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Archive for the ‘Olympics’ Category

So, was it worth it?

With the Olympics now in our rear-view mirror, it’s time to answer the $40 billion question.

Was it worth it?

China spent $43 billion on these Games, more than doubling the previous record of $15 billion for the 2004 Games in Athens. The government shut down hundreds of factories across northern China and pulled half of the cars off the streets of Beijing in a desperate effort to clear the skies. It ordered more than a million people from their homes to make way for the stadiums and Olympic Green area, shuttered hotels and restaurants that didn’t meet the standards it hoped to portray to its foreign guests, and rounded up an untold number of dissidents to make sure everyone was on message for the Games.

And that doesn’t include the money that was spent on training the athletes to make sure the PRC topped the medal count, or training the citizens of Beijing to make sure no one was rude, spit on the streets, or jumped in line during the Games.

It may be a bit of a stretch to say the entire Chinese economy was affected by the government’s many Olympics-related regulations. But between factory closings, new environmental regulations, and stricter visa policies aimed at preventing unwanted people from entering the country during the Games, a pretty wide range of Chinese businesses had a rough couple of months. Everything from the Beijing sports bar that added a 15% Olympics fee to each customers’ bill along with a note about how the new Olympics rules had raised the cost of shipping and transporting food and drinks to the restaurant, to a shoe company in Shenzhen (about as far as one can get from Beijing and still be in China) who saw prices rise for rubber, plastic, and leather due to Olympics-related factory closings.

And since nothing that could tarnish the Games could be left to chance, the government had to deal with the weather, too.

Fortunately, China had already established a Weather Modification Department with an annual budget of $60-90 million. The WMD has a full-time staff of 1,500 and a part-time brigade of 37,000 ready to deploy the department’s 7,113 anti-aircraft guns and 4,991 rocket launchers.

Their job was to figure out how to control the weather, so the government could do things like make it rain in specific areas when there was a drought (apparently, this is done by firing packets of silver iodide into the clouds using anti-aircraft guns and/or rocket launchers). But for the past seven years, their most important job was to make sure the skies were clear for the Opening Ceremony.

The Games had a pretty significant social impact, as well.

Thanks to months of Olympics-themed lessons (some of them administered by yours truly), Chinese school-children are now conversant in Olympic tradition and history, from the colors of the Olympic rings to the height, weight, and birthdays of past Chinese Olympians.

In a country where it is common to find infants urinating in the streets, even in major cities, ordinary people will tell you they are excited about the environmental benefits of the Olympics-inspired ban on free plastic shopping bags.

And the Games may have even inspired a few thousand more people to work on their English, from the elderly volunteers who started studying English when Beijing won the bid in 2001 so they could help give directions or answer questions for foreigners seven years later, to the manager at a McDonald’s in Hangzhou who playfully scolded a cashier in late July, “You must practice English, Olympic Games are coming!”

So, was it all worth it?

Don Lee of the Los Angeles Times thinks so. He explains that while lesser economies have struggled after shelling out more than they could afford to put on a dazzling Olympic show, the Chinese economy is likely to improve after the Olympics.

The oft-quoted cost of the Games should have little effect on the world’s most populous nation, says Lee, and the lifting of a litany of Olympics-inspired regulations should allow China’s economy to get back to normal, with normal being an absurdly impressive rate of growth.

Apparently, $43 billion is not a whole lot of money for one of the largest and fastest-growing economies in the world.

According to one economist in Shanghai, the record-setting Olympic price tag may have accounted for as little as 0.5 percent of China’s total national investment in the last five years.

There is universal agreement that the Games were a logistical and technological success.

There was a bit of scolding from the press for internet censorship, and the treatment of reporters, and the failure to allow any protesting. And there was even an uproar over the fact that the adorable little girl in the Opening Ceremony was (gasp!) lip-syncing. But on the whole, the reviews were off the charts.

Here’s the AP, The Washington Post, and a great run-down from The Post’s Beijing blog.

And here’s fellow Bethesda, Maryland resident Tom Friedman of the New York Times, on what the success of the Games tells us about China.

I know almost nothing about economics, but I had always assumed that the only thing that could prevent the Olympics from being a major success for China were very large protests handled very badly by the government.

This was everyone’s biggest concern heading into the Games. There was little doubt China would put on a spectacular display for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, or that things would be run with anything less than military precision at all of the events in between. All of the venues would be stunning and the city would be shiny and clean (because anything that wasn’t would be removed by the government prior to the start of the Games).

The tremendous logistical and technological showcase would show the world that China had arrived. That the last great Communist regime had gotten pretty good at Capitalism. And that it has all of the infrastructure and resources you might need to do business.

When the world saw all of this, all of those businessmen who hadn’t already decided to consider doing business with China, might decide to consider doing business with China. And the world’s fourth-largest economy would continue to grow at Usain Bolt speed until it inevitably becomes the world’s largest.

The only thing that could prevent the Beijing Games from being an iconic moment in China’s rise to economic superpower status was a big, ugly scene that would make the world think all of the things it thought after Tiananmen Square. The kind of scene that would make all of those businessmen wonder whether they should consider doing business with China after all.

So the big question heading into these Olympics was how China would handle the protests. The “Free-Tibet!” people, the Uighur people, the people whose homes were knocked down so all the stadiums could be built, the people who want to be able to read Wikipedia and blog, the people who think better building practices and less corruption could have saved their children’s lives, all those American and British and French people who turned the torch relay into such a catastrophe. What if they all got together to form some kind of super-protest that couldn’t help but be broadcast by the international press to all corners of the television-watching globe?

But a funny thing happened. Nobody really protested anything. Not even in the three “protest parks” the government set up for the purpose.

The reason there were no major protests, even in the specially arranged “protest parks,” is that the government required written applications from all groups intending to protest, and then refused to accept any of the applications that were submitted.

But none of that really matters. Even the story of the two elderly women who attempted five times to apply to protest, were denied each time, and then were almost sent to labor camps for reeducation, doesn’t really matter.

All that matters, really, is that these Olympics were going to be a great moment in Chinese history, one that would continue and perhaps even speed China’s evolution into a global superpower, unless the government did something really horrible to a large group of people within sight of a television camera.

And that didn’t happen.

And I’m glad.

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The Sports Burka

BEIJING – One of the many things that makes the Olympics great is that at some point in the Games you are guaranteed to see something you’ve never seen before.

I’m not talking about watching a man run faster than anyone in the history of the world, even after slowing to a jog and beating his chest a few strides from the finish. Or a guy from Baltimore winning eight gold medals in swimming.

I’m talking about the strange and wonderful things you’ve never even thought about, the stuff you need an NBC analyst to explain to you. Like the difference between a gold medal performance and a last-place routine on the pommel horse. Or how exactly one accumulates points in a synchronized swimming contest.

For me, it was a sprinter from Bahrain and her Sports Burka.

Prior to Heat 4 of the women’s 200 meters in Beijing, I had never pondered the question of how a woman from a strict Muslim society might dress if she were to compete in a foot race.

But on August 19, as I watched from a lower-level seat in the Bird’s Nest, Rogaya Al-Gassra provided an answer. As her competitors removed their track suits to reveal spandex shorts and form-fitting tops that were often little more than sports bras, the runner from Bahrain stepped into the blocks in what could only be described as a Sports Burka.

It was a two-tone spandex suit, complete with a hood that resembled a swimmer’s bathing cap. The Sports Burka was as form-fitting as her competitors’ athletic apparel, and thus equally aerodynamic, but it cleverly met her religious requirement for modesty.

Islamic purists might cringe at the idea of a woman sporting a form-fitting spandex suit, but the Sports Burka covered every inch of Al-Gassra’s body aside from her hands and face. The suit did not cover the sprinter’s nose and mouth, as a traditional burka would, but this concession seems rather necessary to allow the runner to breathe as she attempts to out-run the fastest women in the world.

And that is just what Al-Gassra did, winning her heat in 22.81 seconds to advance to the second round of competition that evening.

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The Bird’s Nest

BEIJING – Don’t we look great together?

I’ve never had a crush on a building before, but when I saw the National Stadium in Beijing, I just knew.

It’s the prettiest building I’ve ever seen. And the most photogenic. Trust me. I have 137 photos of it.

And it looks perfect in all of them.

I know what you’re thinking. $420 million is a lot to spend on a stadium. Hey, $40 billion is a lot to spend on an Olympics, and that could be a low estimate considering the millions in lost revenue from the hundreds of factories that were closed down to give us that beautiful, blue sky as a backdrop.

But just look at it.

It looks even better from inside.

When you look at this next one, keep this in mind. You’re not looking at an art museum. That’s the ground floor of a stadium in Beijing.

And let’s not forget about this.

Pretty great, huh? Especially when you consider what is just across the street.

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Heineken House

BEIJING – A few weeks ago, this building was an agricultural exhibition center.

It’s the size of a small convention center, or a very large sports bar.

On August 8th, the place turned into a giant beer hall, dance club, and ticket dispensary, and it will stay that way until the Closing Ceremony. It’s called the Holland Heineken House, and it’s the place to be if you’re Dutch, know someone who is, or just like the idea of a sports bar with a capacity of about 2,000 people.

The Dutch have been doing this since 1992, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. I’ve been in Beijing since the Opening Ceremony and I don’t think a day has passed that I haven’t heard someone talking about the Heineken House. One of the more frequent late-night discussions in the courtyard of my youth hostel involved my British, Irish, and American friends wondering why none of our countries has opened something like this.

The Brits have something called the London House, which the people at the door will tell you is “a place for networking,” before asking who you know and what company you work for, and the Americans have something called Club Bud, which is an exclusive night club sponsored by Anheuser-Busch that is by invitation only.

But there is only one Heineken House.

During the day, it’s a great place to watch the Games, shop for ridiculous orange-colored souvenirs, and enjoy some overpriced fries with mayonnaise. It’s also the best place in Beijing to buy last-minute Olympics tickets. Each day you can choose from a lengthy list of available tickets for the next three days of competition, as long as you are accompanied by a Dutch passport-holder, and they go for just a smidge above face value.

At night, it’s the most popular night club in town, with daily performances from bands and DJs who my friend Janko tells me are very big names in Holland. The crowd is split between people dressed for a night out and people dressed in ridiculous orange-themed costumes (think plastic clogs, oversized overalls, and jester’s hats, all orange). It’s not a place to go if you’re 5-7 and enjoying the fact that you actually get to feel tall in this country, but it’s a very welcoming crowd for a place that is basically a national gathering spot for a country you aren’t from.

The place is so great it might actually be altering the demographics of the spectators here in Beijing. For a fairly small country, there are Dutch people everywhere at the Olympics. And they usually have really great orange costumes on.

If you believe Janko, a lot of them are here because of the Heineken House.

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BEIJING – The opponent came out first, to polite applause.

His name happened to be Joe Murray, and he happened to be representing Great Britain. But none of that mattered much. No one had come to the Worker’s Gymnasium that day to see Joe Murray.

The man they were waiting for came out moments later, and a bomb went off.

ZHONG GUO, JAIYO! ZHONG GUO, JAIYO!

The Chinese fighter was Yu Gu, a 54 kg bantam weight. If you passed him on the sidewalk, you wouldn’t know it. But on this day, as he emerged from the tunnel and walked to the ring, he was The Baddest Man on the Planet.

He waved to the crowd.

ZHONG GUO, JAIYO! ZHONG GUO, JAIYO!

He threw a punch or two into the air, and did a quick shuffle-step.

ZHONG GUO, JAIYO! ZHONG GUO, JAIYO!

It was the seventh fight of the day. Through the first six, you could hear the girl six rows back wondering aloud about how the scoring works.

As Yu Gu’s trainer removed the fighter’s robe, you couldn’t hear yourself think.

ZHONG GUO, JAIYO! ZHONG GUO, JAIYO!

The opponent looked like he’d already lost. Four rounds later, he had.

17-7, and it wasn’t that close.

The referee raised the Chinese fighter’s hand.

ZHONG GUO, JAIYO! ZHONG GUO, JAIYO!

It was only the preliminary round, the one that narrowed the field from 32 to 16. There were a half-dozen events going on that were more important. But the few thousand Chinese who were fortunate enough to be in the gym that afternoon, including the large groups of schoolchildren who had come with their teachers, didn’t have those tickets.

Most of them will not get another opportunity to watch one of their countrymen compete in these Olympics. So they made this one count.

ZHONG GUO, JAIYO! ZHONG GUO, JAIYO!

Yu Gu bowed to each corner of the gymnasium before exiting the ring. The seventh fight of the day was over.

In the eighth fight, Gojan Veaceslav of Moldova won a narrow victory over Khatsyhau Khavazhy of Belarus. They fought in silence.

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BEIJING – The Bird’s Nest may be an architectural wonder, but the site of tonight’s Opening Ceremony has one very important weakness. There’s no roof.

And on one of the most important nights in modern Chinese history, it just might rain.

Luckily, China has these guys. There are 37,000 of them, and they’re pretty sure they can control the weather.

But just to make sure, I paid a visit to the Hall of Dispelling Clouds at the Emperor’s Summer Palace this afternoon.

So we should be all good.

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It hit me as soon as I got off the escalator.

Thirteen hours in a sleeper-train couldn’t do it. An hour or so of conversation with a Chinese family, who were all making the trip to Beijing so their middle-school-aged son could use the family’s only ticket for the Opening Ceremony, still didn’t get it across.

But the moment I emerged from the tunnel at the Tiananmen West subway station, it was clear: I’m in Beijing.

And the Olympics start tomorrow.

I paused at the top of the escalator, took in a bit of that Beijing air everyone’s been talking about, and spent the rest of the afternoon getting to know my new Canon under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao.

The Chairman isn’t the only one watching over the throngs of tourists and potential dissidents in Beijing these days. 300,000 surveillance cameras have been deployed throughout the city, giving Beijing’s subway stations the feel of a Vegas casino.

There are very conspicuous monitors (above) in every station I happened upon on day one, letting the passengers know they are being watched.

I’m not sure it’s worthy of the near-daily headlines it’s been receiving of late, but I can report that it was a bit “misty” outside Tiananmen Square this afternoon.

It appears the city’s increasingly desperate and even comical attempts (The Evening Standard reports the latest involved shooting smog-dispersing pellets into the sky) have not succeeded in erasing decades of legendary air pollution.

Alas, as many more newspaper headlines and an NBC feature or twelve will surely announce over the next few days, these Olympics will, in fact, be held in Beijing.

And we’ll close day one with my new favorite Beijing snack shop: the Hu Guosi Noshery, outside the Fu Cheng Men subway station and a few blocks from my hostel.

You may have read about Beijing’s crusade to correct the city’s English translations on signs and menus. Apparently, they even took the time to learn a bit of Yiddish for their Jewish visitors.

Mazel tov, Beijing!

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