Scenes From Beijing (cont.)
Thursday, Aug. 14
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. [http://www.goldmedalmel.typepad.com/]
Here, Mel surveys the scene at The Great Wall:
Wednesday, Aug. 13
"Minor" sport? Tell that to the Chinese
BEIJING -- On a night of stunning matchups at the Beijing Olympics -- Japan-Cuba in baseball and China-Brazil in men's soccer -- it was arguably a nearly meaningless match in pool play in the women's Olympic volleyball tournament that generated the most electricity.
China faced Cuba on Wednesday in Pool A at Capital Indoor Stadium. Both teams are guaranteed entry into the eight-team elimination round because of their won-loss record so far in the tournament, so consider this match more a scouting report than a decisive statement.
But don't tell that to the sellout crowd that started chanting Zhongguo jiayou before a single player appeared. It could have been the gold-medal match, so intense was the play, so electrifying the energy. Cuba prevailed in five sets after China blew seven match points in the fourth: 18-25, 14-25, 25-23, 32-30, 15-13. The margin of victory in the last three sets was two points. It was that close.
These aren't just any two teams, of course. China's the reigning Olympic champion; Cuba won the three Olympics before that. China is competing in its home country; Cuba is fighting to improve on its bronze-medal showing in Athens. China's fans are so rabid you'd think anyone with a Cuban passport was turned away at the door; Cuba's coach, Antonio Perdomo Estrella, tells us he could swear he heard at least a few people chanting "Go Cuba!" (Guba jiayou) as his team clawed its way to victory with China seemingly holding all the momentum. Um, OK. Maybe there were, like, five. The rest of the house was there for the other guys. Trust us on this one.
In the U.S., indoor volleyball is considered a "minor sport," one of those quaint ball games that generates next to no media, next to no money and peaks at the NCAA level. The national team is all but unknown. Its sexy cousin, beach volleyball, gets all the press and all the cash. But in China, Feng Kun and Zhao Ruirui, China's women's team captain and star middle blocker, can't walk down the street without being chased for autographs. They're volleyball's answer to Yao Ming.
That's right. In China, you can have a volleyball version of Yao Ming.
The night started out a cakewalk and ended up a gauntlet. Team China looked like it would dispatch of Cuba handily after winning the first two sets in 40 minutes. The momentum was still on China's side early in the third; it led by as many as five points before Cuba got back to even at 15-all. China wouldn't lead again in the set.
The fourth was the true battle; stunning hitting by Wang Yiwei, solid setting by Feng and a libero that wouldn't quit digging in Zhang Na kept China's hopes alive, but Cuba had answers from captain Yumilka Ruiz and standout Rosir Calderón. China earned seven match points but kept giving them back, and like a table-tennis rally, the score kept going back and forth: 24-23, 24-24, 25-24, 25-25, all the way to 30-all, when Cuba finally earned its one set point and converted on a Rachel Sánchez kill.
From there, the advantage was Cuba's, and the decisive fifth set was over in just 15 minutes. The whole way through, the crowd was popping. Cheerleaders tossed pompoms and the walls shook with cheers. After it was all over, the crowd applauded both teams.
Was this a preview of the Olympic final or just one hell of a night of women's volleyball? Either way, I floated out of the arena, thrilled that these two teams played to such a high level so early in the tournament and that the fans here are knowledgeable enough to appreciate it.
Minor sport, you say? The Chinese fans would laugh at you. More seats for them. -- Mary Nicole Nazzaro
Boldon breaks down the men's 100m
BEIJING -- When Ato Boldon was competing in the 100 and 200 meters, and winning a total of four Olympic medals, he was the best quote in the game by a wide margin, whether trash-talking opponents or filling writers' notebooks. Now he is a track and field analyst for NBC, and nothing has changed.
Boldon talked with a group of writers Wednesday afternoon in Beijing after a press conference with USA track athletes. The questioning quickly turned to Saturday night's 100-meter final.
Asked if he thinks Tyson Gay's hamstring will hold up for four rounds, Boldon said, "No. And I am an unabashed fan of Tyson Gay and the new generation that he leads, the non-Boldon-[Maurice] Greene-[Donovan] Bailey sprinters who are respectful. And also, I was just told that no Olympic champion in recent memory has done so without any European competition.'' (Gay has not run since he was injured at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 5.)
On world record-holder Usain Bolt's inexperience, Boldon said he talked to two-time U.S. Olympian Dennis Mitchell recently and Mitchell suggested that sprinters panic more under pressure when they are experienced.
"Dennis said you tend to panic more when you've been there before,'' said Boldon. "That rang true for me. When something goes wrong, you go, 'Uh-oh, not this again.' Therein lies the disadvantage of somebody like Asafa Powell.'' [Powell was run down by Gay in the final 40 meters last year at the worlds in Japan and has a reputation for struggling in big races. "Don't you think somewhere in his brain, when he gets to 50 or 60 and he's got Gay or Bolt next to him, that there's a flashback for Asafa?''
Boldon does expect Powell to get out fast, but for Bolt to run him down. But if Bolt gets a great start, like he did in his world record race on May 31 in New York? "Forget about it,'' says Boldon. "You guys can put down your pens. Everyone is intrigued because it's the 100 meters and they're all beaten each other. But if Bolt gets the start he got in New York, it's over. Ben Johnson used to say, 'The gun go off, the race be over.' It's going to be one of those. He's changed the thinking. A guy that tall should not have that kind of turnover. You didn't look on the Redeem Team for the next 100-meter champ. But maybe we should.''
Boldon also does not expect Chinese hero Liu Xiang to beat Dayron Robles of Cuba in the 110-meter hurdles. "I think Robles is probably the biggest favorite here, at least in track.'' -- Tim Layden
Spotted: Lang Lang, international music man
BEIJING -- Fresh from his appearance in the opening ceremonies, 26-year-old piano prodigy Lang Lang taped an interview with a British reporter and performed for a gaggle of gawkers yesterday afternoon in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel, adjacent to the Main Press Center.
Lang is one of the international Chinese superstars that the Beijing Olympics organizers have called on to promote the Games. His flashy style-spiky hair, flamboyant playing and even his own line of Adidas sneakers is controversial among classical purists, but there's no doubt he represents the new Chinese superstar: talented, fashionable and worldly. -- Rebecca Sun
It's in the cards for Phelps
It's not the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card (yours for just $1.62 million) but Michael Phelps does have his own trading card. The swimmer was one of a number of athletes and celebrities to take part in the Donruss Fans of the Game series that appeared in the company's baseball and football sets from 2004-05. (He also appeared in a trading card for SI For Kids in 2003). The latest on eBay has cardboard Phelps going for just south of $200. -- Richard Deitsch
Tuesday, Aug. 12
Tanks for the Memories
BEIJING -- Strange scene in front of the Main Press Center today. The world's media was greeted by a 20-foot Chinese armored vehicle as they entered the facility. Certainly, Beijing's preoccupation with security has heightened in the last days, though many ambled into the press center barely batting an eye. Some journalists even posed in front of the tank, no doubt keeping in the Olympic spirit of peace and harmony. The vehicle sat idle in front of the media security check station, with soldiers sitting stiffly in both the front and back of the vehicle.
"That's the decision made by the relevant authorities," said Beijing Games Executive Vice President Wang Wei. "I don't think it is going to be a big threat." Wei said Chinese officials may increase the security level around the facility, but he did not expect them to present an inconvenience to the media. In other words, walk around the tank. -- Richard Deitsch
Spain, world champs in hoops and racism
BEIJING -- What were they thinking? It's a question that crops up all too often when it comes to Spanish sports and racial sensitivity. And now the Spanish basketball team, the reigning world champions, have added another confounding chapter to a disgraceful timeline. In a full-page ad in Spain's best-selling newspaper, the sports daily Marca, the team posed smiling and stretching the skin on the side of their eyes to appear Chinese.
The advertisement was for a courier service that sponsors the Spanish Basketball Federation, and apparently not a single player on the Spanish team thought that a slant-eyed gesture might not be the best image to project to the Olympic hosts.
In 2004, Spanish national soccer coach Luis Aragonés referred to French footballer Thierry Henry as "that sh--- black;" also that year, Spanish soccer fans made monkey chants at black players on the English team; earlier this year, black Formula One racer Lewis Hamilton, of England, was subjected to such abuse in Spain that an International Herald Tribune reporter wrote that "it seemed almost as if the Ku Klux Klan had relocated to a racetrack near Barcelona."
So one incident deserves a slap on the wrist, some serious discussion, and perhaps sensitivity training, but how about three that are so egregious they draw the world's ire? You would think that Spanish team members and Lakers forward Pau Gasol, at least, would have been exposed to enough media in a diverse country after seven years of NBA experience, to know better than end up in such a picture. Apparently not. What were they thinking? Probably not about Madrid's 2016 bid to host the Olympics. -- David Epstein
Ball at the Wall
BEIJING -- On Monday morning, I hopped into a cab bound for InterContinental Hotel in Beijing's financial district, where the U.S. men's and women's basketball teams are holed up during the Games. A crew from the men's team was taking a sightseeing trip to the Great Wall, and officials invited a few media members along for the ride. Buses were leaving at 9 a.m. sharp, and I was stuck in some rush-hour traffic. Coach K wasn't going to hold the bus for me. I begged the cab driver to hustle when we broke free. I figured he didn't understand me, until he started snaking through the lanes at top speed. He just missed hitting a toddler perched on the back of a woman's bike. True, I'm kind of a dope for encouraging a near-horrific accident. But what was that woman doing, biking around with her kid on a rush-hour road?
I made it on time. The U.S.-China men's game tipped off after 10 the previous night, so most players chose a few extra winks over the field trip. Only Chris Bosh and Tayshaun Prince woke up for the ride. Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim were also on board. While USA Basketball officials, families, and friends rode on two lengthy, comfortable buses, the media was put on a "coaster," a mini-bus that looked like Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine, sans psychedelic bodywork. Forget about legroom -- my bony knees stabbed the seat in front of me. Ok, stop complaining. I was going to the Great Wall.
Once there -- it's about a 90-minute ride from downtown Beijing -- the crowd gave Bosh and Prince their space. Sure, a few folks snapped pictures and asked for autographs, but this wasn't Kobe and LeBron in the house. "Great game last night, Chris," one fan yelled to Bosh. "People keep saying that," Bosh said. "But did they see the game? I didn't play that much." Against China, Bosh scored nine points, on 4-on-4 shooting, and grabbed eight boards in 13 minutes. Give him some more time, Coach K.
I didn't realize that you had to take a ski lift to the Wall. I'm absolutely terrified of heights, and my palms started to sweat. I piled into the lift with Prince, his wife Farrah, and two other tourists. I warned them that I might start to cry. The last time I was on one of these things, I buried my head and held the hand of the woman next to me. It didn't matter that I had never met her before. Luckily, Farrah helped calm me down, encouraging me to just look out the side of the window, rather than the ground below. It also helped that the lift was enclosed. Tayshaun coolly listened to his headphones. Wonder if that's his coping mechanism.
Of course, the Wall was breathtaking. It rained on the way up, and the sky was overcast. But you could still take in the views. You get a workout walking the Wall, too. In the distance was a portion of the Wall that seemed to rise into the sky. We didn't have time to hike it though; I'll have to make it back one day.
The most surprising part of the trip was the toboggan. It turns out you can slide down the mountain on a quasi-bobsled track, and even pick up some pretty decent speed. The heights wouldn't bother me here, since the track was attached to the ground. It was nearing 2 p.m., our departure time, when I got in line. Again, Coach K wouldn't mind deserting me at the Wall. I breathed a bit easier when I spotted two of his Duke assistant coaches, Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins, right in front of me. He would never ditch Wojo.
The slide was a bit disappointing. A kid four sleds ahead kept getting stuck, slowing traffic. I never really picked up full speed. Bummer.
There you go again with the complaining. Shut up: you just got to see the Great Wall. -- Sean Gregory, Time Magazine
Monday, Aug. 11
Journalists and patriots
BEIJING -- It's one of the cardinal rules in American sports journalism: There's no cheering in the press box. But if you spend any time covering international soccer, you'll quickly learn the cardinal rules of one country don't always extend to our colleagues overseas.
Case in point: The Nigerian journo who sat in front of me during Sunday's Japan-Nigeria soccer game in Tianjin. After the Super Eagles took a 1-0 lead, he pulled out a green-and-white Nigeria flag and started waving it like an African matador at the rest of us.
It brought back memories of my first World Cup in 1998. After Nigeria had upset Spain 3-2 in Nantes, the Nigerian journalists turned the postgame press conference into a dance fiesta, celebrating so much that Spanish coach Javier Clemente took one look at the throng, turned around and skedaddled. While attending a Brazilian practice later in World Cup '98, I watched as dozens of Brazilian scribes handed Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and the gang soccer balls and posters, in hopes of getting their autographs.
Of course, that rampant fandom cuts both ways, and when a team doesn't play well, the postgame presser can turn into a free-for-all. After the Nigerians' 2-1 victory on Sunday, one journalist was so upset with the way his team handled the final 20 minutes that he stood up in front of everyone, grabbed the microphone and embarked on a long soliloquy accusing coach Samson Siasia of "two tactical blunders" in the second half.
Siasia responded with the weariness of a man who is used to this sort of thing. "Well, you're not the coach," he said. "I am."
If that's how the Nigerian press corps responds when the Super Eagles win, I can't wait to see what could happen if they're eliminated by the U.S. in Beijing on Wednesday.
* * *
Flea markets and sports bars
BEIJING -- Stuck in Beijing without a ticket to see Michael Phelps or Shawn Johnson? Already been to the Great Wall? Looking for something to do?
Well, here's an excursion you can't duplicate anywhere else. Hop in a taxi and ask them to take you to the Panjiayuan Market, the largest flea market in Asia, also known as the Dirt or Ghost Market. (No one's exactly sure why it's the Ghost Market. One theory is that on weekends people start ghosting in at 4:30 a.m. in order to get first pick of the goods, most of which have been brought in from outlying towns and provinces.) The market is located in the Chaoyang District on the west side of the Panjiayuan Bridge in a huge, walled, open-air square measuring some 48,500 square meters.
Therein you will find some 3,000 stalls and shops manned by 10,000 vendors whose wares spill out onto the sidewalks: Antiques, crafts, jewelry and collectibles you won't find in any department store. A partial list of what caught my eye: Violins, jade flutes, swords, a ceramic bust of Stalin, carved walnuts, Mao posters, shadow puppets, inlaid boxes of dominoes, chess sets, emperor dolls, pipes, opium scales, buddha statues, an Aunt Jemima clock, long strings of topaz, coral, pearls, turquoise, white turquoise ("very rare!") and jade that artisans will turn into necklaces or bracelets while you wait. Lots and lots of jade. I nearly bought a jade pig. This close. The most expensive item I found was a stunning 286,000 yuan (approx: $42,000) fishbowl, probably five feet in diameter, which was one solid piece of ornately carved jade. Tough one to transport.
Be prepared to bargain. Hard. The fact that you look like an American tourist, I was told, at least triples or quadruples the asking price, which may still seem reasonable. But failure to bargain is to miss out on the fun. Start with a counter offer about one-third of the asking price and go from there. They won't speak English, so be inventive. One vendor and I did a hard negotiation on the keypad of his cellphone. They'll come down, you'll go up, and everyone will go home happy. On a weekday morning, when I went, it's pleasantly uncrowded, but many of the booths were empty. On weekends, the market's reputed to be chaos.
Sunday, Aug. 10
Afterwards, I felt the need for some comfort food in a comfortable atmosphere where I could watch the Games on a flat screen, so I took another cab to Frank's Place, the oldest sports bar in Beijing. Located in the Lidu area opposite the Rosedale Hotel, Frank's Place has eight big screens strategically placed so there's no such thing as an obstructed view seat. Offering a huge selection of cold beers, draft and bottled, and good, simple fare (burgers, German-styled bratwurst and kraut, English fish and chips, meatloaf, sheperd's pie, ribs, lasagne, an all-day breakfast, meatballs, etc.), cooled by a breeze wafting through the open-wall windows, Frank's was a welcome oasis away from the Olympic madness just a few kilometers away. I was one of a dozen customers there for lunch. No doubt at night Frank's sees its own share of madness, but all the reviews I read report it's a dependably friendly and comfortable place where expats congregate after work. Just the spot for some Phelps watching.
The Golden One meets the Chosen One
BEIJING -- Michael Phelps spoke for 132 seconds following his 200-meter freestyle preliminaries tonight, which my swimming colleagues inform me is a healthy post-race chat for The Golden One as far as mixed zone interviews go. Phelps finished a comfortable second in his heat and moved onto Monday's semifinals. He has a busy day tomorrow, including the 200 freestyle semi finals and the men's 4 x 100 freestyle relay final. After a brief chat with NBC's swimming reporter Andrea Kremer, who decamps in a box about 20 feet from the pool at the stunning Water Cube, Phelps spoke with the Olympic press core. Asked how he felt nine hours after winning a gold medal in the 400 individual medley, Phelps said, "I did everything that I needed to do to get in tomorrow's semifinals. The biggest thing is having a good race tomorrow morning and being recovered enough to come back and have a good relay." Then came some information straight out of Boldfaced Magazine: Phelps said he met the U.S. basketball team two days ago. "It was LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Chris Paul, the names were endless" Phelps said. "They were all there. It was pretty cool. I talked to LeBron a few times and its pretty cool that those guys were excited to meet us. Our team was extremely fired up. One of my friends is one of the coaches on the basketball team. He texted me and said LeBron was fired up after my morning swim yesterday, after my prelim. That was pretty cool."
But not as cool as the swimmer I saw two races before Phelps' heat. Nimrod Shapira-Bar Or, who will swim for the University of Arizona this fall, became the first Israeli swimmer to advance to the semi-finals at the Olympics, winning his 200 freestyle qualifying match in 1:47.78. Not only should you root for any athlete named Nimrod on principle, Shapira-Bar Or, 19, was the last athlete from his country to earn an invitation to the Games. He races again on Monday night and no matter where I am, I will be thinking one thought: Go Nimrod.