Beijing 2008: Summer Olympics and Modern Architecture

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Beijing Olympics



A week has passed since my return from the Beijing Olympics, but I still hear shouts of “Chai Yo”—“step on the gas” or “go” when an athelete from China was participating.  In smaller arenas the noise was deafening.  Many of us had to block our ears for fear of damaging our eardrums.  This display of patriotic fervor was unsettling for a stateless person like me.  Besides, if memory serves, the Olympnic Games are an expression of “arête”, a drive to excel that has no relation to artificial geographic borders.
Olympic ParkThat said, China has a lot to be proud of.  The Opening Ceremony was magical and the Closing Ceremony was merely magnificent, but only by comparison.  I’m sure most of you saw them on TV as I did.  Zhang Yimou, a world-renowned movie director who orchestrated both, outdid himself.  They displayed China’s civilization, ancient traditions and modern capacity, as second to none.   Olympic Park was studded with architectural masterpieces such the “bird’s nest” (track and field) and “cube” (swimming).  Many other venues had unique architectural characteristics.  The Park was flanked on the south by a huge “seven star” hotel with at least four high-rise buildings, the first and tallest, was crested by the shape of an Olympic flame.  This construction, and the greening of Beijing (below), cost the government about $40 billion.  As importantly, the facilities inside the venues (seating, audio, video) were all world-class and management was executed with military precision, probably by seconded army personnel—it’s a dead giveaway when they all march in-step, halt and turn on command.  Altogether, a million “volunteers” with booths all over the city facilitated the games.

Bird's Nest
I arrived in Beijing with no event tickets and spent an anxious week wondering how I would get them.  Internet prices were outrageous even though the face price of the tickets was kept affordable for the local population.  My well-placed local friends had choice tickets given to them officially or as gifts, but they had no extras and did not know how buy them.  By sheer luck, on the evening of the Opening Ceremony, I found a US based tour company that sold extra tickets at reasonable premiums.  Through them I was able to buy tickets for about 30 events (gymnastics 3, volleyball 3, swimming 2, track and field 4, basketball 3, table tennis 2, hockey 1, boxing 1, kayak 1, and weightlifting 1).  I also joined their lounge in a downtown hotel that proved to be a great resting place with 15 wide-screen TVs to watch events.

I saw Usain Bolt accelerate ahead at 40 meters in a 100 meter heat and ease off at 80 meters to cruise to victory.  Michael Phelps lost his heat in the Butterfly to a Croatian swimmer who also won the final, I believe.  Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson performed outstandingly for the US women’s gymnastics team.  Men’s and women’s volleyball competitions were more acrobatic than in my memory of that sport.  I saw my first live basketball game in which the smallest person in the Russian women’s team, an American, was the best player and carried them to a bronze medal.  Table Tennis was much faster and more demanding than I remember it.  Players were toweling off after every few points in an over-air-conditioned arena.  Interestingly, at the quarter final stage, virtually all the TT competitors were of Chinese origin even though they represented several other countries including the US and Dominican Republic.  Hockey looked like a different game than I played with mostly long soccer-like passes and little fancy stick work.
Swim Cube
It was great to see the world’s best competing in many sports, especially in those that I played when I was young.   China dominated the gold medals as its media often repeated and the US won the most medals as its media emphasized.  China did themselves proud, winning or placing in a wide variety of sports, although tinged with regret at not performing well in their favorite sports–basketball and soccer.  Always hoping for a breakout performance by Indian athletes, I was pleased to notice that the country won its first ever individual gold medal in shooting and also a bronze medal in boxing.  Also, Raj Bhavsar was a member of the US gymnastics team.  Sadly its once vaunted hockey team did not even qualify to play (I think).

Nothing is perfect, unfortunately.  I should mention a few small shortcomings to make the picture somewhat realistic.  As the weather was hot, humid and sometimes raining, transport was a challenge, especially after track and field got underway with a 90,000 seat stadium.  Beijing has many buses and frequent subway trains with very low fares and plenty of well-priced taxis, but it also has a population of about 20 million.  For that reason, all transport was full all the time.  Added to the struggle of getting on to transport was passing light security at every subway station and heavy security at Olympic Park.  Trips to arenas took about an hour and a half each way.  Travel to two events a day was pretty demanding.  Also, the noise level in all arenas was annoying.  Heaped on the Chai Yos were blaring audio systems spewing out announcements and music during intervals at deafening decibels, soothed somewhat by the dancing girls and prancing Olympic mascots.     Beijing has changed dramatically since my last visit in 1996.  It has transformed into a first world capital.  Apparently, most of the construction occurred after 2001, when it was awarded the Olympic Games.  Remarkable new structures that I visited include the National Theater, Capital Airport and South Beijing Railway Station.  The downtown area—a couple of miles radius from the Forbidden City—is choc-a-bloc with high rise office buildings, shopping malls and hotels, some with remarkable architecture.   It has also been “greened” with abundant bushes and flowers covering road medians and pavements.  The downtown area was kept spotlessly clean by mechanized and manual street sweepers, apparently a make-work program for the Olympic period.  China still has surplus labor, surprisingly.
Track and FieldBasketball Arena
The city is belted by at least five ring roads that seemed newly constructed or paved.  Indeed, the infrastructure was the best of any city I have visited.  The first two ring road neighborhoods are solidly first world though a keen eye could catch traces of the second and third world.  These proportions change as one moves towards the outer ring roads.  My apartment was off the third ring road where it was mostly third world except for the many university and institute campuses, which had newly built sections.  The main roads were still fantastic, but the branch roads needed help.  By this distance from the center, shopping malls and supermarkets gave way to small shops, restaurants and service stalls.  Road traffic along the main arteries was congested, but not badly because private car use was restricted during the Olympic period.  Partly for that reason and the stoppage of factories around the city, there was no smog.  The pall of humidity over the city that looked like smog disappeared after it rained.
Mascot and Dancers
Unlike in most Asian countries, Beijingers are not shy to show emotions in public by holding hands, hugging and even kissing.  Children get an unusual amount of attention, probably because of the country’s one-child policy.  Almost everyone wears modern clothes with English writing on many shirts and T-shirts.  Despite everything being made in China, prices in the downtown areas were higher than in the US.  All the high and medium fashion labels are well represented and Chinese consumerism is clearly second to none.  The genie is finally out of the bag.  The open air markets with stalls have been moved into high rise buildings, but the bargaining culture remains.  The clients were mainly foreigners looking to buy cheaply, whereas the Chinese seemed more interested in buying expensive international labels at malls.  On the down side, Beijingers have no concept of waiting in line for anything anywhere—food stalls, shops, subway, buses or taxis.  People have absolutely no compunction about jumping the queue, making it a real challenge to get on a subway, especially in the downtown shopping areas, or get a taxi.

I ate well before the games started, but my gastronomic adventures declined disastrously afterwards.  My nicest meal was in a “courtyard” restaurant recommended in the New York Times.  It was not so much a courtyard as an aristocrat’s house near the Forbidden City modernized elegantly into a restaurant with lots of marble, granite, water flowing over stones, antique furniture and traditional paintings.  The food was very good, but the prices matched New York levels.  I also ate good Sichuan and Cantonese meals.  The food at Olympic Park was pretty basic and worse at other arenas.  Kiosks were doling out junk food (chips, cookies, coke, cake) and some innovative self-heating rice meals.  More often than not, they did not have several items in stock.  And there was McDonald’s, with a limited menu and very long lines. Otherwise, hurried meals outside Olympic venues were simple, but fine and very cheap.  Most interesting were the offerings in the hundred plus stalls near the hotel downtown.  Although I ate simply, white and black snakes, scorpions and other bugs and unusual body parts of many creatures were available.  A vegetarian visitor would have a difficult time getting balanced nutrition in Beijing.

I’m sure the city was littered with internet café’s, but they were not obviously visible. I had to hunt for one in my neighborhood.  When I eventually found it, it was more like an office with a couple of hundred computer stalls than a café.  Nothing is on a small scale in China.  The charge for an hour of broadband use was a paltry RMB 2/hour, cheaper than anywhere else in the world that I have used this service.  CCTV has many channels including one in English and one in French.  The Olympics coverage was extensive, but all in Mandarin.  The English language channel was not permitted to broadcast the games live, but it provided news of the games and other developments.  Unfortunately, the government slant was clear and the self-congratulatory tone got a little old, even if it was mostly deserved.  I had a similar concern about “The China Daily”, the mostly readily available local English language paper.  Indeed, even short casual conversations with Beijingers had to include a congratulation for China’s success with and in the games.

After the games started, there wasn’t time to do much sightseeing.  On previous visits I had visited all the major historical sites several times.  On this visit, I was more interested by some of Beijing’s new structures.  The National Theater is a huge glass and steel dome surrounded by a lake near Tian Anmen Square.  Apparently it includes three auditoria, but my two attempts to walk through the inside failed for one reason or another.  The Capital airport used the same architect that designed Hong Kong airport, but it is impressively larger and apparently the largest covered structure in the world.  South Beijing Railway station felt like a smaller version of the airport and equally well appointed inside.

I also went to a few minor historical sites and a museum that I had not visited before.  Behai Park adjoins the Forbidden City and was an Imperial garden.  It is impressively planted and has a Buddhist temple on top of a hill.  It also has a lake for boating and cafés to relax and have a beer.  Unfortunately, it does not draw many visitors.  Another much more popular area called something like Ho Hai also had a lake and many, many bars and restaurants with blaring rock and rap music.  The Yonghegong Lama Temple is a large Buddhist monastery with a series of shrines, the last of which had a 60 foot Buddha statue carved from one piece of wood.  Surprising to me was the number of worshippers at each of the shrines.  Noticing an announcement for a Thousand Tibetan Thangka exhibition, I hunted down the museum out of curiosity.  The permanent exhibit on Tibet was largely propaganda and the thousand thangka’s were about King Gesar, a warrior who ruled Tibet a few centuries ago.  Although I wasn’t counting, my impression was that Buddhism was not visible in more than a dozen thangkas.

Despite China being the world’s factory, its services are still archaic.  It took 20 mins to cash a travelers check with many forms and copies of passport, visas, check etc.  The Olympic Flagship store downtown used the most antiquated payment system I have come across in years.  I bought items from three areas.  I got invoices in triplicate from each that I had to present to a cashier far away that specialized in credit card payments.  She charged my card separately for each area, stamped all nine invoices and attached a visa payment copy to each batch of invoices.  I had then to go back to each area to collect my purchases.  It took longer to pay than to buy.  I had similar experiences with electricity and cable TV payments.  As a Hong Konger sitting next to me in an Olympic venue said “China has good hardware, but bad software”.

By chance, I took Parag Khanna’s (no relation) “The Second World” with me to read.  It turned out to be uncannily appropriate for the visit.  It presents a synthesis of the geopolitical configuration of the world with analytical depth and humor.  He has actually visited over a hundred countries.  More aptly, the book should have been titled “China Ascendant”.  Yes, it discusses the decline of the US, the rise and expansion of the EU, but concentrates on what China has managed to accomplish so incredibly quickly.  It dominates Asia of course, but to quench its thirst for resources, it has spread its tentacles to Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.  It has done this by building roads, ports, pipelines and other infrastructure, sometimes at no cost to the country.  China Development Bank’s assets are larger than the World Bank and Asian Development Bank combined.  And the assets of all Chinese development banks (about 60) are ten times larger than those of the multilateral banks.  The Beijing Olympic Games symbolize China’s restoration as a dominant world power.


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