THE TOLL of one day in May transformed the Beijing Olympics long before they were to begin. These Games always figured to be seismic in some fashion, if not for the change they could trigger, then for the conflict they would court. Tibet, Darfur, human rights, press freedom, environmental degradation—the world spent the spring airing its grievances with the regime that rules the People's Republic, disrupting the Olympic torch relay and once actually forcing officials to snuff out the flame.
This is an article from the July 28, 2008 issue
Then came the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province, with its 70,000 dead and 5 million homeless. Suddenly the Olympic narrative struck out in a new direction. The story ceased to be solely that of a repressive state bent on using the Beijing Games to aggrandize the Communist Party, muzzle dissent and squeeze as many medals as possible from its demographic bounty. Instead the temblor shook the world with a reminder that China is still a country of 1.3 billion human beings.
And those people are fevered and proud to be hosting and contesting these Olympics. (The stick figure in the official logo is both throwing its arms out in welcome and breasting the tape.) In a 2001 Gallup poll, some 95% of Beijingers said they welcomed the Games, and since then the other 5% have been careful to keep their counsel. The many Chinese who lived through the hermetic paranoia of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s are now late-in-life witnesses to the grandest, most outgoing gesture in their nation's two-millennia-long history.
As the earthquake put the people back in the People's Republic, it highlighted Beijing's status as capital of a forward-hurtling land of huge urban catch basins—more than 100 cities of at least a million residents. When the effect of all these people so overwhelms nature that she rebels—be it with an algae bloom that imperils the sailing competition, or airborne particulates that threaten athletes' ability to breathe—Beijing organizers respond with overwhelming human force. Battalions scoop the gunk out, and workers idle themselves so as not to befoul the air with their factories or cars. The answer to too many people is more people.
Nothing better gets the attitude of the Chinese toward these Olympics than that most prosaically Western of things, a TV commercial. The ad, for Adidas, opens with a Chinese women's basketball player dribbling down a "court" of human hands that reach up to meet her footfalls. After she sinks a layup at a basket stanchion composed of people, a male athlete dribbles a soccer ball along a "field" of more Chinese humanity. And so on—with a phalanx of women's volleyball players who rise for a block as a crowd of Chinese leaps behind them, and a male diver who plunges from a tower of people into a pool of people, whereupon "water" ripples outward. The point of the spot: Every citizen has a hand in the rise to the top of the cream of a billion-plus crop.
A MAP OF Beijing—which every eight months must be revised to keep up with the epidemiological growth of the city's population (now 17.4 million)—documents $40 billion in Games-related construction. Venues to the north, east and west trace an arc over Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, with most clustered in the Olympic Green (gatefold map, page 53), where opening ceremonies will begin at 8 p.m. on 8/8/08. The Green sits in perfect alignment with China's historic seat of power.
The principles of feng shui hold that positive energy flows north from the auspicious, tradition-laden south—yet the most striking venues on the Green are modern and internationalist. The National Aquatics Center, or Water Cube, is an Australian-Chinese collaboration that leaves spectators feeling as if they're submerged. The adjacent National Stadium, a.k.a. the Bird's Nest, at one point engaged some 7,000 workers in its construction. A $500 million concrete bowl, it's enrobed in welters of steel and glows red at night.
Ai Weiwei, the Chinese architect who worked with a Swiss firm to design the Bird's Nest, calls it "an object for the world." Ai is no Party hack. The son of a poet who lived in the U.S. for years, he has been critical of the Chinese system. The stadium, he said in the 2005 documentary China Rises, "reflects the ambitions [and] dreams of our time. They may fail, they may disappoint, [but] they still say a lot about China at this moment, its hopes and how it would like the world to see it."
Even a decade ago, China would never have let foreign firms or politically ambiguous citizens shape the enduring symbols of an Olympics. The regime's indulgence suggests a desire to gait its people to the reality reflected in the gauzy Games slogan of One World, One Dream: that China aspires to be more than just a global economic player. The host country sees the Games as an exercise in meeting the world halfway. Hence the efforts to teach English to cab drivers and eliminate offensive behavior like spitting in public—and the entire bureaucracy, the Beijing Civilization Office, charged with enforcing those standards.
THE PRECISE orientation of public buildings is but one example of how, in China, things often mean more than they appear to. The Games' five mascots, the Fuwa, represent not just the five colors of the Olympic rings but also the five elements of nature (water, forest, fire, earth and sky); the five traditional blessings (prosperity, happiness, passion, health and good luck); and, in the characters' names—Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini—a message: Bei Jing Huan Ying Ni, or Beijing Welcomes You.
Organizers point out that the arms-out design of the official logo invokes a Chinese saying: "Is it not a joy to welcome friends from afar?" The pathbreaking U.S. table tennis delegation, in its 1971 visit to the Great Hall of the People, heard those very words from Premier Zhou Enlai. Even as that diplomatic démarche began China's reengagement with the world, however, the nation's leaders saw sports mainly as a means of creating a more robust worker. As early as 1917, Mao Zedong had bemoaned the people's lack of physical fitness and China's reputation as "the sick man of Asia." With the Cultural Revolution the regime all but banned competitive sports, charging the country's few elite athletes with jinbiao zhuyi, or "trophy mania." Upon their return to the Olympics in 1984 the Chinese chose to focus on sports that highlighted technique and coordination. After so many years of isolation it was enough to pursue gymnastics and diving and keep whacking that little Ping-Pong ball, while leaving sports that required speed or strength to the Africans, Americans and Europeans.
Today any sporting inferiority complex is gone, replaced by a new trophy mania (page 67). China won 32 golds in Athens, second only to the U.S.'s 36, and is aiming higher this time. Expectations can usually be detected in an alibi, and China's Liu Xiang (page 64), the 2004 Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles, did not sound like a sick man of Asia after being disqualified at June's Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., for a false start. He didn't realize he had jumped the gun, he said afterward, because "my speed is so fast."
THERE'S A swagger too in China's response to criticism of its human rights record. The bid contract between the regime and the IOC has never been made public, so it's hard to tell if the Games were awarded on the condition of progress on that front. But a collision may be brewing. Arrests on the charge of "endangering state security" have risen steadily as the Games have approached, and still activists are lobbying Olympic athletes to flash the two-handed T for Tibet sign, in solidarity with the Tibetans killed during the government crackdown in the western province in March. Any athlete who does so will run afoul of IOC Rule 51.3, which bars any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda ... in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." It remains unclear how Chinese authorities will respond to Olympians who express themselves—or indeed how the Chinese public will.
There is no doubt, however, about the effect on the domestic mood of any protests in-country during the Olympic fortnight. The regime uses every attack from outside China to strengthen nationalist cohesion. And as they get ready for their close-up, most Chinese are eager to cohere. The West may condemn as a human tragedy the millions displaced and exploited to stage these Games, and talk of boycotts and protests. But the average Chinese looks through a different lens: Yes, millions of us were forcibly relocated, or worked under slavish conditions—and after all that sacrifice, you're going to refuse our hospitality and take issue with our showpiece?
The lasting impact of the Beijing Games on the home country probably won't resemble either that of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which consolidated the Nazi regime, or the '88 Games in Seoul, which touched off a flowering of democracy. A better comparison might be to Mexico City in '68: a country nearing a crossroads, with retrograde rulers who vaguely knew they wanted to edge closer to the developed world but weren't quite sure how. With its free-market dynamism, China is repressive almost in spite of itself—as if the Party can find little purpose other than to squeeze ever more firmly to show its power. In but one example of the nation's sprawling influence and internal contradictions, several months ago it emerged that some of those FREE TIBET flags were actually ... made in China.
There is another detail worth noting, and it pertains to the north-south axis running up from Tiananmen Square. Once it hits the Olympic Green, the line traces a path neither through the Bird's Nest, which sits slightly to the east, nor through the Water Cube, just to the west. In a subtle touch by the Boston-based architectural firm that conceived the Olympic Green, the axis leads between the two into empty space. For 17 days and beyond, that greensward will be occupied not by buildings or monuments, but by people.
Hatched from that red egg in the Bird's Nest, people. Risen from the primordial fluid of the Water Cube, more people. People spilling into an agora, to be bathed in whatever sluices up from symbolically freighted Tiananmen Square, be it freedom or control. China is making its way toward the day when the Party that invokes the People does better by them. Until then, let her pause for a people's party.
Get a quick guide to what fans and athletes can expect in Beijing at SI.com/Olympics.
Look back at S.L. Price's 2007 story on Beijing at SI.com/Olympics.
The 24-HOUR OLYMPICS are so 2004. NBC Universal will offer more than 212 hours a day of Beijing coverage—75% of it live—across seven networks (NBC, USA, MSNBC, CNBC, Oxygen, Telemundo and Universal HD) and NBCOlympics.com. That will result in 1,000 more total hours of Olympics this year than the U.S. has seen from all past televised Summer Games combined. "We realize 200-plus hours a day is daunting for the viewer," says NBC Sports and Olympics executive producer David Neal. "But as [NBC Sports chairman] Dick Ebersol (above) says, it means consumers will really be able to program their own Olympic experience."
Having persuaded the IOC (over some athletes' objections) to hold swimming and gymnastics finals in the morning, Beijing time, NBC will make the best of the 12-hour time difference from the Eastern U.S. Live prime-time coverage will include not just those marquee events but also beach volleyball and both marathons. Neal & Co. might also luck into the most anticipated Olympic tennis match in history: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are entered in the men's draw, with the final airing Aug. 17 on USA Network between 4 and 10:30 a.m. ET.
Most Olympics offer a breakout television sport, from curling (Salt Lake City) to snowboardcross (Turin). What could that be this time? "I think table tennis will capture people's imagination," says Neal, whose company plans to air China's national pastime on no fewer than three channels.
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