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Phelps, Fuwa and Flying Li Ning: A Five-Year Beijing Olympics Flashback

schwankers camera 048The uncertainty seemed palpable five years ago today. The opening ceremonies of the Olympics, awarded to Beijing in 2001, would begin in a few hours. Would it rain during that carefully orchestrated event? Would it rain throughout The Games? Would the tourists and athletes be safe, the subways and stadiums up to snuff, the pollution light enough to prevent event cancellations? Would China win the most gold medals? And would — big picture — the nation’s so-called “coming out party” be a success or a bust?

More relevant to this blog: Would rumors about regular passport checks, 2 AM curfews or widespread bar closings become realities and result in a “no-fun Olympics” as some foreign reporters suggested? And just how many scorpion-on-a-stick stories would those reporters write? Ten? Twenty? Eighty-eight?

Here are some of my memories from those Olympics, which — in my book — were a lot of fun.

(By the way, I realize I have done Olympic flashbacks before and some stuff might be repetitive. I don’t care. If the Olympics are allowed to repeat — I mean, they’re held every two years, no? — then so am I.)

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Scorpions on a Stick (image: ET). Because Beijing residents eat scorpions for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and as snacks in between — with only an occasional break for a three-day cleansing scorpion juice diet — every visiting journalist from a major U.S. media outlet felt the need to report on this supposedly ubiquitous dish. ESPN, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, LA Times and many more. Some of them sounded like they had the brain of, well, a fried scorpion. On a stick. That deserved to be skewered. Others did a decent job of providing perspective. For my “Scorpions on a Stick” media medalists, see here.

(Re brilliant observations by foreign reporters, a special mention goes to the guy who looked at a rmb100 note, saw Mao’s image and said, “Wow, they worship him here!” Yes, and George Washington and friends are on your money because…?)

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Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony Salud

Opening night. During the opening ceremonies, wine guy Nicolas Carre and I went on a major nightlife tour. We started at Paddy O’Shea’s at 8 PM and finished at Bed Bar around 2 AM, making our way through Sanlitun, Workers Stadium, The Place, Houhai and Nanluguoxiang. We found ourselves in Salud — packed with people from China and around the world — when Li Ning lit the Olympic flame. From my diary:

12:04 – Salud. Beijing, we have liftoff! The flame is lit, Salud goes nuts, and even Hu Jintao has a “Holy hop scotch at a hot dog stand – did Li Ning just friggin’ well fly across the top of the stadium!?” look on his face

People in Salud cheered and jumped and cried, many doing all three at the same time. Highly emotional. After years of preparation and months of “Can Beijing pull this off?” media coverage, The Games were on.

(See here for the crawl of 30-plus spots, including those long gone, like A-Che, China Doll, Rickshaw, Klubb Rouge and Le Bais des Anges, and those still here, like Mesh, Blue Frog, 12SQM, CJW and Little Saigon.)

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beach-volleyball-attack-of-the-fuwaBeach Girls, Beijing Grandmas and Blitzkrieg Bop. August 9, the first day of sport, I got three tickets to beach volleyball — thanks Frederick Choux! — and headed to Chaoyang Park with Steve “Sino Scuba” Schwankert and Mike “I Saw Something Shiny and Disappeared Beneath the Stands for an Hour” Wester.

We watched some excellent volleyball matches, tempered by the reality check that Russia had just invaded Georgia and teams from both countries were in the lineup. Between breaks, bikini-clad cheerleaders and inflatable Fuwa mascots shared dance territory, sometimes hilariously bouncing into one another. The beer carried a “People’s Olympics” price of five kuai. And the crowd, after it settled down — many people were first-timers to a stadium, unaware tickets corresponded to seat numbers, and ended up in what was possibly the world’s biggest game of musical chairs — went old school with “the wave“.

Experiencing that while Chinese grandmothers held grandchildren in their laps and bounced them to the rhythms of “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)“, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Minnie the Moocher”, well, I won’t forget it.

Afterward, I walked to French restaurant Maxim’s at Solana and met Pierre Cardin. I thought about asking him to bounce me in his lap to the exact same songs but a) he was busy drinking wine with important people, b) he was then 86 years old, c) I didn’t have the music handy, and d) I’m a touch heavy.

(For more details on our night of Olympic beach volleyball fun, see Dig It.)

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The Phelps Factor. The one evening during the Olympics that I made it home before midnight, Mark Duval, then co-owner of China Doll, called and said, “Michael Phelps is coming over.” China Doll, on the top floor of the 3.3 Building in Sanlitun, was celebrity central during the Games, with everyone from Usain Bolt to Evander Holyfield in the place. (Except for that one time Holyfield escaped / wandered off through the heavy crowds on the Sanlitun strip and his panicked handler appeared five minutes later outside desperate to find him. Hopefully, he didn’t fall for the “lady bar” spiel although I’m sure he could fight his way out of that one.)

Anyway, I walked to Sanlitun and within thirty minutes found myself at the bar with Duval. Phelps, fresh off winning an eighth swimming gold, walked up to get a drink — Jack and Coke, if memory serves — from Bob Louison, now a weathered drinks consultant but then a fresh face in Beijing. For some reason, the topic of cigars arose. Phelps said he hadn’t had one for years due to training, so Duval procured a big stogie — I believe from a street-side stall near Tongli Studio — and the world’s most decorated Olympian, looking for all the world like a summer intern, soon had an even bigger grin on his face.

At that point, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks — and German basketball team — showed up. Phelps stared in awe and said, “He’s a star“. He went over to Nowitzki, gave him a hug, and, for most of the night, periodically yelled, “Dirk in the house!“. I doubt I will ever again witness that mix of fame and innocence.

(Soon after, Phelps would be videotaped stateside apparently smoking something far more controversial and China Doll would go kaput, but not before the club’s owners kept the spirit going after the Olympics by adding ramps and other modifications for the Paralympians. China Doll and Kokomo were my top two ‘party’ medalists for the Olympics. For all the winners, see here.)

Hardware vs Software: Some expatriates felt that Olympic visitors would miss the “real Beijing” and instead find a sanitized city where the air smelled like a newly unwrapped car freshener, the traffic moved like clockwork and the citizens were as refined as English butlers, that is, English Butlers following CPP directives. Visitors wouldn’t get the real picture like they did, well, nowhere else, because every Olympic city cleans itself up. Anyway, China did what it does best: hardware. From spiffy stadiums to speedy subways, we saw lots of new bricks and mortar. But software?

The air is still dodgy. The traffic, while lighter, clearly demonstrates the “might is right” and “pedestrian last” principles of local motorists (see this video of traffic at Workers Stadium’s east gate. That guy blocking the crosswalk is a jackass whether the Olympics are on or not.) And minor annoyances yet abound: every fifth taxi driver sports a bad attitude, every other person tries to get into the elevator before the people inside can get out, and service is about the same as ever, which means all over the board. And don’t even get me started on the food at the event venues. So, while people might be wowed by The Great Wall, happy with the Beijing duck, impressed by the friendliness of most people, and amazed by the beer prices at corner stores, they will also see some of the nitty and the gritty.

By Beijing standards, that sounds pretty “real” to me. I spent one hour walking around Workers Stadium and recording what I saw, namely, a mix of Olympic-related incidents and business as usual, whether that meant drivers nearly running down pedestrians or a guy bathing in public with sponge and wash basin or multiple helmet-less riders on a single scooter. See “Beijing: An Olympic city on display, warts and all“.

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Beach Volleyball BeersMiscellaneous: A few more things that pop to mind:

  • My Ghana Flag: Because I had two housemates from Ghana during my university days, and cheer for their football team during the World Cup, I decided to break out my handful of flags from that country, take photos of them in various stadiums, and email them abroad. Even better? When I took them to Sanlitun. Tourists from Africa – and elsewhere – approached to ask about the flags and, hearing my story, often ended up buying me a drink. Who knew a small investment in Ghana flags would turn into a dozen or more cocktails and beers!
  • The Games: Getting a front row, upper-deck, midfield seat for rmb500 to the women’s football final between the United States and Brazil — a gritty affair — with room in front for a flat of 24 beers at rmb5 a pop? A sports highlight! I also went to a field hockey match with my Beijing buddy JQ and enjoyed it far more than I expected. Oddly, I got several tickets free. One my local watering holes turned out to be HQ for some visiting scalpers, who I advised on everything from prices for haircuts to finding a good steak, and who shouted me some tickets.
  • Jean-Michel Cazes: Wine legend and owner of Lynch-Bages, he cold-called me after spotting my then-relatively new sibling blog Grape Wall of China. We met at the St. Regis, I gave him a bottle of Xinjiang wine, and it turned out that not only was the guy who produced it one of his friends but the guy’s wife was in the next room with Cazes’ wife having drinks. One of those huge “it’s a small world” moments. Cazes also pulled off an impressive feat of catching the U.S.-Brazil volleyball finals and the US-Spain basketball finals in the same night.
  • Usain Bolt: In CJW, after he won the 100-meter and 200-meter gold medals. He grabbed a microphone and told us he would be happy to meet people, shake hands, sign autographs, whatever, but asked that he and his friends first have two hours to simply dance and party after all of their hard work. I have his speech on video and will try to upload it. Word is Bolt was also the last one to leave the dance floor — I think it might have gone something like, “Excuse me, Mr Bolt, we know you won a bunch of gold medals but it’s 6 AM, everyone else is gone and we have to close” — one night / morning at China Doll.
  • The Fuwa: Originally known as The Friendlies, these five mascots ran, jumped, bounced off each another, and were cleverly built so the person inside could rotate and do handstands. While I originally thought them a bit ridiculous, they provided a great deal of hilarity and entertainment — and, frankly, were a highlight — during the Olympics. I wonder: Where are they now?

I’ll stop there before this post becomes book-length, though I might do a second one on media coverage just before and during The Games and how unnecessarily cynical much of it was. I do realize the negative effects of the Olympics. Some security measures were harsh, some acquaintances lost visas, some people were displaced and some businesses struggled to follow previously laxly enforced regulations suddenly strenuously applied. And I also realize not every expatriate who stayed in Beijing had as much fun as did I – although I would note they had seven years to make alternate plans. But, overall, when I consider the sense of uncertainly in this city five years ago today, the veneer of calm that covered a thick layer of tension, The Games turned out to be a success. And — even if you didn’t have any scorpions on a stick — lots of fun.

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2 thoughts on “Phelps, Fuwa and Flying Li Ning: A Five-Year Beijing Olympics Flashback”

  1. Great recap and a fun walk down memory lane.

    I, too, had a great time during the Olympics. It was fun to watch China go from awkward pre-teen to awkward teen under the world’s collective gaze.

    I did not, however, get to drink with Phelps. Saw Kobe and Beckham at LAN…

  2. Great memories. I have photos of you with the Ghana flag, 3am at Kokomo, where we were watching members of the Mexico Olympic team dancing salsas, sambas, etc.

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