More reason to watch
These are the first Olympic Games in which anticipation of the athletes’ feats has been overshadowed by speculation about the nature of the event.
Records may be broken, ambitions fulfilled and hopes dashed on an individual and a national scale in Beijing and its ancillary sites in the coming days, just as they were in the 18 earlier editions of the Summer Games, but this time the real interest is in these questions: how will it work and what will it be like?
A whole queue of potential catastrophes is looming: a marathon runner collapses, struggling to breathe; the haze of industrial pollution means the sprinters are unable to see one end of the 100m track from the other; a clampdown on political protests affects the Australian cyclist Cadel Evans, with his ‘Free Tibet” T-shirt peeking out from under his racing vest, as well as those who have journeyed to Beijing specifically to draw attention to their causes.
Not a day seems to have passed this year without the latest criticism of the Chinese government’s failure to honour the solemn pledges on human rights it made to the International Olympic Committee during the bid process seven years ago. Just as regular are the bulletins on the quality of Beijing’s air, the very fuel of sport, the stuff that will be pumped in and out of these athletes’ lungs as they strain for the last ounce of speed and endurance. An entire book could be compiled of the artistic photographs of gauzy vistas in and around the vast Olympic Park, except that this is not a morning mist but an all-day smog rich in toxic particulates.
The competitors are programmed to do their stuff, most of them oblivious to the immediate environment. The sprinters Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt will hurtle through the miasma, unimpeded by the prospect of conditions that forced the asthmatic Haile Gebrselassie to gear down from the marathon to the 10 000m. Yelena Isinbayeva will draw the world’s gaze as she vaults out of the mist, aiming for another gold medal. Michael Phelps will attempt to go one better than Mark Spitz’s seven golds in the swimming pool. Liu Xiang—breaker of Colin Jackson’s 110m hurdles world record now held by the Cuban Dayron Robles—will shoulder the weight of the hopes of 1,3-billion home fans with his compatriot Yao Ming, who confronts his fellow NBA star LeBron James in the opening match of the basketball tournament: China versus the United States.
But how will this year’s hosts compare with those who put on the Olympic parties in Barcelona and Sydney, the two friendliest and most fun games in recent history? To match the Catalan capital, the Chinese will need to find volunteer guides with the charm and helpfulness of the young Spaniards who shepherded visitors in 1992. To emulate Sydney they will have to recruit patient stewards such as those who, eight years ago, were capable of sitting in tennis umpires’ chairs above late-night train station queues and defusing potential exasperation with nothing more than a torch, a megaphone and a sense of humour.
Or will none of this matter by comparison with a display of efficiency to match the ahead-of-deadline completion of the major facilities—the Birds’ Nest stadium, the Water Cube aquatic centre and so on?
The one guarantee is that everything will work. The competitors deserve organisational competence as a minimum, but the chance to make history amid such mind-bending feats of architectural splendour is something more than a bonus.
The recent fashion for stadiums that can be downsized for more humdrum usage after the great circus has moved on is an understandable and responsible notion (and will be employed by London in 2012), but it robs the world—and the athletes in particular—of the chance to go back in years to come and gaze upon the unchanged scene where great deeds were accomplished.
If we ever get beyond a fascination with the story of how China manages the event, the Games will include the usual mixture of ancient and modern, with a 10km open-water swimming race and BMX biking among the novelties. Inviting as it might be to pour scorn on some of the sports that seem to have little connection with the Olympic ideal, tennis and football being the favourite targets, it should be noted that the former was on the schedule in 1896 while the latter joined in four years later; neither presence has done much harm to anybody while endowing the winners and viewers with considerable pleasure.
But this time we travel or switch on the telly with the usual expectations enhanced by a sense of profound curiosity. In Atlanta 12 years ago a few hundred poor blacks were moved out of the downtown area for the duration; this time around three million residents of Beijing have been evicted from their homes to make space for a fortnight’s sport. While anxious London recoils from an Olympic budget of more than R130-billion, the rulers of the most populous nation on Earth have chosen to invest something like 10 times that amount in the announcement of their emergence on the world stage.
Each nation uses the Games for its own purposes and sees its underlying characteristics reflected back, as if in a mirror. The world will be watching, too, looking at the child dropping like a leaf towards the surface of the swimming pool but searching for the bigger picture. —