Scenes From Beijing (cont.)
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 surveys the scene at Beijing's Pearl Market.
Friday, Aug. 8
Crowd control to major Zhang
BEIJING -- It was neither Beatlemania nor a Red Guard protest. Instead, the scene outside our hotel early Friday evening was one that could only have taken place in Beijing on eight-oh-eight-oh-eight:
As our media shuttle approached the entrance to the Foreign Experts Building (Sports Illustrated's lodging for the Games), the swarm of red-banded flag-wavers parted like the Red Sea. We felt a little like rock stars, but wondered aloud whether the crowd was perhaps awaiting a real Foreign Expert who had checked into the hotel.
(I'm surprised that a group of people bearing the yellow stars and crimson backdrop of the Chinese flag often still instinctually connotes, in my mind, images of political propaganda. I have to remind myself that a face-painted heart or a flag-inspired temporary tattoo can mean the same thing here as it does in Brazil, Italy or the U.S.: patriotism borne from sheer fannish enthusiasm, no militant overtones involved.)
It turns out this dedicated crowd was simply trying to make its way as close to the Olympic Green as possible (the F.E.B. is about a 20-minute walk away) to view the opening ceremony, but was being stymied by pedestrian traffic control that had halted onward progress just outside our hotel gate. Despite the stifling humidity (the warmest of my four days in China so far), the throng was relatively patient and upbeat, their collective excitement over the finally-here Games overriding most physical discomfort.
"Chinese spirit!" Zhang Xing, a young man in oversize designer sunglasses and face paint, repeatedly called out in Mandarin to no one in particular. This was also his response when I first asked him what everyone was doing out here, before he elaborated on the situation using fewer abstract ideals.
Zhang, a publicist ("We feed off the scraps of you journalists" -- I believe it is the other way around, my friend), had gotten the day off from work and, like everyone else in the mob, had been migrating toward the Olympic Green live viewing site since early afternoon.
"Those of us who don't have tickets are just trying to get as close to the action as possible," Zhang said, dabbing at his face with a soggy tissue. It didn't seem to work; fresh beads of perspiration immediately sprang forth all over his nose and forehead.
The hotel attendants dutifully forming a barrier between Zhang and me remained silent, but I could see the barely contained awe and amusement in their youthful faces. Everyone, from the opening ceremony pilgrims to the police to the nearby residents unsuccessfully trying to take their usual shortcut home, understood the logistical necessities of this remarkable situation.
And after the crowd was finally herded back across the Badaling Expressway, members of the uniformed hotel staff, temporarily dropping their professional detachment, ran out into the street to take pictures of one another in front of the unusual scene that had taken place outside their work.
As he was shepherded away, Zhang pleaded with the attendants: "Please, I have to use the restroom. How am I supposed to use the restroom?"
The high speed of progress
BEIJING -- This bad boy that you see in the picture to the right is the CRH (China Railway High-speed) train No. C2032 that I took on Friday afternoon from Tianjin to Beijing after covering the U.S. men's soccer team's victory over Japan on Thursday night.
The CRH may look like your ordinary European TGV or ICE high-speed train, but it's not, as I quickly learned after taking my $9 second-class seat. We steamed out of Tianjin's futuristic new train station and kept accelerating ... and accelerating ... and accelerating.
A helpful electronic sign in my car kept us on top of the pertinent numbers:
SPEED 259 KM/H.
Then two minutes later:
SPEED 297 KM/H.
Until finally it read:
SPEED 350 KM/H.
I did the math in my notebook. We had hit 217 miles per hour. Indy Car speed. Inside, though, it was remarkably quiet. Government-paid train attendants wheeled through the aisles passing out bottles of mineral water with the name "Tibet Spring" (which presumably doesn't carry the same meaning as, say, "Prague Spring").
And then, before I could even relax in my seat, we arrived at the majestic Beijing South railway station, which is so new that it still smells like sawdust.
I called SI photographer Bob Martin, who had driven from Beijing to Tianjin in a car on Thursday.
"Bob, how long did it take you to drive?"
"A little over an hour-and-a-half."
The train had made the trip in exactly 31 minutes.