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  • Op-Ed -- Bye Bye Beijing


    08/26/08

    ATR founder and editor Ed Hula. (ATR)
    (ATR) I’m headed home today after more than a month in Beijing. It’s the last of more than 15 trips in seven years leading up to the Games. It’s a bittersweet moment.

    Our team has been through one of the smoothest-run Olympics ever. I never heard about a late bus for media or athletes. In general, working conditions were excellent. But while facilities are the backbone of the Games, they have no soul. I might have traded one of these fine venues for a bit more spirit and fun outside the fences of the Games.

    Beijingers noticed it too. At lunch this week with a Beijing artist, a poet and a gallery manager, the three talked about how the government has placed more emphasis on the prestige of medals than in caring for the needs of people. They agree that the Olympics are probably good for Beijing, but they wonder what this event will mean when the Games glow fades.

    Crowds built around the Olympic Green in the final days of the Games, truly as if moths seeking the flame in Bird’s Nest Stadium. They snapped pictures with abandon, gazed through the fence if they could not get in. But it was simply a crowd of onlookers without much emotion or excitement to display. And then when the flame went out Sunday night, they disappeared.

    The stadium, now dark for the first time in weeks, was a lonely place on a Monday night 24 hours after the closing ceremony. The Olympic Green is empty; the sidewalks outside the fence carry few passers-by instead of a stream of arrivals for ticketed events. The boulevard is absent the growl of motor coaches used for Olympic transport.

    Even though it’s now two nights since the Games ended, the few guests remaining at the media village apartment block across the street from the stadium still must pass the mag and bag gauntlet to enter the complex. I believe it is a subtle sign of the distrust of foreign media by the organizing committee, but I am assured by one of security workers “it’s for your personal safety”.
    The sun sets on the 2008 Olympics. (Getty Images)


    The reality of this distrust set in Saturday night as I stood in my apartment a few minutes after the latest frisk at mag and bag. I was reading through the embargoed description of the London 2012 handover ceremony when it struck me that BOCOG had released nothing ahead of the ceremony. Organizers had even declined to hold a press conference with the producers, as has been customary in past Games. The next organizing committee trusts me with the details of its part in the ceremony, while the Beijing committee keeps its plans under wraps.

    On the other hand, I felt no pressure to limit what we reported from Beijing, was never told what we couldn’t say. Often it was to complain about what BOCOG wouldn’t say on sensitive issues.

    The triumph of sport helped turn the story of the Games into one of athletes. Their performances – apparently unaided by banned drugs – made these Olympics the first in years to produce a raft of record-setting performances. Let’s hope these podium finishes ring true.

    My Cicada Moment

    And while I say these Games seemed to have no soul, the people of Beijing tried their best sometimes to prove me wrong.

    Early in the Games as I waited for a ride outside the Main Press Center, I heard the raspy call of a cicada above the din of cars and people passing by. The sound of the insect was so loud, even my fading hearing was able to quickly triangulate the position of the beast on the branch of a newly-planted tree.

    As I watched
    Games-time visitors snap pictures under Tiananmen Square trees. (Getty Images)
    the cicada, the buzz also caught the curiosity of a Chinese family walking by. They looked up at the tree and joined me in observing this natural phenomenon in an unlikely setting.

    Then the big bug took flight, off to who knows where.

    We all exchanged smiles over the enjoyment of our discovery. Then, with a push from dad, the youngster in the group, maybe seven or eight years old, stepped forward.

    “Where are you from?” he asked in his school-learned English.

    “The United States,” I responded with a smile as the two of us shook hands. Whether too bashful or maybe he ran out of English words, he said no more.
    Dad then ushered his wife and another couple (his brother, maybe?) over to my side for a photo. I crouched down to fit in the frame while the four of us beamed for the camera.

    Instead of animated conversation, our smiles would have to do for communication.

    If I had the presence of mind I would have pulled out my camera for my own share of this Kodak moment, but the family stepped away to continue their sightseeing trek before I remembered to snap a picture.

    Even though I have plenty of photos of the spectacle and people of the Beijing Olympics from the past month, it’s the photo I don’t have I may remember the most.

    It’s a souvenir of the friendliness and goodwill that Beijingers freely offered this month to a houseful of visitors from around the world. To all of them, I say xie xie – thank you.

    Written by Ed Hula

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