Scenes From Beijing (cont.)
They just couldn't wait
NEW YORK -- While a vast majority of Americans won't see any opening ceremonies footage from the Beijing Olympics until tonight, several hundred students, teachers and community members congregated early Friday morning in an auditorium on the campus of Columbia University to watch the Games get underway -- by any means necessary.
They showed up before 7 a.m. local time, wearing Olympic T-shirts and waving Chinese flags, creating a festive atmosphere despite the unusual time of day.
"It was everybody's idea," said Jian Zhang, president of the Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association, the student organization that set up the event.
Organizers logged on to a streaming broadcast from CCTV1 -- China Central Television's national network -- and fed the video onto a large screen before a packed audience in the Schapiro Engineering Center. While viewers in the U.S. were blocked from viewing the footage on non-NBC sites, the CUCSSA circumvented the blockade by using a proxy server located in China, essentially tricking the streaming server into thinking the computer was stationed in a country where the broadcast would be permitted.
Zhang wasn't worried about NBC officials raiding the auditorium early Friday morning. "The Internet is open to everybody," Zhang said. "It wasn't hard to find."
Many observers have attributed a perceived deterioration of the Olympic spirit to the rampant commercialism surrounding the event. (NBC Universal announced on Thursday that it has reaped more than $1 billion in advertising revenue for the Beijing Olympics.) But none of this criticism hit home personally until last week, upon my realization that the opening ceremonies would be broadcast on a 12-hour tape delay in the U.S. to accommodate a prime time audience -- and attract the more lucrative advertising dollars.
Isn't the point of the opening ceremonies to bring the world together in a simultaneous human collective experience? Doesn't the torch lighting lose a bit of dramatic impact when you know it happened a half a day ago?
Upon further reflection, I'm surprised I was surprised. You can't blame NBC for getting the best possible return on their $894 million investment. It's just unfortunate. We've heard so much about the network's projected 3,600 hours of coverage across seven channels and NBCOlympics.com -- by far the most ambitious broadcast plan for any sporting event in history. In an age where such a daunting undertaking is feasible, it's underwhelming to watch an event like the opening ceremonies on a 12-hour delay.
But observing the scene early Friday morning in Morningside Heights, it became clear that the Olympic spirit doing just fine. And no network embargo would be airtight enough for Chinese-Americans determined to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with their homeland.
As the auditorium filled to capacity during the hour leading up to the 8:08 a.m. start time, Chinese-language commercials for Red Bull, Sinotec and Coca-Cola crossed the screen while onlookers chatted away. One particularly amusing Yao Ming spot for Visa drew laugher from the audience.
The quality of the picture was quite good considering the size of the screen. Perhaps not the pristine high-definition picture NBC will beam into American homes tonight. But at least it was live.
Friday morning's screening was so popular that Zhang was forced to turn people away throughout the morning, directing latecomers to a second viewing room in the nearby philosophy building.
When the house lights went down and the ceremony got underway, the entire room stood (and sang) for the Chinese national anthem.
At 8:20 a.m., about 12 minutes into the ceremony, the stream started to get choppy and eventually crashed. After some frantic jimmy-rigging the organizers got the video back up and running seven minutes later: When four puppeteers on a gigantic moving platform suddenly appeared on the screen, cheers from the audience replaced the nervous chatter.
The various segments of the ceremony detailed 5,000 years of Chinese history using a cast of approximately 15,000 performers, celebrating everything from calligraphy to space exploration. The crowd erupted into applause when a giant blue orb sprung through the ground with gravity-defying acrobats circling in orbit.
"It was showing the world our history from very ancient events up until now," said Yu Ma, 24, a student at Columbia. "It was great and meaningful for all Chinese people."
A brief shot of George W. Bush gazing skyward at fireworks induced the hearty laughter from the crowd. ("Who's that?" buzzed the kindergarten-aged girl in front of me.)
When famed soprano vocalist Sarah Brightman of England and Chinese singer Liu Huan appeared from the top of the globe and partnered on the official Olympic theme, the west-meets-east symbolism was clear.
"It was a symbol of peace and represents the wants for all people in the world," Yu said. "It was really fantastic for all Chinese people, especially in 2008, when we suffered from terrible things, with natural disasters and political things."
Yu is looking forward to watching the table tennis, badminton and swimming events. He's also excited for Sunday's men's basketball tournament opener between China and the U.S., even though the Americans are considered prohibitive favorites.
"If you win or lose is not most important in the Olympic Games," Yu said. "What is important is people coming together."
BEIJING --One of my favorite experiences covering the Athens Games was a trip to the "International Zone" of the Olympic Village, the place where athletes from all over the world gather to eat, shop, ship packages, or get a buzz cut. I'm one of those guys who watches All-Star games to see all the different uniform colors mix, so imagine my delight seeing Cuban blue, Russian red and South African green and gold. While Athens was a bit of a bust bowl, Beijing's digs have trees, manicured shrubs, and garden paths. Say what you want about the air here but the village grounds are clean and green.
The Village also offers a taste of Chinese culture -- the administration building is an ancient temple, and I stumbled upon a Chinese tea house in the shopping area. I was the only person in the place. I sipped something called Jasmine Pearl tea (very hot, very healthy I was told), and the staff kept filling my cup. If only New York City waiters were this accommodating.