In February of 2001, the International Olympic Committee made their final inspection visit to Beijing to see if the city would be up to hosting the 2008 Olympics. In preparation for that visit, the city got a major “spruce-up.” Office and apartment buildings that had been a dull gray since their construction decades before were painted bright colors. Well, three sides of the buildings were painted — only the ones that face the highways that the Committee members would travel on. Every surface of the city was scrubbed clean.
My personal favorite was the grass. During a stroll through Tiananmen Square I noticed that the newly installed grass was green. “Green grass in February?” I was puzzled. Upon closer inspection I discovered that the entire “lawn” had been spray-painted green.
I thought of that today when I read this post in the The Beijinger about the city’s current effort to “greenify” in the run-up to the Communist Party Congress that will be held next month. All the power boxes are being covered with fake vines:
For the first time since in years I am not watching Olympic coverage on CCTV5, the official Chinese sports channel. This means, of course, that I am missing out on watching the competitions the Chinese tend to do well in, like women’s speed skating and curling.
Yes, I said curling.
One of the funny things that happened during the Winter Games in Vancouver four years ago was the near ubiquitousness of the Chinese curling squad on Chinese TV, never mind that no one (including me) had a clue what they were watching. But the non-stop coverage and excitement of the squad’s run to the bronze medal captivated the nation, and we all found ourselves cheering them on.
“One of China’s greatest hopes for an Olympic medal at the Sochi Games lies once again in curling, the obscure pastime more associated with small Canadian and U.S. Midwestern towns than with Chinese mainstream sports.
The same Chinese women’s curling team that won a bronze at Vancouver in 2010 is back, led by Wang Bingyu. Standing just 5-feet-5, the bespectacled Wang is an unlikely candidate for Olympic hero, looking more the part of graduate student than elite athlete. She came to the sport, popular among its North American participants for its lengthy post-game beer-drinking sessions, when her hockey-coach father concluded she was too small for hockey and suggested she try it out.
But while the Chinese team arrived in Vancouver as a team on the rise, the same quartet has meandered its way to Sochi.”
I guess I’m going to have to look for coverage on the CCTV5 website, the sports channel in China.
And even if I can’t find coverage of the squad, I’m still rooting for them to win a medal!
I spent most of the decade of the 1990’s in the northeastern city of Changchun, where I was the director of a program for Americans who were studying Chinese. Our program was a joint venture with a university there, so I and the foreign students that I supervised all lived on a campus.
One fall day, the director of the university department that oversaw the foreigner students called me into his office to discuss the upcoming annual sports meet. Part of his job was to make sure that as many of his foreigners participated as possible. He had asked me to recruit students in my program to participate in various events.
After I gave him the list, he asked if I wanted to participate in any of the events. I assured him that I didn’t. I hadn’t been in a sports meet since grade school and that was fine with me.
He wasn’t convinced, and our conversation proceeded roughly as follows:
He: I think you should do something.
Me: I have no interest in doing something. I will cheer my students from the sidelines.
He: How about shot put? Would you like to compete in that? You are very strong. (translation: you are fat)
Me: Shot put? I’ve never put a shot in my life! Of course I don’t want to enter that competition.
He: But I think you would be very good at it.
Me: I think I would drop the heavy ball and break my foot!
He: I don’t think that would happen.
Me: Well, I’m quite sure that I would break somebody’s foot, or accidentally put the shot behind me and kill someone. I am a clutz!
He: What’s a clutz?
Me: Never mind. I’m not going to participate in the shot put competition.
At this point he grinned sheepishly and pulled out a small booklet – the official roster for the sports meet. He opened it to the page where it said SHOT PUT and pointed to my name. I guess the entertainment prospect of them watching a ‘traditionally-built” foreigner hurl a heavy ball across a field was too much to resist.
He: You have to compete. I’ve already signed you up and your name is in the booklet.
The official translation of that statement is of course “if you don’t do this, I and the department will lose face and you wouldn’t do that to me, would you, because after all we have been friends now for 5 years?” Meanwhile I’m wondering why no one ever thinks about my face – the foreigner’s face.
Knowing that I had been check-mated, I glared at him and said “OK, I’ll do it.”
The day of the sports meet arrived and I dutifully took my place with the other shot putters, all of whom were tiny college girls who barely weighed as much as the balls they were intending to throw. As I looked them over I couldn’t help thinking that given the size difference between them and me, I could probably toss them across the field just as easily as I could the ball.
The competition got underway, and I think you know what happened.
I did NOT throw the ball behind me, and I did not drop it and break my foot.
I did, however, throw it way further than the other girls. I was the winner of the event.
Having successfully dazzled the world as the site of the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the sporting events that followed, the Olympic Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest” as it has come to be known, has fallen on hard times.
It was originally thought (hoped, really) that the Bird’s Nest would become a top choice for national and international sporting events. For whatever reason, that never happened and the management of the stadium (that would now be the Chinese government) find themselves trying to figure out what to do with the thing.
In the first year following the Olympics, the Birds’ Nest (and Water Cube) were able to generate revenue as a tourist attraction, with 50,000 people per day buying tickets to get in to re-live the glory. But those numbers have dwindled significantly, making it obvious that this business model is not sustainable. Fresh, new ideas are clearly needed.
Enter Old Man Winter and the ingenuity of a bureaucrat and “PRESTO” — the Bird’s Nest becomes a Winter Wonderland. I’m not making this up. For the rest of the winter the Bird’s Nest is being turned into a ski area.
The Bird’s Nest as it appeared on a summer night in August 2008
This is what it looks like now (Reuters photo):
In more ways than one, it really has become a white elephant!