Beijing - Olympics part 1
'Stars Of CCTV' - Hard-Fi
I must begin this edition with a small update from the last edition, basically because it will explain an otherwise odd-looking photograph I uploaded. In between my failure to penetrate Mao's nether regions and getting a knife run across my throat, I was walking past some shops when I saw one of them had a TV showing some Olympic pairs diving. It was a large healthfood and vitamin style shop. Five assistants in white coats had put a TV on a table near the front and were gathered around it on chairs watching the action. Fortunately, they had little or no customers to disturb this. I was peering at their TV through the window so they insisted that I join them and brought me down a chair to sit on. I watched a couple of rounds but the Chinese divers were firmly ensconsed in first place and the British pair were equally firmly settled in last. Before leaving, I took a picture of them with the exception of one who frantically hared off out back as soon as I pulled the camera from the bag.
I also realise that the following paragraph belongs to Saturday night after the Temple of heaven (I shall put everything back together in the correct order in the future):
I had twice heard tell of a sports bar on the east side of town where an American guy appeared each night selling tickets at face value for the following day's events. So, I tried to head over. When I emerged from the nearest metro, the rain was tipping down. I walked in the general direction trying to make sense of my map and took some directions from a hotel security guard that even I knew to be wrong. Eventually, increasingly soaked, I had to take refuge under a bus shelter. Although the hammering rain made for some nice pictures, after thirty five minutes of the sort of stuff that washes villages away, I waved down a taxi and went back to the hostel.
As an additional note, most of my dear readers will probably have noticed that I am rather late in writing this. I will try to catch up as soon as possible but with the extra gap of time between my writing and the events that I am documenting, I am afraid that I may have forgotten some of the more colourful details. Or, to put it another way, you will be spared some of the more tedious details that have cursed some of my other entries. With luck, this will be a quicker read.
After I had got up, showered and breakfasted on Sunday, I was able to walk down to the Workers Gymnasium just in time to meet Christian and Stefan at five O'clock as planned. Stefan was off to watch beach volleyball, one of the hottest tickets in town for the whole of the Olympics, so I simply shook his hand to say hello and then once more for goodbye before he was gone. Christian and I wanted to chance our arms finding someone to sell us tickets outside the WG to watch the boxing inside, which was due to commence at seven.
Christian was a bit hampered in this gentle art of negotiation; partly because he had had to do it less in the past and partly because it helps to be able to bluff and blag a bit in your mother tongue. We knew that the prices would be much higher when we started than nearer the start time, when it would become more of a buyer's market. There were two Essex boy touts hanging around who were exactly the sort of scum you would sooner die than ever be. Just so you know, I formed this point of view of them before one of them told me to f*** off when he misheard me and thought I asked if his tickets were real. In amongst various conversations with them where they tried to get us to buy for up to fifty times the face value of the tickets, we wandered all around chasing other leads and speaking to various strangers including a couple of lovely Americans who told us they had given their two tickets away just five minutes earlier. Some Chinese touts appeared later on, but one of them was quickly nabbed by the police and taken away in a car. I'm sure they must have known what the English pair were doing but I think they were allowed to act with relative impunity for fear of triggering the wrong sort of headlines by arresting foreigners.
Finally a Dutch guy appeared who wasn't such an arsehole and who sold us two tickets for just ten-times the face value. That may sound like a lot, but this was easily the best price we'd come across to that point and when the face value is only two pounds, it's not so bad really. I took his details to try to buy further tickets from him later in the fortnight, but his prices were always too high for me. On one occasion I arranged for the manager of my hostel to buy a ticket from him for his sister. We agreed a price over the phone but when she went to meet him she was told that he had lost it. Sounded like he had sold it for a better price if you ask me.
Inside the boxing, I had my first taste of the ludicrously disproportionate security that surrounded all the events. After queuing to get in, you ticket is visually checked and then you go to someone else who electronically checks it. Then your bags are put through an airline-style scanning machine. A recorded message tells you to put your keys, phone and money in a little tray to be scanned (like with airports) but they always refuse this and insist you put them back in your pockets. You then walk through a human scanner which is triggered off by, guess what, the keys, phone and money in your pockets. Each item has to be removed and inspected right down to looking at the inside of your wallet and camera case. This over, you go to retrieve your bag. They ask you to open it so they can fully check the contents. Any liquid is considered suspect. Drinks and food are all confiscated for security reasons. They ask you to prove the innocence of stuff like sun cream or my anti-bactierial soap by using some. Nearer the end of the Olympics, particularly at the even-sillier Bird's Nest checks, I confess I started to have a bit of a sense of humour failure with the whole thing. I didn't like greasing up my hands to test the sun cream every time so at first I started wiping it from my finger on to the carpeted floor. Then, I just wiped it onto their stainless-steel inspection tables instead. As with everything else that everyone threw at them, the blue-t-shirted volunteers just grinned and politely smiled at this, thanked me for my cooperation and time and waved me through. Finally, your ticket is checked again and the stub removed.
Inside the boxing, Christian fielded his usual requests for photographs and posed for a few in boxing stance with the big inflatable mascot. Inside, the auditorium was all very impressive and colourful. We were sitting pretty high up but at least half of the seats were empty. Christian is am amateur boxer back in Germany so was very interested in it and was able to talk with authority on the subject. Some Mongolians sat nearby us so I tried to enthusiastically explain to them that I had very recently spent several weeks there, but their bemused expressions told me that none of this was being communicated to them beyond "Mongolia! Mongolia!"
Christian had to go home long before we reached the twelfth and final bout. There was an odd arrangement at Wang's place where the outer door to his section of half a dozen homes was locked each night at ten. Thereafter, entry could only be gained by someone from inside letting you in. As Wang didn't really know any of his neighbours and as he was working as an Olympic volunteer himself that night, one of the Germans had to be back early to let everyone else in. I then found myself watching the last few bout with a couple of unrelated Americans, one of who I had coincidentally photographed outside when he came up to Christian asking for a photo. Before a bout between a fighter from Uzbekistan and another from Tajikistan ("Give us a 'T'! Give us a, erm...") I insisted that as this was a big local derby, we could not sit on the fence and had to take sides. Each of us decided, for no good reasons, to support the guy from Tajikistan. The American who I hadn't earlier photographed took this as his cue to boo the Uzbeki guy when he came on and generally during and after the fight. I tried to explain that this was poor form at the Olympics and that there was no need to turn this into another Atlanta, but the point was lost on him. The last fight of the night involved a fighter from Kazakhstan. The same American announced that he loved the Borat movie so had to support the Kazakh guy and once again began booing his opponent. For God's sake, can you take these people anywhere?
On Monday, I had my first real ticket. It was to see the rowing which I had discovered just a day or two earlier was many miles out of town. I had heard rumours of buses going out there, but it sounded very slow and complicated so I didn't fancy that. As it turns out, there were loads of special Olympic bus routes running to many places. They were incredibly crowded but generally excellent. Unfortunately, much like the regular bus services, all information about them was like a carefully-guarded state secret. Another option for reaching the rowing was a taxi. That might sound expensive but at local rates it wouldn't have broken the bank. However, my map suggested that it was close to the airport so I chose to ride the special metro running direct there figuring I could get a taxi the shorter distance to the rowing park when I arrived. This plan was backed up by someone in my hostel telling me that they had met a couple there who had successfully done the same thing. I rode out there and got a good view of their lovely new metro, the lovely new roads going in the same direction and the lovely new airoport at the other end. Unfortunately, the taxi driver had no idea where the rowing park was and had to ring for help. As it turned out, it was still 34km away so cost me ten pounds in the taxi. After he dropped me, I was told I had been dropped at the wrong entrance and needed to catch a bus around to the other side - the same bus I would have caught if I'd come from the city in the first place!
Inside, the grandstands were, as ever, barely half full. It was only heats we were watching. It lacked a certain something as a piece of drama as we watched as six boats at a time would come into view from their starting point 2km in the distance. A Chinese and an English commentator took twenty-second stints on the loudspeaker to talk us through unfolding events. Overall, it was very interesting to have been there and probably would have been better if I wasn't so tired. To illustrate the point, I had a tactical sleep during one race just to be able to get through the others. Afterwards, there were dozens of free buses queued up to take everyone back into town in a not-at-all-shabby sixty minutes. The efficiency of the operation made even better by the fact that the crowd was at less than half capacity. I tried to be ready to beat the rush by leaving right after the last race, but misunderstood which the last race was so everyone else rushed to the exits while I sat around for five more minutes waiting for another race that never came.
In the evening I attempted to find the sports bar again, The Goose and Duck. This time with the benefit of clear skies I managed to find it. Or, at least, I managed to find its old location. A sign outside explained the new location so I walked another mile or so in search of it. I almost gave up again before seeing it behind some trees. It was owned by a Canadian guy and had quite a lot of ex-pats there. I got chatting with an older Englishman called Rod who had lived the last twenty years in China and most of his previous years in Kenya. While he was on the toilet, the manager came up for a chat and, hearing that I might like some tickets, took my out to the back bar where the mystical American was sitting quietly and undisturbed at a table. He apologised that he didn't have many tickets that night, the stack on his table being just an inch high. They only consisted of rowing and something else which I didn't want. Nonethless, contact was made.
The next day was tennis at ten-thirty. Co-incidentally, Stefan had tickets for the same session. Christian went down with him and was able to also buy a ticket outside from someone with a spare. We met inside and the two of them proceeded to take pictures of themselves pointing at the German players' names on the large board showing the draw and results. Afterwards, they invited me to have my picture taken pointing at the English players. I had to inform them that the only English player was Andrew Murray who had lost to a player from Chinese Taipei (!) the day previous. So, they got me to shut my eyes and bang my finger on the board to find a new player to support. Duly I did and duly my man became Frenchman Gael Monfils. We then examined the order of play to see which game to watch first and, quite seriously and regardless of my pick, the best game involved Gael Monfils. Quite what Gael made of two Germans and a Brit pitching up at courtside and cheering him on is anybody's guess, but it didn't seem to do him any harm as he beat his Hungarian opponent in straight sets.
By the time the game had finished, Christian and Stefan had moved on to show some some nationalistic support for Nicolas Kiefer where they were joined by a number of other Germans. They actually had tickets to the show courts, so I borrowed one of these for an hour or so to head off and take photos of everything. Upon my return I saw the end of a tight match with the Germans loudly shouting and singing for their man. Afterwards, when he had won, Stefan took his ticket to be autographed by the surprised loser, to whom he explained "You were the friendlier man". As we walked away the two of them explained to me that they both hated Nicolas Kiefer and no one in Germany liked him as he was perennially bad-temptered and unsporting. None of which left me any the wiser as to why they and the others had been cheering him so much. On the way out, Christian performed further photo duties including with a small child who I photographed a couple of times myself. By now he had realised that he could use these situations to his advantage by getting people to wear his Werder Bremen shirt to pursue his own project. This child must have been a professional model or something as it seemed to have an endless supply of cute poses. In the end we had to tell it to stop and go away.
In the evening I revisited the Goose and Duck. Rod was very drunk and with a friend who was grieiving about something deep so I didn't get too involved. I made some Chinese friends including a guy who I taught to play air-bass very well, except he is one of those people with a permanent smile and I kept trying to tell him he needed to look moody, which he only half achieved. My attempts to teach one of the girls to play air-drums were much less successful and looked more like a bemused Octopus. When the ticket man finally arrived, a crowd of a hundred people followed him to the back bar and flooded around him shouting requests. He had a wedge of tickets about three inches thick. I didn't want anything myself but was able to get two beach volleyball tickets and two handball tickets for Christian and Stefan the next day for the face value about four pounds each.
On the way back I tried to find a club to meet Hal, who had joined us for a day of horse-riding in Mongolia. The Chinese group walked me most of the way and tried to offer directions but a further forty minutes of walking around by myself achieved nothing so I gave up at 01:30 and went home. He later replied to my emailed apologies to say that it was much harder to find than he had been led to believe and wasn't really worth it when you got there anyway, so I guess it wasn't a complete loss.
A common comment amongst the foreigners in town for the sports was that we were actually seeing less of these Olympics than any other. There were two reasons for this. One was that, if we were at home we would be in front of the TV getting concisely-edited coverage and updates of all the latest news at it was happening whereas here we we sitting in a stadium watching one single event which may or may not be of any importance in the greater scheme of things. This is fair enough as what we lose in general overview we gain twice over in atmosphere and a sense of being involved. The other reason was the awful coverage of the state-run Chinese Central Television. Or, to give it its unfortunate acronym that it normally used, CCTV - you really couldn't make this up. The coverage, such as it was, had taken over all of the network's channels including CCTV7, the agriculture and military channel - the mind boggles as to what that schedule must be like when they're not hosting major international sporting events. Coverage mostly involved showing the video to Beijing Welcomes You, the official song. This had a huge cast of people I took to be celebrities taking it in turns to mime a line of the song with the same overplayed emotion and unconvincing delivery as, well, all dramas and comedies that were usually on CCTV. There was very little live coverage of anything and when there was it was basketball. Usually it was highlights. Highlights never included events that the Chinese had not won. If a well-known Chinese athlete failed, as megastar Lui Xiang did when he hobbled away from the starting blocks before his first heat in the 110m hurdles, then this was virtually ignored. Furthermore, where possible, no opponents were shown. So, in a tennis match, you would have to show both competitors. But, in gymnastics for example, they would only show the Chinese displays and then the final scoreboard at the end. Even in live coverage they would often show the Chinese girls or men waiting for their score from the judges rather than the foreigner who was up next actually doing something. It must have been very easy for Chinese viewers to forget that any other countries were even involved outside of the opening and closing ceremonies. The one exception to this was the big headline record breakers like Yelena Isinbayeva, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. But, even then, you couldn't escape the feeling that this was supposed to bring more glory on China than on Russia, America or Jamaica, as it was the Chinese Olympics that had hosted such marvels. The other part of the coverage was occasional news reports from the streets where foreigners would be interviewed telling the camera how great everything was.
I wanted to go to Tibet after Beijing so spent a long part of Wednesday looking for the government building that could offer me a travel permit. I went to where the travel advisor in my hostel had shown me and walked around for a long time before being sent to a completely different area of town. On my way, I stopped into an Adidas shop selling some of their official tops and bought a couple. The prices were huge by Chinese standards but their t-shirts etc were really great so it was hard to resist, although I did try to buy those that made little play of the brand name or of China as opposed to Beijing. Finally making it to the new area I looked and asked around some more but eventually gave up.
In the evening it was football at the Workers Stadium. I was somewhat amazed to find that Chris from the bed underneath mine at the hostel was sitting in the seat next to me. He had apparently bought his tickets from the same agency. First up was USA vs. Nigeria. The key moment of the game came in the first couple of minutes before I arrived. The US has a man sent of for a tackle from behind. Thereafter Nigeria managed to score in either half to appear to win comfortably. The final few minutes were closer though as the Americans pulled a goal back and had some corners and chances to snatch an unlikely draw which never arrived. Chris and I spent a lot of the game talking to two Americans sitting beside us. They were a father and son in town to watch their daughter/sister go for her third consecutive gold medal in the softball. Two rows behind us were another group of Americans who were all dressed up in flags, face paint and coloured wigs. Or should that be colored wigs? I gave in to temptation and took a photo of them at one point. During the second game I thought I heard my name being called but assumed I was mistaken. After the second call I looked around and it was these Americans. "Don't you recognise us?". "Err, should I?". They took of their wigs and it turned out that two of them were the same Americans I had met in the restaurant in Ulaan Baatar, who I had arranged to meet before the opening ceremony and with whom I had exchanged several messages since trying to arrange another meet-up. One of them, Jon, was right in the middle of the photo I took and I still hadn't recognised them.
The second game was between Argentina and Serbia. Both teams were technically excellent but Argentina were sparkling. Despite only leading 1-0 and missing the same penalty twice, the game was really petering out as a contest as the second half stretched on. Never fear, because the most perfectly-organised Olympics has a plan to deal with such emergencies. Stung by criticisms of half-empty venues, the authorities had begun to bus in scores of yellow-t-shirted volunteers to all events. Part of their job was to fill the seats. The other part was to cheer when they were told to and what they were told to. Back in the UK, a Mexican wave is about as welcome at a sporting event as an outbreak of the ebola virus, but from this day onwards they were a constant feature of everything I saw. The screens said "Lets have a Mexican wave" and the Chinese, usually led by the volunteers, obediently obeyed. Furthermore, in the event of a one-sided contest like the one we were watching, they would dutifully cheer for the unsupported underdog. So, initially from the yellow area at the far end and eventually spreading to the whole stadium came the chant of "Serbia!" Serbia!". This was further augmented by the volunteer marshalls in blue t-shirts who walked up and down the aisles waving their arms imploring everyine to join in. These instructions can only have come through their earpieces. One can only assume that the Serbian players were more bemused by this than Gael Monfils had been the day before.
Thursday was a day off from going to the sport for me. I found the address for the agency I needed to get my Tibetan travel permit from. I walked around in the pissing rain for hours, including half an hour spent under a newsstand avoiding the heaviest of it all. When I eventually found the right location it turned out that they had closed down. I have also learnt that current regulations mean that you can only go there as part of an organised tour party which would therefore be both expensive and tediously restrictive. Therefore I decided to bottle the whole idea and revisit it in a couple of months time perhaps to see if rules have been relaxed after the Olympics.
That night I arranged to meet Jon (without his facepaint) and Christian at the Good & Duck. Jon and I had a long chat about life for an hour or so. We also agreed to swap one of my five athletics tickets for his cycling ticket. On paper this was bad for me but I didn't have anything for the velodrome and particularly wanted to go so was happy with the deal. My new ticket clashed with handball on Sunday morning, but I wasn't fussed about that so was happy to give it to Christian who I knew was keen. Jon agreed to keep an eye out for any other ticket for me to redress the balance and was able to give me a second ticket to the same cycling, which was good of him. When Christian turned up we played some table football and hit some balls around in the nets with the baseball bat and the bowling machine. Christian beat both of us 10-9 at the former, confidently assuring us that Germany always wins.