Thursday, August 7, 2008

Orchestrated Jubilation: Beijing on the Brink of the Games

During the next two and a half weeks, Colin Hanna '11 will be blogging from the Beijing Olympics, giving the Princeton community an insider's look at the excitement and controversies of the Games.

Pollution has been discussed at length. I grew up in Hong Kong, and even by those standards the pollution here right now is pretty abysmal. For years China has been making promises to curb factory and vehicle emissions to a level where pollution would become a non-factor for athletes-that has not happened. Today as I awoke I could barely see several hundred yards down the road, and the Opening Ceremonies are tomorrow night. High performance athletes in outdoor events are arriving in Beijing to give their best efforts. Unfortunately, the conditions here may mean that we may not see these athletes realize their full potential.

Many of the most intriguing conversation I've had thus far in Beijing have been with the city's many colorful taxi drivers, when I've been able to catch one.
Due to the rationing of vehicles on the road, it seems the demand for taxis have increased, and with higher gas prices, the number of taxis have decreased. Catching a taxi, especially during rush hour, can be quite the ordeal. Dancing goofily in the middle of the road is an effective tool though. The drivers have expressed a well-rehearsed excitement of the Games, which are actually quite distant from the typical Beijing resident. They mention that the police in military presence in the city have increased sharply in the weeks before the Games. One wonders whether or not at the conclusion of the Games we will see these numbers fall to pre-Olympic levels.

Security is tight all around the city. Athletes have been sequestered in the Olympic Village and the average person cannot get close to facilities without a ticket, credential, or corporate connection. Beijing has enlisted 400,000 volunteers, some sporting nostalgic red arm bands, to keep the city's streets peaceful and friendly to visitors. The number of Olympic volunteers at this Games shatters previous records, and by some accounts doubles the number of foreigners expected to arrive here for the Games.

Beijing has changed vastly since the last time I've been here (5 odd years). Most of the changes have come in the past few months. A new airport superhighway just opened on July 30th. Most big roads also have dedicated "Olympic Traffic Only" lanes, which only serve to worsen traffic in the others. Innovative architecture dots the skyline, the Bird's Nest, Water Cube, are all significant examples of structural art and the as yet incomplete CCTV tower reinvents the notion of the modern skyscraper. These buildings seem to be rare sources of innovative creative expression. Also, a new subway has been put in place for the Olympics which I took today. The subway is air-conditioned, clean, and cheap. It looks to be a positive lasting legacy of these Games.

Luckily, over the coming weeks I will have a chance to witness many Olympic events, and plan to talk to some athletes about their experiences. I did hear that Amanda Beard, an American Olympic veteran swimmer, commented that the Olympic Village here is the nicest she's seen. I'll also have a chance to catch a baseball game with the US ambassador to China, I'm curious what we'll be singing during the 7th inning stretch. Anyhow, please come back soon, I'll be doing my darndest to continue making it down to the free WiFi at Starbucks (yes, they are in Beijing too!) and to keep you abreast of events here as they unfold.

Yi hou zai shuo!