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In search of a little fun amid the Games

Tourists complain that security concerns have subdued Beijing's nightlife

By Correspondent / August 15, 2008

A tourist approaches the National Stadium, the Bird's Nest, on a rainy day in Beijing.

Jiang Shenglian/ ChinaFotoPress/ NEWSCOM



Halfway through his sixth Summer Olympics in 20 years ­– Seoul in 1988 got him hooked – sports fan Denny Nivens counts off the perks at the Beijing Games. World-class stadiums. Amazing sight seeing. Plenty of spare tickets on sale.

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What’s missing? “They left fun out of the equation. They don’t factor in that people want to go out,” says Mr. Nivens, a satellite engineer from Hermosa Beach, Calif.

For seven years, Beijing has geared up for the greatest sporting show on earth. But the Olympics are much more than the sum of the races run and medals won. Many foreign spectators are wondering what happened to the carnival atmosphere of previous games, such as Athens in 2004 or Sydney in 2000, when host cities swelled with local and foreign revelers out for an endless summer night.

Beijing has put great stock in aesthetic makeovers, new infrastructure, and civilian awareness campaigns to impress its foreign guests. Taxi drivers have studied English, cars have been taken off the road to reduce traffic, and everywhere in the city are reminders of the games and their slogan, "One World, One Dream."

But in the wake of unrest in Tibet and the resulting protests in the West against the Olympic torch relay, China’s focus on securing the games and avoiding any embarrassments seems to have crowded out whatever fun-loving plans had been laid.

“The elements are there. The boxes are all ticked. But no one is relaxed enough to let their hair down and really let go,” says Tom Pattinson, the executive publisher of Time Out Beijing, a monthly entertainment listings magazine.

The Olympics Green, a vast plaza on which the showcase stadiums were built, has disappointed. In addition to being a sports venue, the green features sponsors’ pavilions, food stalls, and merchandise concessions. Crowds here have been small, however, as only ticket-holders can enter the fenced-off area and spectators don’t linger after events. The numbers on the green only picked up on Friday after organizers distributed more day passes to local residents.

Instead of encouraging people to mass on the streets, authorities last week advised residents to remain at home to watch the opening ceremony on television. Since then, the city’s major streets, which are awash with Olympic signage – and populated by uniformed police and community volunteers – have been largely subdued.

Some Western expatriates have dubbed the Games the ‘No-Fun’ Olympics. After all, bars and restaurants catering to foreigners have been told to remove patio seating and close by 2 a.m.