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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

HANGZHOU – Did you miss me?

It’s been at least seven years since my last post, and my only excuse is that I have been teaching way too many people how to speak English lately.

When I foolishly agreed to come to Hangzhou for what I thought was a month-long summer camp, I somehow managed to open the TEFL equivalent of Pandora’s Box. It happened a few hours after I got off the bus from Yangzhou, when the agent who arranged the job for me casually asked if I might be willing to do him a small favor by working a few extra hours at another center.

Those few hours, of course, quickly became every hour of the day that I wasn’t scheduled to work at the original center. And if I happened to have any time left, both centers would really appreciate it if I could help out with some extra classes, since they’re really short on teachers right now and some of their regular teachers are out of town, and…

Anyway, it’s August already, which means the biggest party in the history of the world is only a week away in Beijing. After spending much of the last three weeks quizzing Chinese 7-year-olds on the height, weight, and birthdays of various Chinese Olympians, I’m getting pretty excited about Beijing.

The average Chinese 7-year-old, by the way, or at least the Chinese 7-year-olds who spend their summers taking private English lessons, know way more than they need to about the Olympics. I can tell you that everyone in my class knows the colors of each of the five Olympic rings as well as the names and back-stories of each of the five Olympic mascots. And, thanks to our three-week unit on Olympic sports, all of them can now tell you what the word “free-throw line” means in English. Many of them still struggle with the difference between “how are you?” and “where are you from?”, but you’ve got to have your priorities, right?

Needless to say, the Olympics is kind of a big deal over here. Every time I tell someone I’m going to Beijing, I get the same reaction. It’s sort of a combination of respect and astonishment, followed by the question, “Do you have tickets?”

For the first time in Olympic history, the question is actually a good one. The Beijing Games will not only be the most expensive in history, it may also be the first sold-out Olympics.

After the final round of ticket sales last week led to a small riot among people who had camped out for up to two nights in front of the ticket windows to buy up the last remaining seats, it’s entirely possible that even the most esoteric of the “is that really an Olympic sport?” events could be played before a packed house, while scalpers outside the Bird’s Nest hawk synchronized swimming and modern pentathlon tickets for three-figure prices.

It sounds like there may not be much partying at the biggest party in the history of the world, but that definitely seems to be the model for the Beijing Olympics.

The Opening Ceremony alone cost more than $300 million and includes more than 10,000 performers, according to the Korean television station that filmed a dress rehearsal of the event this week.

And while every Olympics is an opportunity for the host to show the world it is capable of building ridiculously extravagant stadiums to prove its economic might and importance, the biggest country in the world and what will very soon be the world’s largest economy, had to step it up a notch.

The government bought 40 million flower pots to adorn its capital city during the Games, and built what is being described as a forest next to the Olympic stadium, complete with a man-made mountain and a dragon-shaped lake.

Beijing has also undergone a massive project to correct the English translations on its signs and menus, and teams of volunteers have patrolled the city in an effort to stamp out spitting and line-jumping, all in the name of putting the city’s best face forward for the world.

People are calling this China’s “coming-out” party, but that doesn’t quite say it. I’d call it a “we’re about to become the most important country in the world, so we thought we’d introduce ourselves” party.

So it seems only appropriate for the party itself to be as big as humanly possible.