Published: September 10th 2008August 25th 2008
Attending an Olympics is a far different experience than watching on television; you avoid those annoying ad breaks and sometimes those equally annoying commentators, you are not subjected to endless replays of the same event nor to other distractions of daily life. Your whole existence is geared to the Games and everything it entails: securing more tickets, queuing and moving with masses of people, swapping email addresses with other attendees; and sitting with thousands of other spectators cheering loudly for the athlete of their choice. This was my third Olympics, and as my previous two efforts in Sydney (2000) and Barcelona (1992) taught me, every Games is different: an excitement surrounded Barcelona whereas Sydney possessed a friendly energy, but what would be Beijing’s lasting impression?
This question was promptly answered upon my arrival at the new Beijing airport. This was more akin to a city than to a transportation hub, after which I transferred to a subway system that had doubled in size within the previous 12 months. The Chinese had ploughed enormous sums of money into infrastructure and it showed. Most noticeable were the sporting venues, they all (to varying degrees) outclassed their Sydney counterparts, and made the Barcelona
Perfection on display
The gold medal winning Russian rhythmic gymnastics team were mesmerising.
equivalents look positively amateur. I attended four sessions at the Water Cube and it is undoubtedly the most beautiful sporting arena I have ever visited. The whole venue pursued the aquatic theme – from the patterned convex exterior, to the honeycombed design inside. Within the pool area one could espy a ceiling that looked as if you were sitting inside of a futuristic water observatory on an ocean floor. Almost its equal was the Birds Nest, where an intricate exterior was matched by imposing views from every vantage point within its interior. Other venues such as the National Indoor Stadium, the Cycling Velodrome and the Rowing-Canoeing Park were all impressive – and the Chinese should be congratulated on providing the spectator with such sensational sporting stadia.
This Olympics would have surpassed my favourite games (Sydney) except for one factor, and that was the energy. For some not-so-inexplicable reason, the Chinese authorities seemed to discourage people from loitering in the Olympic Green (the main sporting area); the food options were appalling, and there were no sections to gather and watch large television screens – thus it encouraged people to disperse as soon as their session was over, and the energy
that accrues when many people gather in one area was absent. The atmosphere did improve during the second week of the Games when the athletics commenced and added an extra 150,000 people into the Olympic Green daily. The smog also cleared at this time and the beaming sun also lifted the general mood. Within the venues themselves, they were mostly filled, but there were always numerous spare seats – including the finals of swimming, diving, athletics, cycling and gymnastics – a factor possibly attributed to allocating too many sponsor tickets instead of allowing paying sports fans to access them.
Of most interest was witnessing the changing behaviour of the Chinese people at these Olympics. It was lovely to see a local family gathered on a train eagerly holding tickets and small Chinese flags in their hands, with eyes full of expectation. During the first few days, these Chinese spectators were measured in their applause; but as the days passed, they learned to express themselves more – whether it was from watching the antics of the foreigners or from some other factor – they became more ebullient and raucous in supporting the Chinese athletes. As a consequence, the atmosphere became
increasingly better with each passing day, whereas in Sydney and Barcelona the excitement began to tire and falter as the Games progressed to its conclusion. The first week in Beijing (expect for the Opening Ceremony) was quite flat – for example, the swimming was muted when compared Sydney’s thunderous and deafening noise – whereas the athletics in the second week had a greater vibe than Sydney and possibly even Barcelona. Speaking to the Chinese people, it was obvious that they harboured immense pride in holding these Games, as they provide an opportunity for China to be fully accepted by the world community. Perhaps these Olympics will be similar to Seoul, where the 1988 Games saw South Korea shift from its position as a largely unknown nation to one fully integrated into the world at large.
After an enormous amount of planning (and some luck) I secured tickets for 17 sessions of sport – of which 15 sessions were finals. Though I was fortunate to see four Australian gold medals, as is usual at an Olympics, the sporting highlights usually involve athletes from countries other than your own. I was privileged to view the greatest Olympian ever, swimmer Michael Phelps,
win two of his record eight gold medal haul. Another muggy evening within the Birds Nest saw me witness Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell shatter the world record in the 4x100 relay final, a mark that had stood since the Barcelona Olympics, where I witnessed the magic of Carl Lewis’ explosive last relay leg. The mesmerising display of the Russians in the final of the team Rhythmic Gymnastics was unforgettable – I have never been so entranced by a human performance which excelled in grace, poise and precision. Finally, there was the power and poignancy of German weightlifter Matthias Steiner, whose incredible final lift brought the enthusiastic crowd to its feet, and secured him a gold medal; thus fulfilling a promise to his late wife (killed in a car accident last year) that he would win gold to honour her name. The oath was completed when he carried her photo onto the victory podium, thus proclaiming the inspiration for his achievement.
Despite the Olympics being centred on sporting achievements, it becomes secondary when compared to the atmosphere and excitement generated by people from over 200 nations all gathering in one place for one purpose. However, I seemed to generate
an excitement of my own; people would point, whisper and laugh at me as I wandered the streets or rode the subway; it was as if the Chinese had never seen an Australian before. Perhaps this could be attributed to the frightful yellow suit I wore and the dark green makeup plastered across my face – thus outfitting myself in Australia’s sporting colours of green and gold. I was regularly swamped by offers to pose for photographs, and I must have modelled for more than 2000 shots, in addition to interviews for three Australian television networks and for Ukrainian and Mongolian television. It was tiring at times, but someone had to do it ;-)
Finally after 17 days of seeing almost 50 gold medals won across 12 sports, the time at my third Olympics was finished all too soon. I packed my bags on the evening of August 24 whilst listening to fireworks exploding above Tiananmen Square to mark the conclusion of the Closing Ceremony. Though the Olympics were over, the celebrations were to continue, for the next morning I joined Thai Airways flight 675 bound for Bangkok. Fortuitously, the Thai Olympic boxing team were also onboard, and they
included the gold medallist in the Flyweight Division (51kg) Somjit Jongjohor, and the Welterweight Division (64kg) silver medallist, Manus Boonjumnong – thus representing half of Thailand’s total medal haul. The whole flight was geared to celebrating these Olympic heroes and the five-hour journey passed very quickly as the First Vice-Chairman of Thai Airways and the Thai Tourism and Sports Minister gave speeches whilst popping champagne and cutting a specially baked cake that was handed to all passengers. Chocolates shaped like medals and covered in a shimmering gold wrapping were also distributed widely as Mr Jongjohor strode around the plane posing for photos and proudly displaying his gold medal. I cannot remember a more enjoyable flight.
Upon arrival in Bangkok, we strolled along a gangway lined with eager airport staff and emerged into the arrivals hall to be greeted by a scrum of journalists, cameras, officials and even more airport employees all waiting to welcome the team. After pronouncements were made to honour the king, the team duly entered to a rapturous ovation; cameras flashed, applause echoed, and there were tears of joy as families were reunited. And it was in these final Olympic moments that a realisation from my
Storms brew at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park
Shortly after, competition was suspended for the day due to lightning.
first Games 16 years ago was again in evidence; the passions that inspire us – whether that be pride in our country, our family, our friends or our own achievements – are universal, regardless of a person’s culture, religion, language or skin colour. For more than any other event, the Olympics demonstrate that the similarities which unite us as human beings are far more significant than the differences that divide us.
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