A reporter’s journey through the Olympics
He encounters consistently friendly Chinese volunteers, lamb skewers at 3 a.m., Swedish ping-pong, and the arcane rules of fencing.
It is 2:30 a.m. I have no idea what day it is. The men’s 200-meter dash finished a few hours ago. One measures time by events here, not by days or hours.Skip to next paragraph
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I am walking back from the Bird’s Nest in a light drizzle, thinking that, for journalists, the Olympics are nearly as much about these moments – in the wee hours of the night, story freshly finished – as they are about the actual events. The Olympics seem mine now, personal. Other than a Russian TV crew doing a daily wrap-up in front of the glowing red spaceship of the Bird’s Nest, I am alone.
Or so I thought.
Without warning, four Chinese volunteers appear from nowhere in some sort of über golf cart, as if a normal cart woke up one day and became a Cadillac Escalade. They are offering me a ride back to the Main Press Center.
The Main Press Center is, at most, a five-minute walk away – hardly a hardship. It is 2:30 in the morning. There are four of them. And they are all smiling.
This, I think, is the Beijing Olympics.
Volunteers at every Olympics are a unique breed of human, infused with the angelic temperament needed to deal with journalists 24 hours a day. But here in China, I have sometimes felt as though they stopped short only of fanning us with palm fronds and offering grapes as we write our stories.
When it began raining, volunteers gave us free ponchos. I have ordered lamb skewers in the media cafeteria at 3 a.m. Nevermind that at every other Olympics, nothing in the media center would have been open past midnight. Here, there were a half-dozen people to serve me, and another two at the register. I will remember this as the Clockwork Olympics.
Manpower, you see, is not a problem for China. But that can’t explain the cheeriness – the overwhelming impression that they are, in fact, overjoyed to serve you lamb skewers at an hour better suited for viewings of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Since language difficulties limit conversations to, “Can you please turn this television to the water polo?” I cannot claim any great insight into why this is. But it seems that everyone is simply happy to be a part of the Olympics.
By now, I must be in 1,000 photo albums across China. To travel the 10 minutes from the Main Press Center to the Bird’s Nest is to run a gantlet of digital cameras, flashing in every direction. At any one moment, 30 people are standing on the Olympic Green, pretending to hold the Olympic flame in their hand, Lady Liberty-like, as someone snaps a picture. And I’m in the background, hurrying to the javelin.
This is a wonderful thing – to be in a place that loves the Olympics. Mostly because I feel the same way. I fall in love all over again every two years. Not with any specific athlete – or at least not in a way that requires me to apply liberal amounts of Hypnôse Homme. There is romantic love. There is platonic love. I suggest that there is also Olympic love.
I love that, on the last day of the men’s table tennis competition, the only person who could have prevented a Chinese sweep was a Swede who played every point with the enthusiasm of a teenager, even though he was a 40-something at his sixth Games. At times, I expected him to start break dancing.