Scenes from Beijing (cont.)
Olympic routine of an SI writer
BEIJING, SHUNYI, MING TOMB RESERVOIR -- When you're a utility player on the SI Olympic team, you end up visiting quite a few of the 31 competition venues in the Beijing Games. It's interesting to see how common features vary from venue to venue.
After staking out a work area in the press room, follow the signs to the press tribune, the reserved section for media to observe the competition. There are tabled areas, which allow you to observe the contests more closely on the closed-circuit televisions sitting on the tables, and non-tabled seating areas at every venue.
Before competition ends, take note of where the mixed zone is. This is where the athletes file out immediately following their events, and your first opportunity to get your questions in. Although some mixed zones don't always draw a huge crowd, it never hurts to get there early and check your personal space issues at the door. Also, for the sake of everyone else, please don't forget to shower beforehand.
If you didn't get a chance to ask all/any of your questions in the mixed zone, medalists conduct a press conference immediately following the victory ceremony. Interpreters are usually on hand for each of the medalists' native tongues, and the opportunity to listen to journalists from other countries do their work is one of the beautiful idiosyncrasies of covering the Olympics. Sure, you may never have to use that 10-minute response from the Turkish weightlifter, but it's all about the experience.
Finally, if you just need to take a break, visit the media lounge at every venue, where Ritz crackers, Oreo cookies and moon cakes are always in stock. Pretty ladies in formal outfits (either flight-attendant type skirt suits or even silk "qipaos") artfully arrange the snacks on trays, and even push the button on the coffee machine for you (perhaps not trusting that you can successfully avoid scalding yourself and causing an international incident). If you're lucky, your machine will have options for cappuccino, mocha and hot chocolate as well.
Most media lounges are fairly simple break rooms, but they all feature flat-screen TVs so you can track all the competitions. The best lounge is 33 kilometers north of Beijing at the triathlon venue, which is converted from an old water park. The triathlon's lounge is an open-air series of Ming dynasty gazebos connected by stony paths. It still serves the same bananas and moon cakes, though.
Sunday, Aug. 17
Day in the Olympic life of Chinese sports
BEIJING -- Eight gold medals by Michael Phelps? Try eight gold medals by China ... in one day. Events from rowing to gymnastics, freestyle wrestling to badminton and yes, table tennis.
After winning China's eighth gold today, women's table tennis coach Shi Zhihao was asked about Phelps' achievement, or more specifically, what he thought of the fact that Chinese athletes did in one day what it took one American athlete to do in a week. Coach Shi smiled. "It means the Americans have strong individuals, but the Chinese have a strong team." Everyone laughed, including Shi, but he had a point. Chinese athletes have dominated the gold medal rush in the first 10 days of the Games, winning 35 golds; Americans not named Phelps have won just 11.
Today, we tracked a day in the Olympic life of China, from the Shunyi rowing facility where China won its first Olympic gold in the sport; to shooting, where a mistake by, whoops, an American, pushed Qiu Jian to a surprise gold; to women's freestyle wrestling, where reserve Wang Jiao won the 72kg event; and to gymnastics, diving, badminton and table tennis, where you don't bet against the People's Republic unless you've got money to burn. Here's a snapshot of China's athletic accomplishments on Day 10 of the Beijing Olympics, arranged chronologically by event start time.
7:30 a.m.: Track and Field (Women's Marathon) - BRONZE. A slight disappointment for China as favored Zhou Chunxiu, the 2007 London Marathon champion and world silver medalist, takes bronze. Romania's Constanina Tomescu wins gold (2:26:49). Zhou tries for silver in a sprint finish with 2007 world champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, but Ndereba (2:27:06) holds Zhou off by one second.
10:47 a.m.: Swimming (Womens' 4x100-meter individual medley) - BRONZE. Swimming out of lane 6, the team of Zhao Jing, Sun Ye, Zhou Yafei and Pang Jiaying takes bronze (3:56.11) behind Australia (in a world-record 3:52.69) and the United States (3:53.30).
1:30 p.m.: Shooting (Men's 50m rifle 3 positions) - GOLD. China's Qiu Jian, 33, wins the event when American Matthew Emmons, in gold-medal position, scores just 4.4 points on his last shot of the competition. Qiu's previous best results included a second place at the World Cup and a seventh place at the 2007 Asian Championships. Emmons falls to fourth place. A similar mishap befell him in Athens, but he's not complaining; he met his wife, Czech shooter Katerina Kurkova (gold in women's 10m air rifle and silver in women's 50m rifle three positions here), when she rushed up to console him in 2004.
2:00 p.m.: Tennis (Women's Doubles and Singles) - BRONZE, 4th on adjacent courts with identical start times. China goes for double bronze in women's singles and doubles. On Court 2 at the Beijing Olympic Green tennis facility, 2006 Australian Open and Wimbledon champions Zheng Jie and Yan Zi prevail over the Williams sisters of Ukraine. It's their first Olympic medal together (compatriots Sun Tiantian and Li Ting were the surprise gold medalists in this event in Athens). On Court 1, Li Na is less fortunate, losing an error-prone bronze-medal match to Russia's Vera Zvonareva. Russia completes a sweep of the women's singles medals with Zvonareva's 6-0, 7-5 win.
4:30 p.m.: Rowing (women's quadruple sculls) - GOLD. Chinese rowing has benefited greatly from Project 119, which targeted water sports like rowing, canoeing, kayaking and sailing to produce competitive squads for these Olympics. The Chinese had never before won a gold medal in rowing before today's win in womens' quad sculls by Tang Bin, Jin Ziwei, Xi Aihua, and Zhang Yangyang (6:16.06). Great Britain took silver (6:17.37) and Germany was third in 6:19.56.
5:47 p.m.: Freestyle wrestling (women's 72kg) - GOLD. World junior champion Wang Jiao, who replaced the injured Wang Xu on the Chinese roster for these Games on July 25, prevails over Stanka Zlateva of Bulgaria. Her gold-medal quest included an upset of five-time world champion Kyoko Hamaguchi of Japan.
6:00 p.m.: Gymnastics (men's and women's apparatus finals) - TWO GOLD, ONE BRONZE. Cheng Fei, favored to win both women's vault and floor exercise, falters on both but gets away with a bronze in the vault despite landing her second vault on her knees. The men deliver the goods; Zou Kai takes the men's floor exercise gold and compatriot Xiao Qin wins the pommel horse event.
6:30 p.m. Badminton (men's doubles bronze medal match, men's singles final) - BRONZE, GOLD. Indonesia's Flandy Limpele and Vita Marissa fall victim to He Hanbin and Yu Yang for the bronze in the men's doubles event. Later in the evening, Lin Dan, the number one player in the world, wins singles gold over Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei.
7:50 p.m.: Table Tennis (women's team final) - GOLD. The Chinese just don't know how to lose in this sport. This is the first time the team event has been contested in the Olympics; it replaces the doubles competition, where China's women have won the last three Olympic titles. They win team gold here with a perfect record, not dropping a match in the best-of-five-match format (two singles, one doubles, two reverse singles).
8:30 p.m.: Diving (women's 3-meter springboard) - GOLD, BRONZE. Somebody else who just doesn't know how to lose: China's Guo Jingjing, the country's most famous female athlete, making her final Olympic appearance. Her co-champion in the 3-meter springboard synchronized event, Wu Minxia, takes bronze.
And that's just one day. Still to come this week for China: men's basketball, where China has advanced to the quarterfinals; the table tennis singles events, which should net a glut of medals for the home team; and the marquee event of the Games, the men's 110-meter hurdles, featuring 2004 Athens gold medalist Liu Xiang.
On the scene with ex-Olympian Mel Stewart
BEIJING -- A member of two U.S. Olympic teams, Mel Stewart won two gold medals and one bronze at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and he held the world record in the 200-meter butterfly from 1991 to '95. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Stewart is now an actor and screenwriter. He will be creating video blogs about swimming in Beijing for SI.com throughout the Olympics. His Web site is Gold Medal Mel. Here, Mel yucks it up with Mary Lou Retton at the USA House in Beijing.
Saturday, Aug. 16
I come up smelling like a rose
SHANGHAI -- Unshowered, unshaved and smelling like a mix of stale sweat, post-deadline Tsingtaos and the giant bowl of noodle soup I'd devoured at 1 a.m., I arrived at Hongqiao airport wondering if I'd make my flight back to Beijing after oversleeping my alarm clock on Saturday morning.
Haggard journalists are the (literally) unwashed masses this deep into the Olympics, and for one morning, at least, I was neck-and-neck with the Bulgarians on the Stench Scale. When my cab pulled up to the departure terminal I fully expected to 1) miss my 8:15 a.m. flight, and 2) get a stern lecture in Mandarin from the gate agent on my punctuality, to say nothing of my hygiene.
But I forgot one thing: I had The Golden Ticket.
Thanks to the official yellow Olympic credential hanging around my neck, I got the sort of welcome from Shanghai Airlines that would make a maharajah feel self-conscious. First a lovely young gate agent grabbed my bag and escorted me to the front of a long check-in line. (*You really don't have to do this.*) Then the man at the computer upgraded my economy seat to business class. (*Do you think I'm an athlete or something? I'm just a journalist.*)
Then the gate agent took me past 60 people to the head of the first-class security line (*You realize I smell terrible, don't you?*) and on to the elite-status lounge, where she handed me off to another lovely young host who guided me past a line of 60 more passengers to an air-conditioned VIP bus on the tarmac. (*You must have me confused with S.L. Price. He's the one who's used to rolling like this.*)
But maybe none of it should have been surprising. When I landed at the same airport a day earlier, another young host had whisked me off the jetbridge and competed with two of her colleagues to see who could be the first to pull my luggage off the baggage-claim belt. When she lost out it looked like she wanted to cry.
Or maybe it was just the way I smelled that caused that reaction. Next time I'll do her the honor of taking a shower beforehand.
Them's fightin' words
BEIJING -- Oh, the things that go on inside Olympic arenas. Friday night at the highly-anticipated women's volleyball match between the United States and China, the announcer took pains to announce in Mandarin -- but not in English -- that booing the athletes was inappropriate behavior at a sporting event. Fair enough. (P. S. Didn't work; when the score got close, the highly pro-Chinese crowd booed anyway. And that didn't work; the U.S. won the match.)
But turning politically-charged patriotic songs into popular sing-along songs? No problem. Techno music at sports events is nothing new, but how about techno versions of Young Pioneers songs with lyrics like "The five-star red flag flutters in the wind, the sound of victory resonates, a song to our dear Motherland ... "?
That's Ode to the Motherland (Gechang Zuguo), the song that was lip-synched at the opening ceremony by Lin Miaoke. Several Chinese friends told me they were glad to see a little girl singing it then (though they didn't know at the time which little girl's voice they were hearing, of course). Had it been sung by an adult, it might have come off as, well, political. But Friday night at women's volleyball, the crowd joined together for a techno version of that very song, prodded by a Chinese-language graphic on the Jumbotron that said, "Let's sing together!" All the crowd sang as one during the second technical time out in the fourth set, with the U.S. leading China 16-14. The match itself was somewhat charged politically, what with Chinese volleyball legend Lang Ping coaching the United States against her country's team, and with one Hu Jintao in the audience. Maybe the Chinese organizers thought the U.S. athletes wouldn't notice the lyrics, or the overtones.
Who said these Games weren't political?
Ode to the Motherland isn't the only song being repurposed as a techno-dance sing-along for crowds at these Games. The award for most politically-charged song might go to another Mao-era gem, Socialism is Good (Shehui Zhuyi Hao). That song was played as a sing-along at the China-Cuba women's volleyball on Wednesday night -- which, politically speaking, seems at least a little more appropriate. It didn't stop some Chinese netizens from considering it a bit on the cringeworthy side, though, what with lyrics like "The imperialists will turn tail and scamper away."
"Ugh, I haven't heard that song in years!" wrote one on a Chinese-language online message board. Another Chinese allowed that the song has gone through many iterations of lyrics over the years (including some that make fun of the original). Still, she said, the version she learned in first grade was definitely on the political side, and singing it in an Olympic venue didn't seem like the best choice for a Games that the hosts have insisted has nothing to do with politics.
Maybe it was just all about giving the competing teams some familiar music to play to, and the spectators something to cheer. Bare-midriffed pompom girls cheered in that familiar American-collegiate way during the U.S.-China volleyball game too, and danced to thoroughly unpolitical techno dance numbers of their own. And what music was played as entertainment during the U.S.-Greece men's basketball game? Zorba the Greek, of course.