Scoring the Beijing Olympics

They get a 9 for pomp and spectacle, but only a 3 for furthering world understanding and a 2 for the fan experience.

Published August 25, 2008 3:30PM (EDT)

Reuters / Kai Pfaffenbach

A security guard stands near the National Stadium during the closing ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 24, 2008. The stadium is also known as the Bird's Nest.

This is where 12 days of Olympic fandom has taken me. I am plopped on a sofa, shoes being removed by two smiling hostesses in strapless gowns, in the chandeliered lobby of a giant massage parlor advertising something called "Mashed Medical Treatment," done up as a marble-laden Roman bath for VIPs, where I've been handed the following menu of services: "Shu Shi Jie Amorous Feelings" (the most costly, including manipulations a helpful host acts out in explicit manner), "Studtching Body for Important Guest" (but hopefully not too much studtching), "Aromatic Stone Eject Bad Mattels" and the dreaded "Open Superintending Raphe Treatment." Superintending is the last thing I needed at the moment, so I probe no further into what that extra "h" might stand for.

This is actually my second stop of the last evening, for Beijing friends tried to escort me to an even more elaborate place, where foot reflexology came with a show of dancing girls and jugglers, ping-pong and a buffet at no extra charge. But I was spared all that, thanks to Olympic regulations that every place where a foreigner might even accidentally fall asleep requires passports my friends didn't have with them. (I suppose certain massages do constitute a crossing of borders of sorts.) In the end, I am happy to settle for the standardized Chinese processing that these days amounts to putting oneself through a human car wash. Eager male attendants hover too close for comfort at every point, removing and replacing underpants for you if you don't stop them, grunting and shouting in military manner to those who will receive you down the line, giving you a preliminary rubdown with a cloth that feels more like a Brillo scouring pad, next to a cold room where an even colder mistress administers a pressing all-points massage whose main point is to make victims scream in agony, then onto a soft armchair equipped with personal TV and headphones, to sip tea or watermelon juice along with a roomful of other cadavers in "recovery," and finally back downstairs for a variety of tubs and saunas as thoroughly and unbearably overheated as the Guangdong province economy. Healthful, it's promised. Relaxing, it's not.

I'm still trying to get over a last day of fandom in pouring rain -- which had turned my final trip to an Olympic venue into as big a disaster as the first. Even at 9 a.m., it seems that half of Beijing has jammed into the subway station at the Olympic Green. I'm elbowed at least 10 times. Stuck on stairs that climb toward an exit, though I don't see why everyone is in such a hurry, for all that waits is an hour trapped in lines through security barriers that leave me soaked to the bones (I have no umbrella because they are not allowed inside the various sites and the plastic poncho provided has torn in six places) before reentering the very same station we all had to exit. Even after the train, it's a good 15-minute hoof to the National Stadium, or "Bird's Nest" (maybe it really was designed for those who can fly) and the only food for miles in any direction is provided by sponsoring McDonald's. (Never in my life have I been so grateful to see an Egg McMuffin.) And all this to catch a couple of decathlon heats at great distance, and see some javelin throwers skittering across a wet track that barefoot volunteers try to sop up with wet rags. (Is this really the Olympics?) Later, wishing to witness the last of many pratfalls for U.S. athletes at these games, in this case the loss of the once-invincible women's softball team to some of the most muscular Japanese I've ever seen, the rain delays the game so long that I can catch but a few innings.

What's the difference? By now, I have accepted this Olympics "with Chinese characteristics," in which venues have been built on a massive scale for great show, and not for the convenience of those poor souls who actually dare to get in and out. Here, only the grand design counts, and the rest of us are mere cogs. Isn't that the lesson of a long history anyway, so why not learn it, and learn it well, right from the beginning? And this is not merely the whining of one critical young man turned grouchy middle-aged man. Nor is it some sort of "racism," a charge that would sure have surprised my first wife (a Beijing native), to point out that not enough post-event buses were provided (whether driven by an individual whose color is brown, white, yellow or blue). Nearly every foreigner to whom I speak -- while squeezed into a subway car -- shares the same set of complaints. But being a spoilsport at the world's biggest sporting event doesn't get you much traction.

In the end, I'll just rate these games from one to 10, compared with the others I've attended. Beijing gets a nine in pomp, spectacle and mind-blowing architecture. But it scores only a three in bringing people together and furthering world understanding, with heavy-handed security taking precedence over proper spaces and activities for friendly interaction. And in terms of transport, organization and the fan experience, I'd award only a two -- and I only give it that much because of the tens of thousands of volunteers straining for free to put a kind face on China. In human terms, my best Olympic moment came on one staggeringly hot afternoon when a family of peasants, country origins plainly indicated by their weather-beaten faces and dust-covered suits, each with a heavy, sleeping baby slung over their shoulder, refused to grab a taxi in front of me, insisting over and over that the foreigner's pampering should take precedence over their daily struggle.

Maybe I was too preoccupied getting from place to place, but it doesn't seem that these games yielded much in great athletic drama, either. China marched to predicted dominance, while Jamaican sprinters further sped a U.S. retreat from the top rung (one small development on the march to a more equal world). The biggest surprise to me is that, given the protests along the worldwide torch run, not one athlete lifted a fist, sported a symbolic headband or even tattoo, to show support for Tibet. Nor, as far as we know, did a single ticket holder rise to reveal an antigovernment slogan on a T-shirt, something that would have been awfully easy to do. Caution -- some might call it cowardice -- was the watchword of the day.

As for the rabid nationalism of Chinese fans, perhaps that, too, could be forgiven, as it was by my old acquaintance Ai Weiwei, artistic originator of the "Bird's Nest," with whom I finally got a spare minute on my last day. "It's like this is a first date with the world and of course on a first date you are going to be very, very nervous," observed this once-fierce opponent of the Chinese regime. "In the dark, with the lights out, you might be able to do it as good as anybody. But that first date can be really scary."

Does that mean we will soon have to go through this all over again? And what will China be like the next time it makes such a bid? "Waiting for the Olympics to come, waiting for the Olympics to go," was apparently a common new proverb around China, referring to the agonies of dealing with such a momentous, yet artificial landmark. Like most of the pundits now pouring out their "post-Olympics" postscripts, like the Chinese organizers themselves, I too believe these games were just the starting point in China's joining the club of so-called developed nations. Now they will face the real challenges of achieving such status: becoming less dependent on exports in a world headed toward recession, strengthening their internal markets and civil society, and dealing with their internal colonials (Tibetans and Xinjiang Muslims) in a more fair manner after a period of brutal repression that has probably engendered more potential terrorists than ever before.

When it comes to human rights, it also seems unlikely that all the prisons doors will suddenly swing open, and some, like dissident writer Ma Jian, predict the crackdown will only worsen when foreigners turn their gaze elsewhere. Still, the government could also use its newly gained self-assuredness to loosen the reins somewhat. Chinese history is replete with sudden, sweeping rebellions and surely one will come someday, though it seems unlikely to start among the youth of this Olympic generation, who seem as blindly apolitical as their counterparts in the West. Probably, China is headed toward the paternalist, one-party "guided democracy" practiced in that model of tranquil prosperity, Singapore. But I would place my money on the U.S. ping-pong team before I'd bet on any of the above.

Like many who have been watching China for a long time, I've led a schizophrenic existence: defending China's achievements, innovations and steady rise to those who never saw the place as it was before, but challenging every Chinese I meet in the country to practice more truly independent thoughts and actions. (For instance, even those young people who consider themselves enlightened Internet users invariably describe the Dalai Lama as a devil with two heads and six horns.) Maybe I'm a hard-ass, but having witnessed the fear and petty thuggery foisted on so many by China's Gong An, or Public Security Bureau, I will use this extra-governmental apparatus as my litmus test. It won't be tall skyscrapers or grand sporting events that prove to me China is a modern nation. It will be the disappearance of the Gong An, and its accountability for past crimes (like those of similar ilk in Argentina, South Africa, etc.).

At least, in the minds of many Chinese, like one Western-educated computer scientist I met on a subway ride, these Olympics have redressed certain perceived past wrongs, made up, in his words, for "the humiliation of the Opium Wars." Did this professor really believe that anyone in America today had even heard of the Opium Wars? In every Chinese paper, the Olympics were referred to as the fulfillment of a "hundred-year" dream. Yet how did that square with the legend promulgated by Olympic Web sites that Ci Xi, the empress dowager who ruled China, had no idea what the "Olympics" might be when approached back in 1896, and offered to send palace eunuchs to be China's "runners"? Maybe it's more than mere coincidence that the Olympics should be the one artifact of ancient Western culture embraced by a society so proud of its own antiquity. Come to think of it, the current-day Olympic movement makes a perfect match for the Chinese government. It's a top-down hierarchy, bound by strict rules, in which old men profit from the strong bodies of the young, all in the name of some vaguely humanist, quasi-socialist goals.

Leaving Beijing, I decided to try the new direct train line to the airport. It was quick, if crowded, and seemed to follow the old arcaded trail of straight, white-barked trees that had once so charmed me. But whoever planned the train station had failed to provide any escalators, or trolleys, or porters, so that everyone had to drag their luggage down three flights of stairs. This got me to thinking that all China was really like one of those Olympic relay races. One portion of the society was straining to pass the baton smoothly onto the next portion, but the various racing parts still weren't in sync. One area was sprinting too fast, another was still far too slow, one held the baton proudly aloft, while others dropped it, uninterested or unaware of where the finish line lay. That was what made it all so frustrating, and so fascinating.

When I got to the airport, I discovered that yet another typhoon had struck Hong Kong, leaving hundreds stranded and waiting in line for two beleaguered airline representatives to reschedule all of them. (At times like this in China, the so-called responsible parties are never to be found.) Experienced at the system, I bypassed the line and went straight into full heartless harassment mode until I'd gotten a seat on a nonstop back to my Bangkok home. Waiting for my flight, I also witnessed dozens of tearful goodbyes, as athletes and their parents or siblings set off in different directions -- proving the Olympics were still in the end about young people, perhaps too young for all the pressure. And later that sunny afternoon, I was treated to the first clear view below that I'd ever had in hundreds of takeoffs and landings. I could chart the full immensity of Beijing's new sprawl, I could spot bits of the Great Wall snaking through the bare Western Hills, and I could follow a deep brown line of pollution, like a stubborn bathtub ring, extending along the horizon for 500 miles. If only China were that easy to see.

By John Krich

John Krich has been covering China for 20 years, most recently as the Asian Wall St Journal's main food/sports/culture writer. He's the author of "El Beisbol," "Won Ton Lust" and other literary travelogues.

MORE FROM John Krich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------