The 29th Summer Olympiad was a spectacle for the world to behold- a transformational and life-changing experience for China and the 4 billion people who watched the Olympics worldwide.. The sacred Olympic flame came to Beijing igniting a passion in the people of the Middle Kingdom like never before. In between were 17 glorious days of triumphs and tragedies and tears. More new world records were set in Beijing then in any other single Olympic games. The games began with the Opening Ceremony, a visual spectacle that will go down in history as one of the most beautiful displays in Olympic and television history. In my eyes, Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s unfurling of the scroll of history, art and hope for the future during the Opening Ceremony was symbolic of the magnanimous rollout of the red carpet treatment throughout all of the Middle Kingdom for the duration of the Games and beyond. As the parchment of that magnificent scroll unfurled on August 8th it meant the beginning of a long friendship between China with the rest of the modern world.
“Project 119” – was the name of the Chinese effort to get more medals in Beijing garnering 51 gold medals- the highest gold medal tally of the 204 participating countries. I don’t blame the Chinese for showing these heroics over and over on CCTV- it’s a matter of national pride and its definitely something to be very proud of.. Of course no country is good at every sport. When China lost to Brazil to football 3-0 in an Olympic match, Li Weifeng, a footballer on the Chinese Olympic squad said it best: “We play soccer like the Brazilians play ping-pong”. The Chinese may have lost at football but they won almost every other competition- including the all-important hospitality sweepstakes. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, met, exceeded and defied all my expectations. Newbees to China felt the same way. The foreigners I met from Australia, England and France new to Beijing were like “modern-day Marco Polos” on their maiden voyage to the Far East and the Middle Kingdom They were not disappointed. Expecting poverty, rigidity, discipline and restriction during their first visit to China- instead they found Beijing to be warm and welcoming - a feast for the senses.
This American English Teacher from Chicago meandered all over China this past summer. I was able to watch the Chinese watch the games in four different cities- Macau, Guangzhou, Qingdao and Beijing. Large crowds of people were huddled around every available television set in nearly every barbershop, convenience store – coast to coast. If you decided to walk into ANY of the Chinese storefronts - you were automatically invited in, invited to sit down and offered a cup of tea. Even when there was no drama*, – you felt a part of their extended family while watching the games . (*I mean, did anyone on the planet really expect China not to win every gold at table tennis and the U.S. not to win basketball by 40 points a game this Olympics?) And every Chinese citizen added two more words to their post-Olympic English vocabulary: “Kobe” and “Phelps”. I once read in a Chinese magazine that the three most recognized English names in China are Jesus, Elvis and Nixon. If that’s the case Kobe and Phelps must be closing in on the top spots in 2008- holding down the fourth and fifth place respectively.
Someone should write a little letter or forward a petition to Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee to have China host the Olympics from now on and have them prepare “year-round” to do so until the next Olympics in 2012 and beyond. People have been SO NICE in China during the 17 day world sporting competition- I have often wished that my other
800 days living in China were like this! A young lady spent one whole day dragging me from place to place and venue to venue in Qingdao- home the 2008 Olympic Sailing Competition. When I arrived at the Beijing West train station- volunteers were bringing me everywhere and anywhere.
In Zhuhai- a family of one of my former students asked me to stay for three days to watch the Olympics with them. How could I say no? These are just a few examples of the Chinese favorite weapon of choice - an extremely friendly maneuver known as the “charm offensive”. In the famous ancient Chinese military treatise from 5th Century B.C. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” Tzu counsels that “the onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting of pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep.” In modern Chinese Olympic terms that conquering force would be the deployment of 1.5 million peaceful Olympic Volunteers and over 200, 000 friendly cheerleaders to meet and greet all of humanity at China’s doorstep. In creating a harmonious society at the Games – they definitely “killed ‘em with kindness” during the Olympics. Mission accomplished!
Red China’s “red carpet treatment” was magically unfurled EVERYWHERE during the games. Does any city in the world honestly think they can replicate what China did? This is my third year living and working in China, I watched it all the vast improvements unfold before my very own eyes. Not only did they achieve a “Green Olympics”- the behavior modification by the local authorities …..was nothing short of amazing. 22 million trees were planted, 3 million etiquette handbooks were distributed, cab drivers received 2 years of English training, “cloud-seeding” for sunny skies (well, sometimes). On the 11th of every month – there was “queueing day”. Residents actually PRACTICED WAITING IN LINE! Many of the women who waited in line…received roses! I have come to respect China’s various “behavior modification programs”. In actuality, they are “self-improvement programs” ….and they are here to stay. In preparation for Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010- 35 participating department stores in Shanghai already have programs in place teaching English. The goal is to have one English-speaking clerk per counter in all 35 stores in time for the 2010 Expo.
During the second week of the Olympics, I attempted to observe China’s eighth and ninth wonders of the world- the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. Unfortunately, I was not able to get too close to either monolithic structure- the local police shooed us further along while we were attempting to take photographs. I was lucky enough, however, to get to see an Olympic Baseball game in Wukesong Indoor Park. In Beijing. It was an easy ticket to obtain- not many countries around the world play baseball. One Englishman, gave me his take on America’s National Pastime of baseball: “What do we need baseball for if we have cricket?” And so it goes. It is quite obvious that the rest of the world feels the same way as the Englishman - 2008 was the last year for Baseball as an Olympic Sport. Sadly, half the seats were empty at the game I attended. This does not make any sense. Better to give away the tickets to the locals then have empty seats- ANY baseball fan around the world would have loved this!
The game itself was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This particular game between Cuba and South Korea was fascinating as there were fans from at least five countries: China, the U.S., Australia, Cuba and Korea. The Chinese fans were as fun to watch as the ballgame itself. I guess one might say: “You can the Chinese out of the hutong but you can’t take the hutong out of the Chinese”. Under the hot summer sun, local Chinese fans took shelter under umbrellas and under the grandstands. Other Chinese were found under the grandstands playing mah-jongg or Chinese chess! There was literally a whole section of Chinese in bright yellow shirts assigned to cheer for BOTH Cuba OR Korea! (They should have brought another few thousand of yellow-shirted volunteer to fill up the vacant seats.)Americans associate baseball with vendors roaming stands selling beers, coca-cola, brats and hotdogs. In China, the Olympic Baseball menu included noodles, crispy rice and Tsingtao Beer. The Korean fans definitely put the “fan” in fanatic – they were cheering AND giving away Korean souvenirs they brought from home!
You might say I have somewhat of an educated opinion of the Olympic Games. This is NOT my first Olympic Games as a spectator. I was a soldier on duty during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta deploying with the 438th Indiana Army National Guard out of Terre Haute, Indiana. Billy Payne of ACOG did an admirable job. Though I mostly guarded the perimeters of buildings like the Georgia Dome, I did get to see a little bit of Olympic Beach Volleyball- making its inaugural debut in 1996. Three moments stand out in particular in Atlanta: Kerri Strug’s triumphant vault, Mohammed Ali’s bravery as his hands trembled to light the torch and dancing in the wee hours to the most popular song of 1996- the MACARENA. But 1996 pales in comparison to 2008. 1996 was a nice international party while the 2008 was the breakthrough extravaganza that affirms China’s role on the world stage.
I can only wish the same success for my hometown Chicago, the current U.S candidate for the 2016 games. Can Chicago possibly compete? My hometown of Chicago is now up against heavyweights Rio de Janiero, Rome, Madrid and Tokyo. Could any of these cities compete with the 2008 Games in Beijing? I am thoroughly convinced that IOC officials and common citizens alike will say that 2008 Games are a model for all Summer Olympic games.
As an American who is in his third year living and working in China, I have witnessed firsthand for nearly three years what the Chinese can do when they put their minds to something.
These are the same folks that took a sleepy village called Shenzhen added 12 million people seemingly overnight and connected it to Hong Kong to make it a world-class city complete with a stock market and the fourth and fifth largest buildings in the world. After watching the Chinese deftly handle one national crisis after another including the worst winter storm in 50 years, 800,000 people stranded in a Guangzhou train station and a 7.9 Richter Scale earthquake in Sichuan- I KNEW the Chinese would host a spectacular games. .Its a simple effective formula and Chinese have it perfected: Overwhelming manpower + Decisive Action = Crisis Solved.
Over 2 million visitors and 4 billion television a glimpse of life beyond the Great Wall for 17 days. The Olympics can be a country's public relations campaign filled with political meaning, but they do not have to be so. The purpose of the Olympics is to compete and see others compete on a world stage. For the person who doesn't understand the purpose of the Olympics, this is one of the few opportunities for people not only to compete or watch sports competitions, but also to be part of or spectators of cultural events.
The Games highlight the fact that sport also transcends borders. A coach born in China trained American gymnast Shawn Johnson, who won gold in the women's balance beam event. A French coach guided Chinese fencer Zhong Man to his country's first male individual gold medal at the sport - over a Frenchman. Last but definitely not least is “Jenny” Lang Ping of China who is now coach of the United States women’s volleyball team. Ping , whose nickname during her playing days was the “Iron Hammer” arrived in her homeland China to the delight of the adoring throngs of local fans who still remember her all these years later.
It is fitting that the world’s most populous nation was able to host the world’s biggest sporting event successfully and because of the popularity of sport they made a genuine impact on the world. These Games have given people a glimpse of modern China in a way that no amount of political speeches could do. In the final analysis I think IOC boss Jacque Rogge said it best- “The world learned a little about China and China learned a little about the world”. One Chinese party official, Wu Shimin, Deputy Director of the State Ethics Committee addressed the issue with the foreign media in Beijing on August 8th, the first day of the Olympics.: “China has already opened its doors and will never shut them.”. That’s the best thing the world could ever hope for.
This article first appeared in the China Daily, September 19, 2008