Dress RehearsalsA sneak peek at the opening ceremonies.
The Bird’s Nest was opened this week for full rehearsals of the Olympic opening ceremonies. My cousin and I were lucky enough to score a pair of tickets. I won’t give anything away; if you want details about the ceremony before the big day, you can read any number of reports based on a video leaked by a Korean television channel.
We met at Xitucheng, the subway interchange between Line 10 and the Olympic Spur Line, ie. the most crowded place in Beijing starting tomorrow afternoon. Coming out of the station we entered the flow of people like tributaries into a river. Apparently the subway lines aren’t going to be connected underground during the Olympics so everyone has to leave the station in order to pass a security screening before they get on the Olympic Line.
The inspection took place under large white tents, and the lines were shorter and moved faster than I expected. There was one section for people without bags and one for people with them. The bag line was set up like an airport safety inspection: metal detectors, X-ray machines, a guy poring over technicolor images on a monitor.
An enthusiastic young man wearing a red Olympic jersey and a Beijing 2008 temporary tattoo on his cheek approached us as we entered the line. He was selling miniature flags with China’s emblem on the front and the Olympic flag on the back. My cousin bought two for five yuan. She waved them around for about ten seconds before an Olympic volunteer approached her and said that miniature flags were not allowed in the stadium because the plastic mast could potentially be used to stab someone. My cousin asked what to do; the volunteer told her to throw them away. My cousin went to find a trash can. I asked the volunteer why no one had stopped my cousin from buying the flags and why peddlers were allowed near the line. The volunteer apologized and said that she saw the young man but was not quick enough to stop him. As we passed through the metal detector I noticed a trash can under the X-ray machines filled with half-empty water bottles, soda cans, and plastic sticks that looked like they came from miniature Olympic flags.
We got onto the subway with no more hassle but for some reason it bypassed the Olympic Sports Center stop and dropped us at Olympic Green, from which we walked nearly one stop backward to get to the Bird’s Nest. During the long trek people posed and took snapshots of the new buildings which stood like monuments to a purpose history would eventually forget. To my right was a snack bar operating from a tent surrounded by twenty or so red Coca-Cola umbrellas. I tried to buy something but was pushed away and told to purchase refreshments in the stadium.
Above us a helicopter circled like a lone bird. I mistook it for a police helicopter but in fact it was providing aerial shots of the ceremonies. We entered the stadium, purchased 2 bottles of orange juice, one bottle of spring water, an ice cream cone and a bag of potato chips (¥26), and went to our seats.
If this were a basketball game our seats would have been great, but for a performance in a place of this magnitude, it was like sitting in the nosebleeds. Being on the ground floor, we couldn’t understand the overall action, and the place was so huge everyone on the field looked like a collection of dots. The only choice was to watch the television screens at either end, but one was partially obscured by the second tier and the other was really far away. A man behind me was smart enough to bring binoculars.
As eight o’clock drew near the crowd’s restlessness became audible. Ten thousand conversations melded into a susurrus of anticipation. From somewhere “the wave” began. Then, the volunteers in the aisles began a countdown. Some of them had headsets and were receiving directions from an unseen hand.
Three, two, one, boom. Lights. Shouts. Flashbulbs. The crowd exploded. The roar of 90,000 people was like the roar of life itself. And it was then, jumping up and down with my fists in the air, that I forgave the Olympics. Everyone’s been so hard on them, and I take my share of the blame. It’s easy being cynical with the facts and the criticism and the foreign policy mistakes and the “objective” point of view. But when you’re there, in the thick of it, amongst the throng of screaming fans, sitting in the humid open air, watching a show that’s not even for real, it’s hard to think of all that. When the flags marched out, the crowd cheered for Chinese Taipei; it cheered for Hong Kong; I jumped up and screamed for the United States, to the bewilderment of everyone around me; and the people who were left (many had exited the stadium during the long precession) shouted their lungs out for China.
And then, after the usual Olympic formalities—speeches by Hu Jintao and Jacques Rogge (delivered by stand-ins), the running of the torch (which didn’t get lit because they are keeping that a secret), and the Olympic anthem—came the big finish. The night before the stadium was alight with fireworks but tonight they had rolled out the red carpet, literally, for a concert ostensibly to keep people in their seats while the athletes left. (It didn’t work.) I didn’t know everyone, but there were some pretty big stars, who lip-synched their way through several songs writen for the glory of the Games. I hope on Friday they will sing for real.
Finally it was time to go home. I had been checking my watch since the first hour. I will say this about the opening ceremonies: they seem like they are never going to end, and there are still some kinks to be worked out—missed lighting cues, malfunctioning screens, unsynchronized cheerleading.
The worst part of the night was getting home. It was eleven and my cousin and I decided to take the bus and not compete with the thousands of people trudging toward the subway. We asked a policeman on the way out who directed us to the wrong bus stop. Apparently the west exit only has Olympic buses that go south, and the normal buses had stopped running by then. So we again joined the flow of pedestrians, many thousands of them, and walked south to the fourth ring road where hundreds of people competed with each other to hail a cab while policemen directed traffic. The cabbies, seeing the policemen, refused to stop, so people walked into the middle of fourth ring to try and snag one. The traffic slowed to a halt.
My cousin and I decided to take a bus. By now we were regretting not just taking our chances on the subway. People swarmed on each bus that came in like crazed fans asking for an autograph. Each bus was packed to the brim and yet it did nothing to staunch the flow of people from the stadium. In the end I took a bus two stops, got out, failed to hail a cab (there were ten or so other people who had the same idea), then walked half a bus stop, then took an illegal cab home.
The Olympics are going to be hell, in terms of planning, organization, and the sheer number of people in one place at one time that brings to mind descriptions in The Inferno.
But who cares? Embrace the chaos. That’s what I learned last night. Somewhere on that crowded bus, getting nudged by octogenarians while sweat dampened the remaining dry parts of my shirt, I relinquished my expectations.
We have all been too lofty in our idealization of the Olympics, sports, and of China. The Olympics should be about peace and harmony, but they aren’t and never will be. Sports should be about friendly competition and pushing the boundaries of human achievement, but most people will settle for a couple of guys beating the shit out of each other. And China… China, despite all its cosmetic changes—the potted plants along the sidewalks, the factories that have been shut down, the nightclubs that have closed—is the same old place and no one can change its mind or hurry its calculated pace of development. I’m not saying China hasn’t improved, but seven years was never enough time and we all should have known better.
Humans should always strive to improve themselves; maybe we should even strive for ideals. But sometimes it’s enough to appreciate the world for what it is and revel in its ugliness and imperfection and be moved by the absurd acts of kindness that sporadically illuminate our lives. What I’m saying is, maybe we’re treating the Olympics like a serious relationship rather than a fortnight stand. Maybe the Olympics are all about politics and corporate sponsorship, maybe they can’t be about peace or harmony or understanding, but there is still something about them we can all enjoy: gratutious, guilt-free spectacle.