Beijing - Olympics part 2
'Stars Of Track And Field' - Belle & Sebastian
The athletics in the Bird's Nest had started on Thursday, but my first trip there was not until the night after. Before that I faced a morning trip to softball. Like a number of sports that I was due to watch, I didn't really know much about it but was going for the experience and to educate myself. Basically, it's the female equivalent of baseball with some minor rule changes such as a slightly bigger ball. I have to say, and this is an opinion backed up by everyone else I spoke to who saw softball, that it was interminably boring. A situation made even more uncomfortable by the hot sun that poured down on the uncovered stands.
It was hosted in a stadium a bit out of the way. So I rode a dozen metro stops then managed to find a local bus and got off when most other people did. The problem with being a fast walker is that you end up walking at the front of any group. So, whereas slow walkers can follow where other people go, I end up being followed by others who assume that I know where I am going. Today was a fine example of this and the embarrassment you feel when you realise you have taken a wrong turning and have lead twenty total strangers a hundred yards down the wrong street. The stadium, when I found it, was right next to an even bigger stadium which was unused for the whole of the Olympics. I took up my seat in the top corner of the half-empty arena and set about trying to work out how the rules worked, why they were bothering to play this stupid sport, who at the IOC decided it would be a good idea to add it to the games' portfolio and how much longer I could endure the whole tedious spectacle.
Hitting the ball properly anywhere like as often as we do when we played rounders as kids is not so easy in softball. Which is sort of fair enough and I can accept that you have to get into the slow tension of it as you do with its distant English cousin cricket. But, on the rare occasions when the ball does get hit far, there is nowhere in the ground from which the fielding team cannot easily retrieve it before the poor batter has even got halfway around the four bases. So, the only hope for a score is to hit it into the grandstands, which seems a bit silly to me as the poor fielding team are not allowed to pursue it there and can only watch while a home run is scored. The first game involved Canada and China, the much-supported home side. Some time around the middle of the game, Canada scored the one and only home run for a 1-0 win. Mercifully, it turned out that softball only has seven innings so we were spared the additional three we were expecting.
I watched this first game with an English couple and we chatted away about the Olympics in general for over an hour. It turned out that they lived just two tube stops from me and the wife worked at Northwick Park Hospital, just a few hundred yards from my flat. They disappeared to look for food after the first game and never returned. This was probably a shrewd move. Next up in this double-bill of boredom was the all-conquering USA against Japan. I couldn't see the proud father and brother I had met at the football anywhere but I assumed they were in the main stand with most of the US supporters. By the end of the first innings, the US had hit four balls into the stands and were 4-0 up. I sat through the next innings which didn't change the score but figured that I had seen the end of the game as a contest to beat a retreat to the exit. The BBC website tells me that USA went on to win this 7-0 but that Japan had the last laugh by recording a 3-1 upset in the final to win the gold medals.
I found somewhere to eat where a noisy Australian woman shouted a conversation with a couple at another table, explaining to them all the tales and intrigue of being a softball judge. I was completely lost as regards finding the bus stop again so took a taxi to the metro and back to the hostel for an hour or two before the evening. Come the appointed hour, I headed to the main Olympic area for the athletics. Actually, some time after the appointed hour I headed that way and so took a taxi rather than the metro. As we got closer, the taxi got mired in thick traffic so I bailed out and walked the last bit. Queuing to get into the secure area was very crowded and very slow. I grumbled to an African man that his wife was pushing past everyone, but he just smiled and told me in an infuriatingly-relaxed manner that it wasn't their fault that their queue was moving faster than mine. THERE IS ONLY ONE QUEUE!!
Finally inside, I did much sweating as I hurried to the Bird's Nest before I missed too much. I have been in many stadia in my life for many different sports, mostly football, but I have never seen anything that even compares to the Beijing Bird's Nest. The scale and beauty of it is majestic and spellbinding. Each of the strips than wraps around the outside had looked to be metal, flat and about a foot wide from photographs, but it turns out that they are all concrete and closer to four feet square. Furthermore, some of them are the staircases and escalators ferrying spectators to the upper tiers. Inside, the seats were relatively spacious and not flip-down. Stadia interiors always look small to me, even Wembley, but this just blew me away.
I saw Usain Bolt and the other sprinters in the second round of the men's 100m. I saw Kelly Sotherton doing a couple of Heptathlon events and I saw the final of the men's shot put, which was won by a Pole who looked like he was competing in an old white t-shirt rather than the more official-looking tops the others were wearing. This was all amongst various qualifying events for finals on other days. Christian and Stefan were also in the stadium so I went looking for them at an arranged meeting place and time with no success. However, I found myself wandering around the concourse for half an hour j8st taking photographs of the place and the views of the surrounding area. Although this was one of the rare times an Olympic venue was full, it was clearing out later in the night so I was able to clamber over seats and under barriers to join them near the top by the finish line. Here we watched the last event of the evening, the women's 10km final. The front two ran at a phenomenal pace and set what I understand to be the 2nd and 3rd fastest times in history.
Afterwards we took some more photographs of the Nest from outside by night and shared a taxi back into town. The boys were going to a club where they had had a good time the night before. As they had to be back before 10pm or not at all, they needed to stay there all night and return home at 6am. I was tired and had more events to watch the next day so went home.
Saturday was Volleyball at 12:30. First up were Serbia beating Germany 3-1 . . . it says here on the BBC site. I could have sworn that Germany won this by that score. There's a lot of things on that site that are wrong, you know. Anyway, it was a good game and all four sets were on a knife edge. I knew nothing about volleyball before I went but enjoyed the whole thing. I think it's much better than beach volleyball which seems less interesting as a sport and is frankly just made for the Nuts magazine generation. I was talking to a Danish guy sitting next to me. Coincidentally, there were some other Danes sitting further along the row and they seemed to think that we should be supporting Germany rather than Serbia as they were our nearer neighbours. Surely most people always cheer against their nearest neighbours? Afterwards was Italy beating Bulgaria 3-0.
When it was over I took a walk along a canal and through some hutongs and had a pee in an odd public toilet. It was like a normal set of urinals that were open with shoulder-high partitions and no doors. It was squatting holes rather than wall-mounted urinals, so there was one fella squatting down at the end, in open view, doing what it is that men do when they squat down on the toilet.
One of the things I've tried to avoid in this blog is laughing at the expense of foreign translations into English. Mostly these crop up in restaurants where the description of the dish tells you a great deal about the weather and the landscape of the region it originates from, but tells you absolutely nothing about anything it might contain. I try to bear in mind that these people still know more about the English language than I do of Mandarin. This also applies to name of products or companies that spell out funny or rude words in English. It seems cheap, lazy and unnecessary to take pop-shots at easy and obvious targets.
Talking of which, in the evening I went to see the women's weightlifting. The event schedule on the internet had described this as a preliminary session and the scoreboard described it as "Group A". A guy I was sitting next to said he was vaguely under the impression that it was a final but that he didn't really know either. There are two types of lift, the names of which escape me even though an old Dutch guy in my hostel explained it all to me in great detail a few nights later. Each is a separate contest with the two maximum weights for each lifter being added together afterwards for the final score. Like highjumping in athletics, the competitors can pass at any weight they like but, once they have failed on three consecutive attempts they are out. Therefore, the lesser ladies will start at lower weights whereas as the favourites won't begin until later on. There was one Korean girl who was so much better than everyone else that, in both techniques, she didn't begin her first attempt until every other competitor had started and, one-by-one, gone out. She was obviously well-known in her home country and was well-supported by flag-waving compatriots in the crowd. Here the orchestrated chanting by the marshalls became particularly grating. Getting up in every interval to make sure everyone in the crowd chanted what and when they were supposed to, they had the effect of shouting down the real atmosphere being generated by the Koreans. After a while someone in control seemed to realise this so they were instructed through their earpieces to lead everyone in rounds of applause instead. Do they really not trust the people to think about anything by themselves?
At the end, the winner treated us to a successful world-record attempt, which was good to see. After she went off and the sport was over for the night, I was baffled that they brought on a dozen dancers to entertain everyone. Then, when the dancers had gone off, they started setting up a medal rostrum. It turned out that this had been the final after all and that she had just won the gold medal.
Riding the metro away, all of the TVs in the stations and on the trains were showing the closing stages of China vs. Germany in the men's basketball. Although China led by ten or more points with a couple of minutes to go on the clock, Germany pulled it right back and almost clinched it at the death. It was gripping stuff and everyone was glued to it. I was talking to a Chinese guy sitting next to me and he missed his stop watching it. He was on his way to work for the night shift but I insisted that he had to miss the next stop as well to keep watching. He did this but had to get out at the next station or else he would be hopelessly late for work.
I made my way to The Goose and Duck again. I was ordering a pizza when the 100m final came on the screens. It was a real where-were-you moment as Bolt danced the last 30m and still hammered the world record. I was meeting Christian, Stefan and Wang there who had just arrived and saw it on the TVs outside. We spent a few hours having fun, including a comprehensive walloping of Christian on the table football to gain revenge for the last time. They also have a golf simulator with real balls and clubs and other entertainment. Wandering to the toilet nearer midnight, I found that they were showing Everton's season-opeing match at home to Blackburn. With 77 minutes gone it was 2-2 and Everton were pushing for a winner. I grabbed a seat and sat down to watch and shout at the screen. Imagine my shock when, with five minutes to go, they switched over to the basketball!! Panicking, I ran around until I found the manager who was with the owner. They apologised but explained they had a party of 250 Americans upstairs so they had to give them preference. I must have been in a bit of a state because they bought me a beer (the second free one they gave me that night). Overall, maybe it was for the best. I read the next day that we had lost it 2-3 in injury time.
The ticket man never did return to the bar after the night I bought tickets from him. I think he didn't enjoy the pushing and pressure of that night so found an easier way to sell them. I can't blame him really.
Sunday morning was my swapped ticket for the velodrome. Initially I was amazed to find that I was sitting next to Chris from the hostel again, until he reminded me that it really wasn't a coincidence at all as we'd got our tickets from the same set of Americans. Also with us was Mi Feng (spelling probably wrong) who worked at the hostel. She was enjoying her only trip to an Olympic event. A few days later someone else gave her a ticket, but that was for softball which she enjoyed even less than I had, so cycling was still her only real event. Even by the standard of Britain's most successful Olympics ever, the velodrome was a spectacular for Blighty. Only one of the eleven-strong team returned home without a medal and Britain claimed seven of the ten golds on offer. This morning was the qualifying for the men's team pursuit and the sprint competition for both sexes. In all cases this meant people racing against the clock to decide the seeding and draw for the knockout stages to be held later. Also in all cases, the Brits took the top places with ease, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton finishing with Olympic records to boot, although others held these records for a few minutes including Jason Kenny who was narrowly beaten by Hoy in the men's event. The technique and the conditions are so smooth it almost looks like they are not trying, but the speeds were very impressive. Despite being just a early stage, this was one of the highlights of the games for me.
Events were still coming thick and fast. Monday morning meant a nine O'clock start at the basketball. This was pushing it a bit for me and I arrived at the end of the first half in the first game with Croatia edging it 54-16 against Iran. I don't know whether they gave up from then on or made a full set of substitutions, but Iran actually scored a couple more points than Croatia in the second half, with the actual result never in doubt. The second game involved group leaders and eventual 4th-placers Lithuania against Australia. I assumed the former would win, but the latter actually ended up walking it by a scoreline similar to the previous game. I may have warmed to basketball slightly more having seen it live, but I still can't understand why it it the globally-popular sport it is.
The evening was another trip to the Bird's Nest. The metro runs to the south end of the main Olympic area. From there another specially-built line runs over four stops to take people all the way across. This seems to have been designed before the hysterical security arrangements so no one is allowed to make the simple below-ground connection between the two lines. Instead, everyone must exit the station and wait in the long, slow queues for the pointless baggage and personal scanning and checks. Much like airline checks, any would-be trouble causer who cannot get past them with whatever they need is frankly not trying hard enough. A minor inconvenience to terrorists, a major inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of sports fans. Once through the checks, the Bird's Nest can be seen ten minutes walk away, except you are not allowed to walk to it. Everyone is then funnelled back into the metro whether they like it or not to catch the special Olympic line. The first stop is the Bird's Nest. However, for reasons that probably make a lot of sense to somebody, this station is permanently closed and the train always continues on to the next station where you have to make a ten-minute walk back in the other direction to get to the stadium. None of which does anything for your good humour in the heat when the events are already beginning.
This time I was sitting in the middle of the back straight in the very, very back row of the stadium. The highlights of the night were seeing Usain Bolt in qualifying for the 200m and Yelena Isabayeva setting yet another world record. The crowd were very up for this and, probably by accident, she added to the drama by needing all three attempts to break first the Olympic record and then the world record. The men's high jump was a curiously international affair - how often has a track & field final been contested by, amongst others, a Panamanian, a South African, a Zimbabwean, a Senegalese, a Czech, a Botswanan, a Korean and a Grenadan (apologies of some of those national adjectives were wrong)?
Despite the late finish of 23:30, I had to be back in the morning for a 09:00 start in the same place. The drama was a little lower this time, with just four women's qualifying events on show. Events were slightly enlivened by three members of Japanese television turning up a few rows in front of me with a small camera crew to report from the stands. I was melting away in my t-shirt and shorts so I don't know how they were surviving in shirts, ties and suits. They seemed to be having a good time chatting away in their blazers though.
By the evening it was over to men's hockey. By now it was no more of a surprise to me to walk towards my seat and hear Chris calling my name than it was for him to see me strolling in fifteen minutes late. We watched the rest of the first half of Spain beating Korea before deciding we would rather be watching Great Britain play on the other pitch against Australia half an hour later. Chris hatched our plan: we would wait by the exit to the other stands where the first game had just finished and find two people who would be more interested in watching China play the second game on our court than GB/Aus on their court. Then, we would convince them to swap tickets. It seemed for a moment that he knew exactly what he was doing. This spell was broken when he then made a bee-line for the only non-Chinese people coming through the exit. IE: the people least likely to be interested in our swap. It came up roses however when they suggested giving us two tickets from their friends, walking us through the gate and then collecting the tickets back, which worked a charm.
Inside, Chris turned out to have played hockey a lot a school so was able to talk me through the game both from the perspective of rules and tactics. Being Britain versus Australia, both pockets of fans were able to bounce songs off each other to add to the amusement and fun. Britain were on the back foot throughout the first half and were very lucky to grab a 1-0 lead just before halftime. Into the second half and Australian domination continued, paying off with an equaliser and another to lead 2-1. This should have been the cue for Britain to give up their slim chances but they actually responded by taking control and retaking their lead 3-2. They needed to win by eight clear goals to deprive Australia of the second qualification spot from the group, so it was only pride that took a blow when the Aussies equalised for a 3-3 result in the final minute. On the way out I lost Chris and went to watch the end of China's defeat on the other court. He told me the next day that he had stumbled into his manager at his new job he started back home the next week. They had then taken him to a party full of illustrious names from the British Olympic family. If only I hadn't been so keen to dash off and find the toilets!
Wednesday was a rare rest day and I tried to sleep through it. But, I got a message from a friend in the morning telling me of tickets for sale at 'The Dutch House', a big bar and and party area laid on by the Dutch near Chaoyang Park. I think it was at the actual Dutch embassy, but I wasn't sure. We travelled over even though I was exhausted and spent most of the day there, including a few hours playing table-tennis with some kids. By now I had hit the wall in terms of exhaustion. Not only was there the constant rush of events to see, there was the travelling to and from the venues, the chasing around after extra tickets and rumours of tickets for sale plus the general socialising. Riding the metro home that night I knew that I had to cut out everything except the events themselves until it was over.
Thursday 21st was the beginning of the most hectic period of all. Looking forward to travelling around China I had decided that being vegetarian was going to be very hard work. I could explain to people that I didn't eat meat without any shared language, but it took a lot of effort and some days you're just not in the mood for it. So, I had exchanged a couple of emails with the Chinese Culture Center (sic) with a view to taking a handful of private Mandarin lessons. I had arranged to go and meet the woman in charge for a few minutes after her 10-12 lesson to discuss it, but decided to chance turning up unannounced beforehand. It all worked out and I booked myself five lessons from 1-3pm each day the following week.
The weather was poor now so I found somewhere to eat and went to the Olympic area to find the free bus to Shunyi rowing park again. This time I was watching kayaking, which I assumed to be on the other side to where I watched the rowing. I got off the bus at this stop with some other people but they all had passes for a VIP area whereas I was told to walk all the way around to the same entrance as a week earlier. Apparently it was flatwater kayaking. On my previous visit, there had been an Englishman sharing commentating duties on the tannoy with the local Chinese-language man. This time we were instead treated to an American who seemed to be on loan from WWF. Countless inanities poured forth from his mouth in place of actual information. "Third is a bad place to be right now because HERE COMES DITTMAR!!!".
These were all semi-finals but my mind was mostly on making my next step. After the final race, I had just under an hour to get to the football back at the Workers Stadium. I got on the free bus as fast as I could for the ride back into the city, got off at the first stop and found a taxi driver who realised I was late so cut through the back streets to get me there. I missed the first half but, on the whole, regarded this as good time.
The two games were the women's 3rd-place playoff and final. Germany were drawing 0-0 with Japan in the bronze match at half time. No one in China likes Japan and I suppose you can't blame them given their past history. Germany did what the crowd wanted and scored a great little goal to win in 1-0. At least everyone was polite enough to applaud both teams when they did their respective walks around the pitch afterwards.
A long delay followed and Brazilian and American fans began to materialise before the final kicked off, as planned, at 9pm. Brazil dominated throughout the ninety minutes with some brilliant play not normally associated with women's football, but America held the game scoreless with some disciplined defending that is certainly not normally associated with women's football. The pattern continued into extra time where the Americans clinched it with the only goal of the game. I know that teams in Brazil's situation can only blame themselves for missing chances and America's defending is just as creditable as Brazil's attacking, but I don't think that this was the result the neutral wanted.
By the time extra time had finished, the players had celebrated, they had gone off for half an hour to shower and come back for the medal ceremony, it was 12:20 before everyone headed to the exits. Starving, I managed to stumble across an open cafe on the way home, which is very unusual at that time in Beijing. A stroke of luck but it meant it was three by the time I got to bed. The next morning was the most arduous bit of all as I was up at six to get straight out and into the Bird's Nest by a little after seven. If there's one thing you need to keep you awake in such circumstances it's a non-stop rollercoaster of thrills and excitement. And if there's one thing that this wasn't, it was a non-stop roller... etc. Seven-thirty saw the start of the men's 50km walk. The competitors minced around the track in that odd hip replacement-beckoning way that they do for two and a half laps before exiting the stadium. Outside, occasionally shown to us on the big screens, they were given a rotten course devoid of all the spectacular landmarks of the marathon route. While their knee-bending colleagues been taken on a tour of all that is bright and beautiful in Beijing, the walkers had to walk up and down a long paved area outside the stadium for over three and a half hours, longer still for the stragglers. At the end of this time they came back in and headed straight for the finish line where some simply collapsed and had to be carried away. Most were ecstatic just to complete a course that had claimed around a third of them, regardless of their final position.
The only other entertainment for the eight and a half hours I spent in there that day was three events from the men's decathlon. First they did the 110m hurdles, a couple of hours later half of them returned to throw a discuss around before the others did likewise afterwards and finally they had a go at the pole vault. I had half an hour's sleep during one of the many long breaks. The final event was actually quite interesting, partly because the Brit in the field was reasonably good at it despite not being one of the leading contenders overall, and was one of the last couple of men out there.
Farewell to the Bird's Nest then, for the last time. Still as awesome at the last as the first moment I set foot in it. No Olympics will match this one for scale and dazzling visual effect for many years, perhaps ever. And at the centre of this was the Bird's Nest. It didn't matter what was showing in it, people just wanted to be there, behold it and soak up its majestic beauty. The paralympic athletics tickets also sold out quickly. On the one hand, London could be bowed or intimidated by all of this, but it need not be. We cannot match these achievements nor should we try. It would not be doing what London or Britain does best. The city itself might not be so thoroughly brushed up and brand new as Beijing was, but it will be bursting with real charm and alive in a way Beijing wasn't. The Olympics should be as much about a festival of sport and nations as it should the sport itself. Beijing was a festival to promote China, both internally and externally, but nothing else. No parties were had, people were told that it was perfect and were happy to accept this. Indeed, by Chinese standards, I suspect that this was a big party. Not that you can have everything though; the more you have a loose, free party for everyone to enjoy on their own terms, the further you get from the perfect glorious showpiece that Beijing laid on. They did it their way and on those terms it probably cannot be bettered. In four years time, let's do it our way and show that on those terms 2012 cannot be bettered.
I still had one more ticket to use, that of the 3rd-place playoff and final in the men's hockey. Since their draw with England, Australia had lost their semi-final to face The Netherlands, who won every game in the same group, in the bronze match. Both sets of fans were out in force and cheering loudly from the start. Only one set was cheering nine minutes in when the Aussies had scored three times already. High scoring continued but the effect was the same as they ran out 6-2 winners. After a delay to accommodate the possibility of extra time which wasn't needed, the two finalists, Spain and Germany, ran out for a rematch of the Summer's football European Championship final. This time Germany were the 1-0 winners and their fans loved it. I had laid across three seats to get some sleep between the games and had only woken by chance at the end of the national anthems so was perhaps lucky to see it. Afterwards the hordes of German fans partied while we waited for the eventual medal ceremony which can take so long when there are full squads to be awarded.
On the way out, the blue t-shirted volunteers lined everyone's path wishing us all a good night with their ever-presesnt and genuine smiles. To the TV-watching world, the most amazing aspects of these games were Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, The Bird's Nest and the opening ceremony in whatever order suits your personal preference. But to those of us who were here in the city while it all happened, they were surely all trumped by the volunteers. CEASELESSLY happy, cheerful and eager to help in the face of everything that was thrown at them. Few will have seen a minute of the games, some had some pretty thankless tasks such as those on security-checking duty yet all were thrilled just to be a part of the greatest show on Earth (in their eyes, anyway). Their t-shirts were brilliant also and we all wanted one. I shall have to keep my ear to the ground when I stop off in the city travelling through in the future when it is all over.
I was supposed to watch the closing ceremony in the Dutch House with the Chinese I had met in the Goose & Duck and the Germans. By the time different people had had to make last-minute pull-outs it was just Xue Feng and myself. There were far fewer people there than on any other night. Perhaps everyone had already begun the exodus from the city or perhaps they were put off by the fact that there would be no late party there tonight, with it closing simply when the games did. We watched the first few minutes but she soon tired of an empty atmosphere and a Dutch-language commentary that neither of us could understand. We made the foolish decision to take a taxi to Chaoyang Park where the only couple of areas with big screens were already full and refusing entry. We wandered around in the dark with thousands of others, finding a spot on the grass to see a brilliant but brief firework display coinciding with the ceremony's completion. This was it, the sum total of Beijing's partying for the games, five minutes of fireworks. Still, bloody good fireworks though, it must be said.