The Beijing Olympics opened four years ago tonight. There were controversies ahead of the games, from tightening visa policies to a media theme that these might be the “no fun” games. But once the Olympics started, I imagined a collective sigh of relief blowing through Beijing as things went fairly smoothly and people tended to have, well, fun. For me, it meant the start of two weeks of daily trips to sports venues, partying until the wee hours of the morning, meeting people from all over the world and heavy blogging. Here are five of many things that stood out.
Four years on, I still haven’t seen the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in full. I spent the night of August 8 not in front of a TV but on a tour of dozens of bars with Nicolas Carre. We started at Paddy O’Shea’s at 8:08 PM and — after visiting Sanlitun, Workers Stadium, The Place, Nanluoguxiang and Houhai — ended up at Bed Bar until after 2 AM.
We watched the lighting of the flame at a crowded Salud. It was an emotional moment for many people and I saw more than a few wet eyes in the house. Maybe, like me, these people had been numbed from years of hearing about the Olympics and now were suddenly awakened to the reality that finally… it… was… on.
That was the first of many late nights for me. After two weeks of partying, I made my picks for which nightlife and sports bars I personally found to be medal-worthy.
Foreigners who more than five years ago predicted the following would happen in Beijing, please raise your hands:
That two Olympic mascots named Huanhuan (an Olympic flame) and Yingying (a Tibetan antelope) would jitterbug on a beach volleyball court with a dozen cheerleaders in skimpy neon green bikinis to The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” while Chinese grandmothers with grandchildren on their laps clapped along. Oh, and that a cup of beer would cost five kuai.
Thanks to wine distributor Frederic Choux, who was unable to use his tickets, I watched beach volleyball on opening day. Good fun that set the tone for the Olympics. And capped later that night by meeting Pierre Cardin at Maxim’s. I ended up giving out ten awards for that opening night, including most famished spectator, most annoying moment and most interesting song choice — see here — and posted this video.
The night of the day Michael Phelps set a record with eight gold medals in a single Olympics, we were at China Doll when the man in question walked up to the bar, ordered a Jack Coke and mentioned to me and friend Mark Duval that he hadn’t smoked a cigar for more than three years due to training. Duval quickly secured a huge stogie and Phelps soon puffed away. A few minutes later, Dirk Nowitzki of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks showed up. Phelps pointed in awe, exclaimed “He’s a star!” and spent much of the night regularly shouting “Dirk in the house!“
Running into celebrities in Beijing was fairly common during the Olympics. From Diego Maradona to Yao Ming, from Jared Leto to David Beckham, from Evander Holyfield to Michelle Kwan, they were all over the place. I wrote over a half-dozen posts about celebrities that readers met or spotted and eventually gave medals to the best stars.
Unfortunately for a star like Phelps, he only got second billing from some in the American media, with the real winner being a food that Beijing citizens apparently eat morning, noon and night — scorpions on a stick.
ESPN, LA Times, Wall Street Journal and other outlets from the United States seemed enthralled with this snack. After perusing over a dozen articles, I gave medals to the best features. Do you think the following writer got the gold?
The Chinese people I saw all seemed to be buying things like lamb kebabs and fruit. On the other hand, the people gathered around the centipedes and scorpions on a stick were, in almost every case, tourists or American TV reporters doing fun features on weird Chinese food.
More than a few of my long-term expatriate friends lamented that Olympics visitors would miss the “real Beijing” and instead find a city where the air would be clean, the traffic lighter and more orderly, the streets beautified, and the minutiae that give this city its character eliminated.
Beijing has tried to put on its “best face”, especially around the stadiums and tourist sites — new edifices adorn the city, a jungle of flowers decorate its sidewalks, and rare is the beggar found on them. The new subway line, shiny road signs, and multitudes of posters and banners are part of the package.
But if Beijing has cleaned house, it has also left dirt in the corners, smudges on the windows, and a few bags of garbage in the kitchen.
My proof that Beijing retained its flavor? From a guy soaping himself on the sidewalk to tourists trapped in traffic, the 15 observations I made during a one-hour walk around Workers Stadium. See Beijing: An Olympic city on display, warts and all.
I’ll finish there. I could list 20 more items, from free drinks I received from Africans due to the Ghana flag I carried (I took photos with it around the city and sent them to my former university housemates who hail from Accra) to trying the dozens of new bars and restaurants opening at that time to getting upper deck, front row, mid-field tickets to the women’s soccer final at Workers Stadium for rmb500 about five minutes before the match started. You can pack a lot into two weeks and I am glad I was here to do so.