinner near the stadium in west Beijing. After trying out some chicken feet shaokao (barbecue on skewers), we hailed a cab and began the 45-minute journey home on the deserted highway.

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. -- Rebecca Sun

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China's Rucker Park gets the best of SI writers

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 Alexander Wolff and I did on Monday: Make a pilgrimage to the Dongdan pickup basketball courts in central Beijing, just a few blocks east of Tiananmen Square.

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 Bing, a student from Nanjing who's attending school in the Netherlands. It didn't take long to realize that Bing from Nanjing had some game, as did most of our Chinese opponents, who were dressed in everything from Gilbert Arenas and Kobe Bryant jerseys to LeBron James and Michael Jordan t-shirts. (Surprisingly, I didn't see any Yao Ming or Yi Jianlian togs.)

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.--Grant Wahl

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Olympic routine of an SI writer

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 experience.

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.-- Rebecca Sun

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Day in the Olympic life of Chinese sports

BEIJING -- Eight gold medals by Michael Phelps? Try eight gold medals by China ... in one day. Events from rowing to gymnastics, freestyle wrestling to badminton and yes, table tennis.

After winning China's eighth gold today, women's table tennis coach Shi Zhihao was asked about Phelps' achievement, or more specifically, what he thought of the fact that Chinese athletes did in one day what it took one American athlete to do in a week. Coach Shi smiled. "It means the Americans have strong individuals, but the Chinese have a strong team." Everyone laughed, including Shi, but he had a point. Chinese athletes have dominated the gold medal rush in the first 10 days of the Games, winning 35 golds; Americans not named Phelps have won just 11.

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 Qiu Jian to a surprise gold; to women's freestyle wrestling, where reserve Wang Jiao won the 72kg event; and to gymnastics, diving, badminton and table tennis, where you don't bet against the People's Republic unless you've got money to burn. Here's a snapshot of China's athletic accomplishments on Day 10 of the Beijing Olympics, arranged chronologically by event start time.

7:30 a.m.: Track and Field (Women's Marathon) - BRONZE. A slight disappointment for China as favored Zhou Chunxiu, the 2007 London Marathon champion and world silver medalist, takes bronze. Romania's Constanina Tomescu wins gold (2:26:49). Zhou tries for silver in a sprint finish with 2007 world champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, but Ndereba (2:27:06) holds Zhou off by one second.

10:47 a.m.: Swimming (Womens' 4x100-meter individual medley) - BRONZE. Swimming out of lane 6, the team of Zhao Jing, Sun Ye, Zhou Yafei and Pang Jiaying takes bronze (3:56.11) behind Australia (in a world-record 3:52.69) and the United States (3:53.30).

1:30 p.m.: Shooting (Men's 50m rifle 3 positions) - GOLD. China's Qiu Jian, 33, wins the event when American Matthew Emmons, in gold-medal position, scores just 4.4 points on his last shot of the competition. Qiu's previous best results included a second place at the World Cup and a seventh place at the 2007 Asian Championships. Emmons falls to fourth place. A similar mishap befell him in Athens, but he's not complaining; he met his wife, Czech shooter Katerina Kurkova (gold in women's 10m air rifle and silver in women's 50m rifle three positions here), when she rushed up to console him in 2004.

2:00 p.m.: Tennis (Women's Doubles and Singles) - BRONZE, 4th on adjacent courts with identical start times. China goes for double bronze in women's singles and doubles. On Court 2 at the Beijing Olympic Green tennis facility, 2006 Australian Open and Wimbledon champions Zheng Jie and Yan Zi prevail over the Williams sisters of Ukraine. It's their first Olympic medal together (compatriots Sun Tiantian and Li Ting were the surprise gold medalists in this event in Athens). On Court 1, Li Na is less fortunate, losing an error-prone bronze-medal match to Russia's Vera Zvonareva. Russia completes a sweep of the women's singles medals with Zvonareva's 6-0, 7-5 win.

4:30 p.m.: Rowing (women's quadruple sculls) - GOLD. Chinese rowing has benefited greatly from Project 119, which targeted water sports like rowing, canoeing, kayaking and sailing to produce competitive squads for these Olympics. The Chinese had never before won a gold medal in rowing before today's win in womens' quad sculls by Tang Bin, Jin Ziwei, Xi Aihua, and Zhang Yangyang (6:16.06). Great Britain took silver (6:17.37) and Germany was third in 6:19.56.

5:47 p.m.: Freestyle wrestling (women's 72kg) - GOLD. World junior champion Wang Jiao, who replaced the injured Wang Xu on the Chinese roster for these Games on July 25, prevails over Stanka Zlateva of Bulgaria. Her gold-medal quest included an upset of five-time world champion Kyoko Hamaguchi of Japan.

6:00 p.m.: Gymnastics (men's and women's apparatus finals) - TWO GOLD, ONE BRONZE. Cheng Fei, favored to win both women's vault and floor exercise, falters on both but gets away with a bronze in the vault despite landing her second vault on her knees. The men deliver the goods; Zou Kai takes the men's floor exercise gold and compatriot Xiao Qin wins the pommel horse event.

6:30 p.m. Badminton (men's doubles bronze medal match, men's singles final) - BRONZE, GOLD. Indonesia's Flandy Limpele and Vita Marissa fall victim to He Hanbin and Yu Yang for the bronze in the men's doubles event. Later in the evening, Lin Dan, the number one player in the world, wins singles gold over Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei.

7:50 p.m.: Table Tennis (women's team final) - GOLD. The Chinese just don't know how to lose in this sport. This is the first time the team event has been contested in the Olympics; it replaces the doubles competition, where China's women have won the last three Olympic titles. They win team gold here with a perfect record, not dropping a match in the best-of-five-match format (two singles, one doubles, two reverse singles).

8:30 p.m.: Diving (women's 3-meter springboard) - GOLD, BRONZE. Somebody else who just doesn't know how to lose: China's Guo Jingjing, the country's most famous female athlete, making her final Olympic appearance. Her co-champion in the 3-meter springboard synchronized event, Wu Minxia, takes bronze.

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 Liu Xiang. -- Mary Nicole Nazzaro

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On the scene with ex-Olympian Mel Stewart

BEIJING -- A member of two U.S. Olympic teams, Mel Stewart won two gold medals and one bronze at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and he held the world record in the 200-meter butterfly from 1991 to '95. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Stewart is now an actor and screenwriter. He will be creating video blogs about swimming in Beijing for SI.com throughout the Olympics. His Web site is Gold Medal Mel. Here, Mel yucks it up with Mary Lou Retton at the USA House in Beijing.

I come up smelling like a rose

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. (*You really don't have to do this.*) Then the man at the computer upgraded my economy seat to business class. (*Do you think I'm an athlete or something? I'm just a journalist.*)

Then the gate agent took me past 60 people to the head of the first-class security line (*You realize I smell terrible, don't you?*) and on to the elite-status lounge, where she handed me off to another lovely young host who guided me past a line of 60 more passengers to an air-conditioned VIP bus on the tarmac. (*You must have me confused with S.L. Price. He's the one who's used to rolling like this.*)

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.-- Grant Wahl

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Them's fightin' words

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 ... "?

That's Ode to the Motherland (Gechang Zuguo), the song that was lip-synched at the opening ceremony by Lin Miaoke. Several Chinese friends told me they were glad to see a little girl singing it then (though they didn't know at the time which little girl's voice they were hearing, of course). Had it been sung by an adult, it might have come off as, well, political. But Friday night at women's volleyball, the crowd joined together for a techno version of that very song, prodded by a Chinese-language graphic on the Jumbotron that said, "Let's sing together!" All the crowd sang as one during the second technical time out in the fourth set, with the U.S. leading China 16-14. The match itself was somewhat charged politically, what with Chinese volleyball legend Lang Ping coaching the United States against her country's team, and with one Hu Jintao in the audience. Maybe the Chinese organizers thought the U.S. athletes wouldn't notice the lyrics, or the overtones.

Who said these Games weren't political?

Ode to the Motherland isn't the only song being repurposed as a techno-dance sing-along for crowds at these Games. The award for most politically-charged song might go to another Mao-era gem, Socialism is Good (Shehui Zhuyi Hao). That song was played as a sing-along at the China-Cuba women's volleyball on Wednesday night -- which, politically speaking, seems at least a little more appropriate. It didn't stop some Chinese netizens from considering it a bit on the cringeworthy side, though, what with lyrics like "The imperialists will turn tail and scamper away."

"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. -- Mary Nicole Nazzaro

Welcome to Santa Monica

BEIJING -- Blue skies over Beijing today. No lie. It's the most gorgeous day here in the Olympic city. Feels like Santa Monica. It's hot, but very little humidity.

"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 Agence France-Press.

The International Olympic Committee's medical commission chairman, Arne Ljungqvist, told reporters that "there is no indication that there will be a problem in the near future." Maybe yes, maybe no. World Health Organization China chief Hans Troedsson told the AFP that air quality had improved in recent months but that pollution in Beijing last week still presented long-term health risks to residents. Rain is in the forecast for the weekend. Until then, enjoy the blue skies. -- Richard Deitsch and Rebecca Sun

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We bear no ill will, Spain

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: Xi ban ya, jiayou!

Xibanya is "Spain" in Mandarin, and by now, Beijing Olympic followers should all know that jiayou means "add oil," or, generically, "Go!" So ... why Spain? Is it because they were the underdogs in the game? Or because the Americans (ridiculously dominant in world basketball) are correctly perceived as the greatest threat in the group, which also includes the Chinese team?

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? -- Rebecca Sun

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A night at the opera

BEIJING -- On Wednesday, Sports Illustrated interpreter/opera-lover JingwenWang and I received two tickets to a concert by the "New Century's Three Tenors" at the Great Hall of the People (where the Chinese parliament convenes) in Tiananmen Square. The concert was part of Beijing's Olympic Arts Festival, an excuse to attract top classical talent from around the world for a series of high-culture events in the city.

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 qipaos (traditional silk gowns) to cargo shorts and what looked suspiciously like undershirts.

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 Ramón Vargas, Italy's Marcello Giordani and Swiss-Italian Salvatore Licitra. Chinese lyrics were displayed on two large screens mounted on either side of the stage.

The biggest audience response came when Licitra sang a traditional piece in Mandarin -- his phonetics were passable, not surprising for professional vocalists who often sing in languages they don't speak.

Clearly, whether in Italian or Chinese, music is the universal language. -- Rebecca Sun

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Bring on the Yellow Cows

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 huangniudang. The loose translation is "yellow cow brigade." And they've got tickets to anything you want to see in Beijing -- at a price.

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. -- Mary Nicole Nazzaro

***

On the scene with ex-Olympian Mel Stewart

BEIJING -- A member of two U.S. Olympic teams, Mel Stewart won two gold medals and one bronze at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and he held the world record in the 200-meter butterfly from 1991 to '95. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Stewart is now an actor and screenwriter. He will be creating video blogs about swimming in Beijing for SI.com throughout the Olympics. His Web site is Gold Medal Mel. [http://www.goldmedalmel.typepad.com/]

Here, Mel surveys the scene at The Great Wall:

"Minor" sport? Tell that to the Chinese

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 Zhongguo jiayou before a single player appeared. It could have been the gold-medal match, so intense was the play, so electrifying the energy. Cuba prevailed in five sets after China blew seven match points in the fourth: 18-25, 14-25, 25-23, 32-30, 15-13. The margin of victory in the last three sets was two points. It was that close.

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, Antonio Perdomo Estrella, tells us he could swear he heard at least a few people chanting "Go Cuba!" (Gubajiayou) as his team clawed its way to victory with China seemingly holding all the momentum. Um, OK. Maybe there were, like, five. The rest of the house was there for the other guys. Trust us on this one.

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, Feng Kun and ZhaoRuirui, China's women's team captain and star middle blocker, can't walk down the street without being chased for autographs. They're volleyball's answer to Yao Ming.

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 Wang Yiwei, solid setting by Feng and a libero that wouldn't quit digging in Zhang Na kept China's hopes alive, but Cuba had answers from captain Yumilka Ruiz and standout Rosir Calderón. China earned seven match points but kept giving them back, and like a table-tennis rally, the score kept going back and forth: 24-23, 24-24, 25-24, 25-25, all the way to 30-all, when Cuba finally earned its one set point and converted on a Rachel Sánchez kill.

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. -- Mary Nicole Nazzaro

Boldon breaks down the men's 100m

BEIJING -- When Ato Boldon was competing in the 100 and 200 meters, and winning a total of four Olympic medals, he was the best quote in the game by a wide margin, whether trash-talking opponents or filling writers' notebooks. Now he is a track and field analyst for NBC, and nothing has changed.

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 TysonGay's hamstring will hold up for four rounds, Boldon said, "No. And I am an unabashed fan of Tyson Gay and the new generation that he leads, the non-Boldon-[Maurice] Greene-[Donovan] Bailey sprinters who are respectful. And also, I was just told that no Olympic champion in recent memory has done so without any European competition.'' (Gay has not run since he was injured at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 5.)

On world record-holder UsainBolt's inexperience, Boldon said he talked to two-time U.S. Olympian Dennis Mitchell recently and Mitchell suggested that sprinters panic more under pressure when they are experienced.

"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 Asafa Powell.'' [Powell was run down by Gay in the final 40 meters last year at the worlds in Japan and has a reputation for struggling in big races. "Don't you think somewhere in his brain, when he gets to 50 or 60 and he's got Gay or Bolt next to him, that there's a flashback for Asafa?''

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. Ben Johnson used to say, 'The gun go off, the race be over.' It's going to be one of those. He's changed the thinking. A guy that tall should not have that kind of turnover. You didn't look on the Redeem Team for the next 100-meter champ. But maybe we should.''

Boldon also does not expect Chinese hero Liu Xiang to beat Dayron Robles of Cuba in the 110-meter hurdles. "I think Robles is probably the biggest favorite here, at least in track.'' -- Tim Layden

Spotted: Lang Lang, international music man

BEIJING -- Fresh from his appearance in the opening ceremonies, 26-year-old piano prodigy Lang Lang taped an interview with a British reporter and performed for a gaggle of gawkers yesterday afternoon in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel, adjacent to the Main Press Center.

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 line of Adidas sneakers is controversial among classical purists, but there's no doubt he represents the new Chinese superstar: talented, fashionable and worldly. -- Rebecca Sun

It's in the cards for Phelps

It's not the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card (yours for just $1.62 million) but Michael Phelps does have his own trading card. The swimmer was one of a number of athletes and celebrities to take part in the Donruss Fans of the Game series that appeared in the company's baseball and football sets from 2004-05. (He also appeared in a trading card for SI For Kids in 2003). The latest on eBay has cardboard Phelps going for just south of $200. -- Richard Deitsch

Tanks for the Memories

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 Wang Wei. "I don't think it is going to be a big threat." Wei said Chinese officials may increase the security level around the facility, but he did not expect them to present an inconvenience to the media. In other words, walk around the tank. -- Richard Deitsch

***

Spain, world champs in hoops and racism

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 Marca, the team posed smiling and stretching the skin on the side of their eyes to appear Chinese.

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 Luis Aragonés referred to French footballer Thierry Henry as "that sh--- black;" also that year, Spanish soccer fans made monkey chants at black players on the English team; earlier this year, black Formula One racer Lewis Hamilton, of England, was subjected to such abuse in Spain that an International Herald Tribune reporter wrote that "it seemed almost as if the Ku Klux Klan had relocated to a racetrack near Barcelona."

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 Pau Gasol, at least, would have been exposed to enough media in a diverse country after seven years of NBA experience, to know better than end up in such a picture. Apparently not. What were they thinking? Probably not about Madrid's 2016 bid to host the Olympics. -- David Epstein

***

Ball at the Wall

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. Coach K wasn't going to hold the bus for me. I begged the cab driver to hustle when we broke free. I figured he didn't understand me, until he started snaking through the lanes at top speed. He just missed hitting a toddler perched on the back of a woman's bike. True, I'm kind of a dope for encouraging a near-horrific accident. But what was that woman doing, biking around with her kid on a rush-hour road?

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 Chris Bosh and Tayshaun Prince woke up for the ride. Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim were also on board. While USA Basketball officials, families, and friends rode on two lengthy, comfortable buses, the media was put on a "coaster," a mini-bus that looked like Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine, sans psychedelic bodywork. Forget about legroom -- my bony knees stabbed the seat in front of me. Ok, stop complaining. I was going to the Great Wall.

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 Kobe and LeBron in the house. "Great game last night, Chris," one fan yelled to Bosh. "People keep saying that," Bosh said. "But did they see the game? I didn't play that much." Against China, Bosh scored nine points, on 4-on-4 shooting, and grabbed eight boards in 13 minutes. Give him some more time, Coach K.

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 Farrah, and two other tourists. I warned them that I might start to cry. The last time I was on one of these things, I buried my head and held the hand of the woman next to me. It didn't matter that I had never met her before. Luckily, Farrah helped calm me down, encouraging me to just look out the side of the window, rather than the ground below. It also helped that the lift was enclosed. Tayshaun coolly listened to his headphones. Wonder if that's his coping mechanism.

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, Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins, right in front of me. He would never ditch Wojo.

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. -- Sean Gregory, Time Magazine

***

Journalists and patriots

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 Javier Clemente took one look at the throng, turned around and skedaddled. While attending a Brazilian practice later in World Cup '98, I watched as dozens of Brazilian scribes handed Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and the gang soccer balls and posters, in hopes of getting their autographs.

Of course, that rampant fandom cuts both ways, and when a team doesn't play well, the postgame presser can turn into a free-for-all. After the Nigerians' 2-1 victory on Sunday, one journalist was so upset with the way his team handled the final 20 minutes that he stood up in front of everyone, grabbed the microphone and embarked on a long soliloquy accusing coach Samson Siasia of "two tactical blunders" in the second half.

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. -- Grant Wahl

* * *

Flea markets and sports bars

BEIJING -- Stuck in Beijing without a ticket to see Michael Phelps or Shawn Johnson? Already been to the Great Wall? Looking for something to do?

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 Stalin, carved walnuts, Mao posters, shadow puppets, inlaid boxes of dominoes, chess sets, emperor dolls, pipes, opium scales, buddha statues, an Aunt Jemima clock, long strings of topaz, coral, pearls, turquoise, white turquoise ("very rare!") and jade that artisans will turn into necklaces or bracelets while you wait. Lots and lots of jade. I nearly bought a jade pig. This close. The most expensive item I found was a stunning 286,000 yuan (approx: $42,000) fishbowl, probably five feet in diameter, which was one solid piece of ornately carved jade. Tough one to transport.

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. -- E.M. Swift

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.-- E.M. Swift

The Golden One meets the Chosen One

BEIJING -- Michael Phelps spoke for 132 seconds following his 200-meter freestyle preliminaries tonight, which my swimming colleagues inform me is a healthy post-race chat for The Golden One as far as mixed zone interviews go. Phelps finished a comfortable second in his heat and moved onto Monday's semifinals. He has a busy day tomorrow, including the 200 freestyle semi finals and the men's 4 x 100 freestyle relay final. After a brief chat with NBC's swimming reporter Andrea Kremer, who decamps in a box about 20 feet from the pool at the stunning Water Cube, Phelps spoke with the Olympic press core. Asked how he felt nine hours after winning a gold medal in the 400 individual medley, Phelps said, "I did everything that I needed to do to get in tomorrow's semifinals. The biggest thing is having a good race tomorrow morning and being recovered enough to come back and have a good relay." Then came some information straight out of Boldfaced Magazine: Phelps said he met the U.S. basketball team two days ago. "It was LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Chris Paul, the names were endless" Phelps said. "They were all there. It was pretty cool. I talked to LeBron a few times and its pretty cool that those guys were excited to meet us. Our team was extremely fired up. One of my friends is one of the coaches on the basketball team. He texted me and said LeBron was fired up after my morning swim yesterday, after my prelim. That was pretty cool."

But not as cool as the swimmer I saw two races before Phelps' heat. Nimrod Shapira-Bar Or, who will swim for the University of Arizona this fall, became the first Israeli swimmer to advance to the semi-finals at the Olympics, winning his 200 freestyle qualifying match in 1:47.78. Not only should you root for any athlete named Nimrod on principle, Shapira-Bar Or, 19, was the last athlete from his country to earn an invitation to the Games. He races again on Monday night and no matter where I am, I will be thinking one thought: Go Nimrod. -- Richard Deitsch

***

By the numbers

BEIJING -- China Daily, which covers these Games through a delicious rose-colored lens, reported today that cooler weather and showers are expected in the capital over the next few days. Great news for the competitors. Life-saving news for the 23,503 accredited media who have descended upon Beijing.

"I think the blue skies will come, especially after today's rain. I've got my fingers crossed," said Wang Wei, secretary-general of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. Fingers crossed, indeed. Umbrellas were in great demand this afternoon as rain danced across the city. SI.com's Tim Layden, who is covering road cycling, reports that the weather at the Juyongguan Pass, the famed pass of the Great Wall of China located 37 miles north of Beijing, is windy, pouring rain and bordering on cold. Below, we offer some numbers to warm up our colleague.

842 million people in China watching the Opening Ceremonies on CCTV-1, CCTV-2, CCTV-5, CCTV-7, CCTV News, CCTV-HD channels and 30 national regional channels, according to the IOC.

100,000 ($150,000) Euros offered by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to any Russian athlete who wins a gold medal in Beijing.

11,194 Athletes competing at the Beijing Games.

570 Spectators and performers who got sick during the Opening Ceremonies.

83.6 Percent of the people watching television in China on Friday who were watching the Opening Ceremonies.

41 Age of Canada pitcher Rheal Cormier, the oldest baseball player at the Games. Cormier was 71-64 with a 4.03 ERA over 16 MLB seasons.

36 Combined points scored by Germany's Chris Kaman (24) and Russia's Becky Hammon (11), both were born in the U.S., in opening-round wins in basketball. The pair was a combined 14 of 20 from the field.

20 U.S. Olympians who are mothers.

19 inches of water in the mixed zone (the designated area where journalists speak with athletes after an event) upon the conclusion of the women's road cycling race in Juyongguan.

16 Gold medals awarded to China in table tennis since the sport was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1988. Only four other countries have won gold.

13, Age of Seychelles swimmer Dwayne Benjamin Didon, the youngest male athlete at the Olympics.

10 songs sung by actor-turned-singer Jackie Chan on his "Official Album for the Beijing Olympic Games."

8 Pandas that have been designated by the Beijing Zoo as "Olympic Pandas," according to China Daily. The pandas live in a "specifically built home, which is equipped with air-conditioning, rock sculptures, a pond, wooden climbing structures and plenty of bamboo to munch on." -- Richard Deitsch

We'll have pun, pun, pun

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 Steven Spielberg. The goose-stepping soldiers and sudden mob barking I could have done without, but otherwise it was a remarkable spectacle. The artwork-in-progress trope worked very well. The little earthquake survivor walking with Yao Ming could win an archery gold for its unerring aim at the heart. And that I spent so much time trying to figure out how they pulled stuff off is testament to how visually engrossing everything was.

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, Sammy Davis Jr. gesture.

And what's up with Sarko going solo, sans Carla? Maybe she was showing the solidarity with the Dalai Lama that her husband couldn't muster.

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 Hawk, the mascot at St. Joseph's, which flaps throughout every basketball game. But even a sold-out Palestra doesn't get as hot as this.

A columnist in a local English-language magazine, The Beijinger, has written a stern admonition to visiting reporters to refrain from using the host culture as a wellspring for clichés and indiscriminate wordplay, lest he and his fellow expats go through episodes of "groaning, tearing out of hair and unpleasant vomiting."

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 Liu Xiang leaves his mark in the hurdles, there'll surely be "Liu's Flying Now."

And after Xu Hai Yan advances in the Greco-Roman draw, "Xu In."

Counterbalanced of course by volleyballer WeiQiuyue's succumbing to injury, "Wei Out."

So, with a tip of the hat to sometime SI contributor Charlie Pierce -- filing to the Boston Herald years ago after China's Hu Na was eliminated from the U.S. Open, he led with "Hu Na na na, sha na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye," and it actually made the paper -- I found myself writing headlines in search of news.

If any of these stories develop over the next 17 days, I invite the English-language press, The Beijinger included, to use them:

Win, Place and Zhou

Catching some filamentous algae off the coast of Qingdao, windsurfer can do no better than bronze

Yang and the Restless

Promising young judokas await retirement of Chinese women's champion so they might move up in team pecking order

Yuan To Know a Secret

Chinese security agents use bribes to infiltrate East Turkmen terror cell

Du, Yu, Wanna Dance

After bagging a doubles medal in women's badminton, Chinese pair head to Houhai District to celebrate

Nihao Know-How for Knee-Highs

Beijing International School redoubles efforts to teach Chinese to expat kids

Ask and Yi Shall Find

New Jersey Net agrees with coach's plea that he concentrate more on passing

Guo Fourth and Multiplies

After missing out on a medal, champion quits diving and sets sights on Math Olympiad

Dong Dong Doodle All Night Long

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.-- Alexander Wolff

***

On the scene with ex-Olympian Mel Stewart

BEIJING -- A member of two U.S. Olympic teams, Mel Stewart won two gold medals and one bronze at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and he held the world record in the 200-meter butterfly from 1991 to '95. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Stewart is now an actor and screenwriter. He will be creating video blogs about swimming in Beijing for SI.com throughout the Olympics. His Web site is Gold Medal Mel.

Here, Mel surveys the scene at Beijing's Pearl Market.

***

Crowd control to major Zhang

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 (Sports Illustrated's lodging for the Games), the swarm of red-banded flag-wavers parted like the Red Sea. We felt a little like rock stars, but wondered aloud whether the crowd was perhaps awaiting a real Foreign Expert who had checked into the hotel.

(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.

"Chinese spirit!" Zhang Xing, a young man in oversize designer sunglasses and face paint, repeatedly called out in Mandarin to no one in particular. This was also his response when I first asked him what everyone was doing out here, before he elaborated on the situation using fewer abstract ideals.

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?"-- Rebecca Sun

***

The high speed of progress

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:

SPEED 259 KM/H.

Then two minutes later:

SPEED 297 KM/H.

Until finally it read:

SPEED 350 KM/H.

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 Martin, who had driven from Beijing to Tianjin in a car on Thursday.

"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.-- Grant Wahl

***

They just couldn't wait

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 Jian Zhang, president of the Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association, the student organization that set up the event.

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 Yao Ming spot for Visa drew laugher from the audience.

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 Yu Ma, 24, a student at Columbia. "It was great and meaningful for all Chinese people."

A brief shot of George W. Bush gazing skyward at fireworks induced the hearty laughter from the crowd. ("Who's that?" buzzed the kindergarten-aged girl in front of me.)

When famed soprano vocalist Sarah Brightman of England and Chinese singer Liu Huan appeared from the top of the globe and partnered on the official Olympic theme, the west-meets-east symbolism was clear.

"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."-- Bryan Armen Graham

***

Village people

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.

The Village also offers a taste of Chinese culture -- the administration building is an ancient temple, and I stumbled upon a Chinese tea house in the shopping area. I was the only person in the place. I sipped something called Jasmine Pearl tea (very hot, very healthy I was told), and the staff kept filling my cup. If only New York City waiters were this accommodating. -- Sean Gregory, Time Magazine

***

A dog eat dog world?

BEIJING --Earlier this week I attended a banquet hosted by SI China, which is SportsIllustrated's sister publication in China. It was an interesting evening, and for an old dog, I learned some new tricks.

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, China Daily. A columnist called Hong Liang was explaining the fine art of how to answer a delicate question: "I always resort to a tactic I learned from my sources in the bureaucracy," Hong wrote. "Talk a lot of nonsense that would wear out all but offend none.")

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 China Daily about the proper time of year to eat dog. It's not in summer. Turns out dog, which the authorities have forbidden to be served in Beijing during the Olympics for fear of offending Westerners, is best eaten in the fall and winter, preferably in a stew. Tastes like lamb. I asked the lady to my right if she'd ever tried it.

"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. -- E.M. Swift

Will the Olympics heal Federer's wounds?

BEIJING -- Photographers screamed, girls squealed, but Roger Federer, as always, remained the personification of Swiss cool. Olympic organizers today assigned the world's No. 1 player (Spain's Rafael Nadal takes over the crown on Aug. 18) to Press Conference Room No. 4 at the Main Press Center, a room not exactly fit for a tennis king. Though Federer is arguably the most famous non-Chinese athlete at the Games, Olympic officials strangely designated him to the equivalent of an outside court at Wimbledon. The room was as tight as his recent match with Nadal at Wimbledon.

The 12-time Grand Slam singles winner, who will play Russia's Dmitry Tursunov in the first round of the Olympic tournament on Sunday, refused to serve and volley with the press on questions of pollution and politics ("I know the issues but there was never a question about taking part in an Olympic Games," he said), but spoke about losing his top ranking to Nadal, who is seeded second and opens with Italy's Potito Starace.

"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 Marc Rosset win at the Barcelona Games in 1992 and has consistently spoken of Beijing as the most important tournament he will play this year. Federer will carry the flag for Switzerland in Friday's opening ceremony -- the same day he turns 27.

"[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, Mirka Vavrinec) to Athens (where he carried the flag for Switzerland). The man is smooth.

"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." -- Richard Deitsch

***

Tobogganing down the Wall

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 Michael Phelps and Dara Torres handle bigger mobs in the atrium.

Divers Laura Wilkinson and Thomas Finchum revealed that they did their big sightseeing Wednesday at the Great Wall.

"It was something I'd seen in pictures everywhere and it was great to actually be there," said Finchum, 19. "Then to toboggan down the Wall, that was crazy. I didn't know you could do that but we all enjoyed it." -- Cynthia Wang, People Magazine

***

Slice of Americana up and running

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 Kerri Walsh, co-queen of the game with partner Misty May-Treanor, made the trip for her first time Wednesday, tucking her 6-foot-3 frame into the shuttle and emerging with a smile intact. She and USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski were on hand for the gym's ribbon cutting.

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 That's What Friends Are For played on a loop, the center was dedicated, photos were taken and interviews were conducted. The only thing missing? The sweat-smell of a fully engaged and slightly under air-conditioned gym. Of the formalities, Walsh joked, "I think I'd feel a little more comfortable in a bikini right now!" (Soon, soon.) -- Cynthia Wang, People Magazine

A subway crash course; smile for the camera

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 SI colleagues, a young Chinese woman approached and asked if she could have her picture taken with me. I am told that for some people here (especially those who might be visiting from outside Beijing), interaction with foreigners is rare enough that the occasion is worth capturing with a picture, and my pallor and freckles leave me on the obvious end of the foreigner scale.

That, or she mistook me for Christian Bale, which is somewhat less likely.-- Tim Layden

***

Longing for the kinder, gentler Beijing

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 Deng Xiaopeng, cars still deferred to two-wheelers.

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, Yao Ming's is only the fifth or sixth most popular NBA jersey in China.

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 bei jing, which is Mandarin for "north capital": The Foreign Experts Hotel sits hard by the Fourth Ring Road, and I will encamp for most of these Games at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. Free-market principles may have taken hold here, but apparently no one has yet introduced the concept of naming rights.

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 chai na is a Chinglish pun that sounds like China, and in Mandarin means "demolish 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.-- Alexander Wolff

***

Taking the scenic route

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 not to play the ugly American that I starred in an unintentional comedy routine that eclipses even the non-stop Kenny G soundtrack in the lobby of SI's Beijing hotel.

Everything was looking good when I arrived at the train station here just after 9 a.m. with Michael Lewis of the New York Daily News (one of approximately 79 American sportswriters named Michael Lewis). But the next two hours unfolded like this:

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 Rylie Rampone, U.S. captain Christie Rampone's 2-year-old daughter, who rode in from Beijing with her dad, Chris.

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: Guide to Journalists in Qinhuangdao, 2008 Qinhuangdao China and Welcome to Qinhuangdao Venue, which contains the following information about tonight's stadium:

"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.-- Grant Wahl

Plenty to go around at opening feast

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 Al Bicerin with the bicerin (pronounced bee-shur-REEN), a heavenly mix of melted chocolate, espresso and thick cream. In Athens four years ago, our staff ate at a restaurant overlooking the Acropolis; white-tuxedo waiters fed us enough meat and lamb to feed the city of Akron.

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. (Yali is the pear itself. Da means big.)

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 Rebecca Sun and Jingwen Wang, who thankfully speak Mandarin, ordered Mao Shi Hong Shao Rou (red roasted pork) for the table, informing all that the dish was Yao Ming's favorite (as well as Chairman Mao's). The meat was sinfully good, sort of like Yao's dunking over Eddy Curry.

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 Alex Wolff and Brian Cazeneuve). Our bill came to 466 renminbi, which is $68 in the United States.

Cazeneuve wrote a couple of days ago that this will not be an ordinary Olympics. Of this we agree. Welcome to the land of clever and dexterous women ripping cabbage.-- Richard Deitsch

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