August 2008

China and the US both win the Olympics

I never actually intended to leave Beijing during the Olympics. I can only blame fate for the timing. Back in 2001, I visited Beijing for the second time, the first having been in 1994, and noticed one day that they had started to put up decorations in the streets along the major thoroughfares. I then found out that the IOC was visiting Beijing for a final inspection to see if they would be worthy to host the games. The rest is truly now history. The build up to the games was at times bemusing, often frustrating, but mostly, admittedly, exciting. I had volunteered for the 2002 Winter games in Salt Lake, and had witnessed the transformation of Salt Lake City into something almost cosmopolitan, and enjoyed witnessing the same phenomenon on a hundred times larger scale occurring in Beijing. But, fate conspired to have me in the US during the actual games themselves. Which actually turned out to be a good thing on many levels.

First of all, I don’t watch TV, especially when I’m traveling, so what coverage I got of the games usually happened when visiting others who were watching them, or catching glimpses from the street at coverage in sports bars and the like. The biggest advantage, from my perspective, was that the coverage in the US was all in English and showed fairly balanced coverage of the championships, of course, favoring US competitors. From what I’ve heard, coverage in China was similar but biased toward Chinese participants. Hardly surprising. When I was in Japan, coverage often favored Japanese competitors who were rarely in the medal rounds. I was gratified to accidentally bump into plenty of coverage of Michael Phelp’s amazing Olympic feats, which I’m sure did not receive the same ad infinitum replay treatment in China. I was pleased to see that the announcers were either politically neutral, or even attempting to dispel some popular myths about China and genuinely educate viewers on the complexities of the country. Then things started to get ugly.

About halfway through the games it seemed I couldn’t escape stories about scandals. The fireworks footsteps were a digitally enhanced fake!! The little girl singing at the opening ceremonies was a fake!! There is no way the gold medal gymnasts could be 16!! Fake!! What else did they fake!?!?! The honeymoon was over. Relations between China and the US were back to normal.

The most interesting thing of all was when I returned to China to find out that China had won the games! The rest of the world, at least as far as I know, generally considers the total medal count when scoring the games, which makes sense to me. Otherwise, why not just give out gold medals and nothing else? Olympic records consider getting any medal in many of the records, not just gold. By this tally, the US “won” the Olympics with a total of 110 medals, bettering China’s total of 100. This alone is quite a feat. China has never finished in second place before. At the last games in Athens, China finished third, bettering Russia for the first time ever. Before that China had never finished higher than fourth. It is highly possible that China will finish on top at the London games and forever dominate afterwards. Considering the population and the resources the Chinese government is willing to spend on the producing world class athletes, along with the draconian conditions said athletes are willing to endure, this seems almost inevitable.

In terms of gold medals, however, China overwhelmingly came out on top. So, it is not too surprising to see that if you visit the official Olympic site in China, you will see that China “won” the Olympics. Aside from total medal count scores, coverage of the games have often used a scoring scheme that awards 3 points for a gold, 2 points for a silver, and 1 point for a bronze. By this method the US scored 220 and China 223, a close call match indeed!! So, in two out of three methods, China comes out on top… just not by the most popularly accepted method.

Most disappointing upon my return were the total lack of blue skies my friends in Beijing reported during the games. All I see are the same muggy, grey, dreary skies of old. Sure, the roads are still empty, and will likely stay that way during the Paralympic games, but I really feel I missed something by not being here. I am not holding my breath that any of the measures which magically produced such great weather will actually stick around, though I may feel like doing so as the air clogs up again. Of course, I gained plenty by being back in the US and do not regret the trip in the slightest, but, not for the first time, I wish I could have split myself in two and enjoyed both perspectives. Reddit Slashdot Digg Facebook Technorati Google StumbleUpon Furl Yahoo Ask Mister Wong China Newsvine Simpy Spurl Wink Rawsugar Squidoo Fark

Olympic volunteers
Olympic volunteers have shown up in booths all over the city

To all the naysayers about the air quality in Beijing for the Olympics, all I can say is that if the games were held right now, the weather would be incredible. Yesterday was one of the finest days I’ve ever enjoyed in Beijing with wonderfully clear air and great visibility. I could see both the western and northern mountain ranges with amazing clarity! I spent the day running errands all over town and therefore found myself riding my motorbike for a goodly portion of the day. The temperature was perfect!! The air quality index was “Excellent” at 27, the best I have ever seen. Today was also a glorious day, but HOT!

Beijing air quality is excellent!

When it comes to air quality in Beijing for the Olympics, there have been quite a few naysayers indeed. It seems many in the western press were publishing pictures of last week’s hazy days as evidence of poor air quality, failing to mention that there was quite a bit of sporadic precipitation that had evaporated into the air to make the haze. The Beijing government was quick to point out that haze is a natural phenomenon common throughout China. I am with the Beijing government on this one. There is a big difference between haze and smog, and anyone buzzing around town on two wheels can certainly tell the difference! China has always been hazy, as anyone who has ever seen a Chinese painting should be able to discern. Where does all that mystical mist come from in those beautiful paintings? Smog? In the Tang Dynasty? I don’t think so. I may be the first to voice my cynicism when certain negativities are downplayed, but I must say that the air quality this past week has really, really improved, no doubt largely in part the vastly reduced number of vehicles on the streets. I hope that after the games are over they keep the regulations in place limiting access to Beijing roads by even or odd numbered plates only able to drive on even or odd days. Of course, the over 300,000 vehicles from state-owned enterprises that have been restricted throughout the games will most likely hit the streets again when they end. No matter. I am truly enjoying the fresh air while it lasts.

Other signs that Beijing is fully prepared for the games:

1. Security measures have become routine. I went to an opera (Tea: A Mirror of Soul) at the National Center for Performing Arts and did not feel entirely put out by the security search to enter the massive hall. People have grown accustomed to these measures, and some efficiencies have been developed by those carrying out the searches.
2. Hordes of volunteers have emerged. Having served as an Olympic and Paralympic volunteer myself during the Salt Lake games, I know a thing or two about the procedures and organizational structure, and I can attest to the fact that Beijing has a definite advantage – neighborhood committees!

Neighborhood Olympic volunteers
Neighborhood Olympic volunteers on every street corner and even in between… one under every umbrella!

Everyone in China is organized into groups, traditionally according to work place or school. Housing has also traditionally been assigned by the company, though that is rapidly changing. As everyone is assigned to unit, each unit has a committee and each neighborhood has an organized “neighborhood watch” committee, who are basically retired people who sit around and spy on everyone going in and out of the community. They are actually empowered to do so by the local communist party! This level of organization comes in handy from time to time, especially when the government wants to implement an information campaign. Now, the red arm bands have been replaced with red and white volunteer outfits and you can literally find them on every street corner throughout the city. Wow!

Neighborhood Olympic volunteers
Neighborhood Olympic volunteer

3. An even more amazing display of flowers on the street than usual. I’m always amazed how the flower displays get more and more impressive every year around National Day, but this year they have pulled the stops to put up impressive flower stands along side of all the major roads and in many neighborhoods.
4. Cosmetic surgery to all of the older building fronts was completed in a timely fashion. If you are one of the lucky few able to visit Beijing for the games, you will notice that nearly every building has the same matte silver tile surface and brand new signage, thanks to a beautification plan that was implemented on a massive scale that can only happen in China. Reddit Slashdot Digg Facebook Technorati Google StumbleUpon Furl Yahoo Ask Mister Wong China Newsvine Simpy Spurl Wink Rawsugar Squidoo Fark