Three years after the day after: Steven Schwankert on post-Olympic Beijing

A day before the opening of the 2008 Olympics, I received an email from longtime Beijing resident and scuba diver instructor Steven Schwankert, one that I think captured the mood felt by many and that I posted the next day as “Farewell, my Beijing Shi“. (“Tonight is the last night of any Beijing that we ever really knew,” he wrote.) Those Olympics ended three years ago yesterday and I asked Schwankert if he would write a second post, one that reflects on what the Games meant for him and the city. Here it is:

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The day after the day after the day before the Olympics opening.

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Three Years After the Day After

By Steven Schwankert

Every year when the weather warms up in April, I have the same feeling I did in 2008: the Olympics are coming! If only that were true.

When the Olympic torch was extinguished, I was with two guys. As such, I didn’t shed any tears, although deep down that’s what I wanted to do. The Olympics had been great, they were a roaring success, and suddenly, not just the 16-day spectacle was over, but the seven-year journey of Beijing residents.

The next day Beijing awoke to a profound sense of confusion. The Paralympics were a few days away, the flame would be re-lit, but it just wasn’t the same. China would celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding the following year, but again, the scale and excitement wasn’t comparable. For the first time in about 15 years, Beijing as a city had nothing to look forward to. What the hell do we do now?

That question was answered 22 days later on September 15, when Lehmann Brothers filed for bankruptcy, kicking off what we now call the Global Economic Crisis. What do we do now? The Games are over; we go back to work and hang on for dear life, that’s what we do.

I watched Barack Obama get elected at the Rickshaw, packed to the gills mostly with people who weren’t from the U.S., but who cheered his win with American gusto regardless. A week to the day later, I lost my primary job. A week after that, I lost another job, temporarily. Life after the Olympics really started to suck.

Just before Christmas, I was at one of Tun’s (in)famous Friday night Ladies’ Nights with the proprietor of this blog. It was like watching 450, 20-something Neros fiddle while the rest of the world burned, a bacchanal of questionable booze and 80s tunes, a celebration by people who had chosen the right year not to look for work.

Three years later, the Rickshaw is gone. Ladies’ Night at Tun is gone [as we knew it]. And for the most part, the Olympics are gone. One wonders about its legacy. Subway Line 10 is awesome. And then there’s…?

The Bird’s Nest is now essentially a 90,000-seat hollow shell, used a couple of times per year for a visiting soccer team or rare concert. The Water Cube is a water park. Anybody been out to the rowing center lately? Of course you haven’t.

This summer, Beijing seems to be at capacity. Every restaurant is full. Every street is choked with traffic. Every attraction is mobbed. We hoped that the Olympic experience would transform Beijing the way it had Barcelona and Sydney. It didn’t. Beijing didn’t become Sydney. It became Shanghai, and we all know how much Beijing hates Shanghai.

There aren’t any more sports being played in Beijing now than there were three years ago. There are barely more concerts by international artists than there were three years ago. Traffic is horrendous. Air quality is abysmal. Service is terrible. Beijing welcomed the world and then told it to go home. China confirmed itself to itself, alpha and omega.

What we didn’t learn from the day after the Olympics was that that was it. The Olympic carnival doesn’t come back next summer, or the summer after, or in most cases, ever. It’s like the blooming of desert flowers: it might happen once in a very long while, it’s over very quickly, and if you didn’t see it, you probably wouldn’t know it ever happened. But if you were there, and you saw it, you’ll never forget it.

I didn’t come to Beijing for the Olympics and I don’t stay because there was one here. Beijing has always done one thing well –- it attracts talent, domestic and foreign. It is still home to the most dynamic, frustrating, inspiring and interesting group of people I’ve ever met, and it offers more opportunity than I ever imagined. That was enough before, and it’s enough now. I can visit those other cities, but I want to live here.

9 thoughts on “Three years after the day after: Steven Schwankert on post-Olympic Beijing”

  1. You said it – the desert flower & it is home! The state of the Olympic venues is a crime. As sad as the air quality.

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