New York 2009
Didn’t get any. The Cosport lottery was a rough go. But I am having success posting my apartment on Craigs list for an apartment swap. So I’ll have free accomodation. Will figure out tickets later. Games are in February.
I am aware that the arrest of protestors and the repression of the Chinese people and the desecration of the environment and world trade and oil prices are probably more important than why the only thing to eat at some Olympic venues is barbecue flavored potato chips, but there is an important point underlying the story of the chips.
The deal is you can’t bring food through security into Olympic venues here. You also can’t bring water or fluids of any kind. OK fine, security concerns are important concerns
But I’ve found myself griping a lot over the course of these Games about a list of seemingly small inconveniences that when taken in total have made this experience fairly miserable for spectators. Yes, yes, It’s the Olympics, it’s great to be here. Seeing Usain Bolt run was a wonder. As was seeing the U.S. women win the gold medal in soccer last night.
But there’s the thing. My choice to actually watch the US women win that game in its entirety came at the cost of me spending three hours thirsty with a parched throat. There was an announced attendance of 51,000 people at the Worker’s Stadium to watch the game. By my count there were exactly two concession stands selling drinks. No food, for an event which started with the Bronze medal game at 6 and ended around midnite after the medal ceremony, only drink. And the line for drinks was, when I looked at it three times over the course of the night during half times and between games, never less than 100 people long, and did not look to be moving. Giving the masses a big event is doable. Making each individual comfortable seems not to be.
Is this nothing? The popular talk among all the cool people who hate McDonalds is that the reason there is no Chinese food to eat at the stadiums is because the hamburger chain bought all the rights to sell food. The truth is I would have killed for anything to eat at the Bird’s Nest during a four hour night session for which I had to leave my apartment at 5 pm to get there on time and did not return home until midnight, other than an ice cream bar or potato chips. The lone McDonalds in the Olympic park is about a mile — literally, an actual mile — away from the stadium. On the way to the stadium one can, it is true, buy a package of noodles which one heated up by breaking a packet of water into a packet of chemicals, but the noodles were first of all awful and second of all not actually sold in the stadium. Once one had handed over a ticket, one could not leave to make the two mile round trip (on foot, since there were no shuttle buses for the public to navigate the HUGE Olympic area unless one was elderly or disabled and for them there were a few golf carts and the rule about being elderly or disabled was being strictly enforced) to McDonalds or the few hundred meters walk to get the cup-a-noodles. One was locked into a stadium where there were again long, unmoving lines to buy a choice of water, coke, fanta, green tea in a bottle, potato chips, unsalted popcorn or ‘drumstick” style ice cream cones.
Why starve spectators? Well, I met the guy in charge of overseeing the world feed of television broadcasts, a Greek guy who works for the Madrid-based company which handles the world feed. He told me hat the Chinese authorities made a decision that it would be bad public relations if anyone got food poisoning at an Olympic venue. They didn’t want the world to make jokes about bad Chinese food making people sick. So to prevent even one person from getting food poisoning, this, the country with the greatest cuisine in the world, is starving a million spectators.
Let me tell you something: Sitting on a hot night through the dinner hour and beyond for four hours, while also thirsty, is not a fun experience for a spectator. It is not spectator-friendly. The Olympic theme song is “Forever Friends.”
I could go on. I will for another moment: The streets are lined with people in Olympic garb who are supposed to provide visitors with information. They do not have any information and do not look like friendly volunteers. They look like military boys whose uniforms were hung in a closet for three weeks while they wear the garb of Olympic volunteers. Stone-faced and unhelpful. “Peacekeepers” not Peacemakers.
The country has spent a jillion jillion dollars on gorgeous stadiums and new buildings (see my entry below), and it all looks great. But spectators are not happy. They are frustrated and thirsty. I met a guy today who has been here for a week and has attended lots of events and was complaining that he has not eated one real meal yet, just potato chips. One Chinese person he met promised to take him to a good meal, but brought him to an area near the tourst shopping destination Wangfujing where there are vendors selling “typical Beijing street food.” He ate some meat grilled a stick while he walked around because there was nowhere to sit. Is this friendly?
One World, One Dream is the slogan of these Olympics. What exactly is that dream? What do the Chinese authorities think that dream is? Mine starts with water when I am thirsty.
The 675th coolest building in Beijing is more interesting, more creative and more fabulous than anything New York has come up with in the seven years since Beijing has been in its Olymics construction boom. Maybe it’s the benefits of autocracy, that so many buildings can get built because if one powerful person says do it, it gets done. But everywhere one goes here one sees something astonishing, monumental — the campus of Beijing University with stuff more soaring and glorious, stately than anything I’ve seen built in the last 50 years on an American campus, marble, clean, a wide staircase through an archway, thoroughly modern and yet as Roman as the Spanish Steps… we did all out great campus building a long time ago. The pants building. The Olympics facilities — the watercube, the birds nest, the gymnasiums, all layed out in a grand plaza with lights embedded in the concrete to make light shows at night with a skyscraper in the distance overlooking it all that has a squiggle for its upper ten floors, flowing like cream…. And in New York on the site of the World Trade Center it has been seven years, the same amount of time Beijing has had since they won the right to host the Olympics, and where our monumental buildings once stood and were felled, in seven years not a thing has been erected. There is no Freedom Tower.
Ok, I have to admit it. There were loads of warnings about how likely a terrorist attack was at the Athens Olympics… so close to the middle east, such unprofessional national security, etc. But I never felt any threat in the air. It just seemed peaceful and quiet, and likely to stay that way the whole time.
It doesn’t feel that way here. Here there is a very professional security apparatus. But there’s the Zen of it, or the Yin Yang of it maybe: what you push against, pushes back. There are smiles from the locals, some locals. There are people in official looking Olympics shirts on every major block of every neighborhood. They don’t have any useful information to impart to visitors, no answers to any questions, but they are there. Perhaps some of them are military people given the new uniform of “volunteer.” There are perfectly organized and well-manned security checkpoints outside every venue, far enough away so that if anything explodes, it will get only those at the security checkpoint — still potentially hundreds of people, but nothing will touch any venue.
And yet still. Perhaps it’s my reading of the American papers via internet while I’m here, all the stories about arrests of anyone who might think of protesting, but I think not. It is just a feeling in my stomach. Something is seething. Something is hostile.
I want to point out I am still very very much enjoying the Games. I’m tearful at the anthemic medal ceremonies, thrilled at the world records and the little bronze and participatory victories. Goose flesh at the whole beauty of the Olympic endeavor.
But I have also visited China before and not felt this dis-ease. Maybe it’s just official and unofficial fear by the government that something is going to happen.
Maybe it’s a newfound surliness in the world, evidenced by what has to be called jingoistic reactions to Chinese triumphs beyond what I’ve seen even in Atlanta to US victories. I don’t know. Maybe a few of the locals don’t seem as thrilled to see foreigners here as they did on my past visits. Maybe they’re getting used to us or maybe they’re sick of kowtowing
There are signs outside Chinese fast food restaurants and in the elevator of the building where I am staying and in a lot of other places reminding foreigners they must register at the local police station within 24 hours of arriving.
I don’t know. All I know is something doen’t feel right.
It seems like the Gymnasts have learned to ritualize the supposedly informal reaction after the formal reaction after their routines. The deal is: dismount (hopefully “sticking” your landing), then throw the arms up and smile big with pleasure, then take a step towards your teamates and give a fist pump, then smile more, than hug the coach like it’s a perfect score all the way, then handslap the teammates — BUT don’t do it too too big because probably the judges are on to this whole jig, so keep it demure. If you think this post-reaction reaction is not something that’s practiced in the gym, I think you think the Chinese gymnasts are all of age.