I bought Olympics tickets shotgun-style. I tried to get something for more or less every night of the competition (aiming for evenings so as to avoid time off during the work day). I had high hopes for some events (gymnastics, beach volleyball, table tennis), and low expectations for others. Handball assuredly fell into the latter category.
I was thus pleasantly surprised when it blew my mind.
Here's what I didn't know about handball: it's unexpectedly violent. I had heard it was like soccer, only with hands instead of feet; wikipedia didn't mention that it's closer to hockey, played by enormous dudes on a field the size of a basketball court, with full body checks, violent takedowns, and a level of aggression on par with the NHL. Like in rugby, the players don't wear pads, and the level of physicality makes it intense. The games are high scoring, to boot: 30 points per side is the norm rather than the excpetion, which gives an air of berserkness lacking in lower scoring sports.
Our seats were four rows off the court and we were surrounded by dozens -- if not hundreds -- of raving Danes, all whom had painted faces, flag capes and viking hats. I had decided in advance to root for Denmark in the first game, and being surrounded by Danes sealed the deal.
Denmark vs Korea: handball is awesomely faced paced, and the speed of the game hyped up the crowd. The general level of excitement in the stadium was being further fueled by massive quantities of beer, the price of which the Chinese Government inflated only slightly for the Olympics -- cans for 5 kuai, bottles for 8, or 70 cents and a buck ten respectively. Handball turned out to be the only Olympic event at which I drank: the atmosphere just screamed out for a beer.
The Danes were enormous, lanky men, almost universally blond and averaging somewhere around 6'5. Their playing style seemed to revolve around brute force, driving hard towards the circle that rings the goal that players aside from the goalie can't enter. The Koreans were nearly equally as large as the Danes, but played a more wiley game, placing shots carefully and depending less on driving in to the goal. The star player on the Korean team was short, comparatively -- perhaps not even six feet tall -- but he nailed it every time he went for a goal.
The Danes, bolstered by crowd support and a slight size advantage, held a slight lead over the Koreans the majority of the game. I found myself screaming bolsa! (clap clap clap) bolsa! along with everyone else, only to later be filled in on the meaning: defense, apparently. Danish enthusiasm is infectious.
When the Koreans snuck the ball into the corner of the goal in the final minute of play, bringing them to an insurmountable 31 to 30 advntage over the Danes to ultimately win the game, I was devastated. I kept gasping out no! in disbelief, and looking at the people around me, like they could make it better. I dejectedly munched on the chicken nuggets I had smuggled into the stadium.
Iceland played Germany and the second game. I had planned to continue supporting Scandinavia (go Ísland!) but the Germans were out in force and my one-man cheering effort seemed overpowered. I found myself cheering for both sides, secretly hoping that the final winner would be Denmark rather than one of the two teams playing. I can't remember who took the second game.
So handball: in short, awesome beyond any speaking of it, despite a devastating and unexpected loss to Korea at the last minute. Becoming a professional handball player is probably outside of the realm of possibility, but the game definitely further cemented my resolve to become Danish.
Posted by Dakota on 4:49 AM link |
This is supposed to be a chronicle, but I feel I've already talked to much about gymnastics (and there's plenty more where that came from), so I'll just mention in passing that Sunday night we hit up women's gymnastics quals, and our seats were 5 rows off the field of competition, and indeed, it completely rocked. Overall awesomeness factor: high to very high.
Posted by Dakota on 7:58 AM link |
In related news, I got called out of town just after the Olympics ended, to the Land of No Internet Access. I kept faithfully blogging, emailing things to myself from my blackberry, and I'll now go back and add them in one at a time over the next week or two. The first is below; apologies for the absence. Responses to emails: likewise coming.
Posted by Dakota on 7:55 AM link |
Shortly before gymnastics, a buddy of mine called and asked if I had plans for the evening. "I'm going to men's gymnastics," I told him. "Will it last all night?" he asked. "Hopefully," I responded.
"Ok," he said. "So -- you don't want to go to the MTv red carpet event at Club Bud, then?"
Wild horses couldn't have made me pass up the opportunity. The degree to which I'm not into clubs cannot be understated: we Dakotas do not dance, and because I am 10,000 years old I find loud bars to be counterproductive to social interaction and generally not in any way fun. I'm also so not Red Carpet -- I can't recognize celebrities to save my life (pop culture, who?), and even if I were to recognize someone, what would I say to them? Hey man -- great work in that film you were in, which I didn't see but heard was great, I think.
But it's the Olympics and there are athletes afoot, and when else am I going to get to hit up a red carpet event? It was a right-place-right-time invitation, and so: wild horses.
Panic set in immediately: what do I wear to a red carpet event? I put on jeans and took them off, did the same for khakis and pondered going pants-free before finally settling on black pants, pinstripe, slightly formal but fashionable.: Beijing is packed with Europeans and I was hoping to convey the concept of, if not necessarily Mediterranean, perhaps Mediterranean-friendly.
Once my pants crisis was averted, I headed to gymnastics. When I was en route, my buddy called to say that I should just google pictures from other MTv red carpet events and see what people wear. He'd be in jeans, he said. Back to panic, although by that point it was too late to do anything about it.
I took the sweet new Subway line from gymnastics to Nongzhan'guan, the sight of Club Bud. Nongzhan'guan is the Agricultural Exhibition Center, which I've passed a million times but have never been inside. I was pretty stoked at the idea of agricultural exhibition: in a country known for it's (say) eggplants, I'd be pretty excited to see some exhibition-quality eggplants on display. Couple it with a few beers and it's almost too much for a single evening.
I got off the metro with five dozen Dutch people, all dressed in identical orange polos and chattering to one another in a casual mixture of Dutch and English indicating complete bilingual fluency in both. I love the Dutch, always have, and was pretty excited about going to a swank party with hordes of northern Europeans. "So, are you guys Dutch athletes?" I asked excitedly. They looked at me strangely. "We're just Dutch, man. But we're FANS," they told me. I followed them.
They went to a different bar. Blast.
Club Bud: the door was guarded by cocky bouncer types, and they were turning people away left and right – lot's of HE's on the list but you're not so you'll have to get someone from inside to bring you in. People were walking away disappointed. I was dazzled by the lights, and assumed I'd be turned away too. I was welcomed as a VIP; I think they thought I was Secret Service, rather than a professional Xerox unjammer.
Here's the thing I wasn't expecting about the Red Carpet event: it was awkward. Not awkward in a "you people are beautiful and I'm struggling to make conversation" kind of way. It was awkwardly empty. All those people they were turning away would've added more atmosphere than the three-quarters empty dance floor was providing. The DJ even sounded awkwardly unsure of himself. "We're uhh, kicking it old school? Yeah. Kicking it."
I had a beer (budweiser was free, and the only thing available). I danced, briefly and against my will to Bust a Move (we were kicking it old school). I went back to the sidelines and had another beer.
A lean, muscular guy walked up to me and asked if I live in Beijing. I replied in the affirmative and asked him the same question. He responded: "I'm here for... the Olympics?" His tone implied I might perhaps not have heard of the Olympics before.
He turned out to be an Olympic road cyclist, representing New Zealand. Once pleasantries were over, he cut right to the heart of the matter: "so since you live here" he asked, "do you know where I can buy some extacy?" This caught me off guard. "Don't they test you guys?" I asked. "Mate," he reponded, "road cycling was this morning. We lost."
After informing him that I know of no conduits to any illegal substances, I tried to make small talk. I make small talk for a living. It's a huge part of my life -- cocktail parties, meetings, receptions, lunches, casual chitchat. It's what I do.
I was completely incapable of making small talk with the cyclists. Examples fragments of abortive would-be conversation topics:
-- So, what do you do back in New Zealand aside from cycling? ("I'm a professional cyclist; it's what I do for a living.")
-- How's the Olympic experience been? Is it the red carpet party it seems like it would be? ("I just got here two days ago, and all I've done is my event. Which we lost.")
-- Right, but I mean the whole package, living in the village, surrounded by other athletes, racing -- has it been a good time? ("Mate, I told you -- we lost. The racing wasn't good.")
-- So, does team New Zealand hang out? ("Some, yeah -- we're a team.")
-- Was this your first Olympics? ("Yeah.")
-- Aside from cycling, what do you do for fun? ("You mean aside from drugs?")
-- So, just the one event and now you can hang out for the rest of the Olympics? That's gotta be cool? ("Not quite as cool as a medal.")
I finally went with the following last-ditch question: so, are there any other athletes around here? ("Yeah. Come with me and I'll introduce you.").
He introduced me to another New Zealander, who wandered off shortly thereafter, and an American, who turned out to be an Olympic sailor. His father in law, in his mid-fifties, is also on the Olympic sailing team, making him possibly the oldest athlete in the 2008 Olympics. Cool.
The sailor was friendly and (mercifully) easy to talk to. He was optimistic on Team USA's chances for a medal. Shortly thereafter he apologized, said he'd been on his feet all day and had to sit down. He sank into a plush chair far too low to continue having a normal conversation, and I had to walk away.
Thus far, I was feeling that Red Carpet Events are poorly attended festivals of awkwardness, and that everything you've ever seen on MTv is a crock. But there was a gigantic check in the box labelled "meet Olympic Athletes," so at least that was taken care of. And at that moment, in strolled one of the Secret Service agents with whom I'd been in the back room, hanging out with Bush.
He turned out not to be a Secret Service agent, but rather the personal assistant to Bush 41, the former president Bush. And he was so normal! This was unexpected: he was just a normal human being, who happened to work for the landscaping company that did Bush 41's house in New England, which put him into close enough contact with the guy that he eventually hired him as a personal assistant. (I: "so, you mowed Bush's lawn, and THAT landed you a job as his personal assistant?" He: "no, man -- I never mowed his lawn. I did everything else -- I weeded and planted and spread pinestraw and the whole deal, but I never once cut his lawn.")
I was promised minor celebrities -- B list, if you will -- and was feeling somewhat disappointed that the only celebrities present were Chinese (and thus unrecognizeable to me). The day was saved when, just before I went home, a buddy of mine grabbed my arm and pointed out the B-est of B List celebrities, so ubiquitous that even I, Captain I Hate Pop Culture, could recognize him: David Schwimmer, better known as Ross from Friends.
So then: athletes met: two. Minor celebrities spotted: one. Free beers consumed: a fistful. Overall satisfaction level: mid-range. I remain baffled by all the fuss around these fancy pants red carpet events: sure, the beer was free but for all it's exclusivity, it wasn't really anything to write home about.
Posted by Dakota on 7:22 AM link |
Saturday, August 9, 8 pm: men's gymnastics. My first event of the Olympics.
Some people would perhaps say that my first event was the first tranche of men's gymnastics, which was shown at noon and included team USA, and which I watched with great enthusiasm by myself on my couch. But the first event I saw live was the third tranche, which included teams from Belarus, Germany, Romania and South Korea. But men's quals was the first event I saw live and was also the event to which I was most looking forward to.
It didn't disappoint: men's gymnastics is awesome. I'm not a sports writer and I can't do it justice and I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to gymnastics -- but come on. They defy gravity.
Men's quals is a blur, and it's hard to follow -- all six apparati get going at once, and it's sensory overload. Floor and vault, high bar and rings, parallel bars and pommel horse. They're constantly announcing new athletes, people applaud dismounts seemingly every eight seconds, and there are awws at falls and audible expressions of nervousness every time someone looks shaky or does something risky, and it constantly feels like your missing something. It's also too awesome for words.
My obsession with men's gymnastics in general and the US National Team in particular have led several of my coworkers to question if I, in a past life, might maybe have been a gymnast. I wasn't -- in addition to being six foot one (the tallest member of the US team, Justin Spring, stands a full half foot shorter than me at 5'7), I'm neither strong nor graceful. But this time -- like every other time I've watched men's gymnastics -- I've decided it's time I get serious enough about strength training and flexibility to build to where I can pull of Thomas Flares at will. (Take another look at this video from a few posts ago; Thomas flares show up from 0:35 to 0:50).
The gymnast in that video is a Bulgarian named Jordan Jovtchev, and he's a legend: 34 years old and still going strong, silver medalist on the rings in Athens and competing now in this, his record-breaking 5th Olympics. I didn't think he was coming to Beijing, so I when they announced his name as he was mounting the rings, I basically freaked out. The Bulgarian Embassy is next door to ours, and I'm not sure what it's going to take for me to meet Jovtchev, but surely our proximity to them will, if nothing else, aid my stalking.
Sitting a few rows in front of us was a guy with a Team Britain backpack still wearing the spandex outfit of an Olympian. (His physique was also something of a tell). We struck up a conversation with him after the meet and found out that he's Louis Smith, a competitor on the pommel horse from the UK. He had no intel on where gymnasts go to hang out in their spare time, or where I could go to better search for the Hamm twins on the off chance they came to Beijing despite injury.
Subsequent googling done by my coworker with whom I watched the event turned up a BBC article about the guy. I feel like I've had a brush with greatness.
Posted by Dakota on 10:42 AM link |
I watched the opening ceremonies at a rooftop bar with a projection TV. We watched it on South African television, which was the only English language live broadcast available -- CCTV was Chinese only, and NBC was delayed by 12 hours.
If there's one thing I can recommend, it's that you watch the Procession of Athletes broadcast by a nation that has absolutely no sense of political correctness. God knows it's much better than the Chinese broadcast, and while I didn't watch the NBC coverage, I think lacking any sense of social grace is much better than otherwise.
Ah, Luxembourg. The longest attending nation without a boycott, and they've never won a medal -- not one, can you imagine? I don't know why they keep coming back, but they do.
Now, here comes Zimbabwe -- god knows they're amongst the poorest athletes at these games.
Now, you'll note that the teams are in a bizarre order. Really and truly bizarre -- it's because they're organized by the MANDARIN alphabet. And god only knows how they came up with it, really.
Here comes East Timor -- a brand new nation. They haven't got a CHANCE at a medal, god bless 'em.
Iran -- that's one of those nations where you can really expect there won't be a lot of women. Well, a couple, I see but really not many.
I failed to bring a notepad to accurately take notes, something for which I've been kicking myself ever since.
Posted by Dakota on 8:46 AM link |
One final sidenote on the President before I move on with my life. While I was working on the recording with the WHCA guy, I was asking questions about the President and his habit of assigning nicknames. The President and the current Ambassador have known each other for years -- they were fraternity brothers -- and I'm dying to know what the President calls our Ambassador.
The WHCA guy didn't know (he had arrived in country some 48 hours before, so I'm not surprised). He mentioned in passing, though, that a very few people within a very select circle can get away with addressing the Bush with a nickname, a nickname that he knows but claimed he'd never tell. "The President loves fat-free hotdogs. That's all I'll say: fat-free hotdogs."
I have been PONDERING this since that conversation. Skinny Weiner? Could it possibly be? Are there some other options that I'm overlooking?
Posted by Dakota on 8:45 AM link |
Aside from recording the intro for the President, my primary task at the ribbon cutting was to push people through the courtyard. People coming in would pass through the central gate into a large open space at the front of the embassy, and the organizers were worried that the gigantic US Seal and lovely Zen garden atmosphere would make people stroll at too leisurely of a pace, thereby delaying the security screening.
The day of the event was blazingly hot and unpleasantly hazy, and the line for security stretched a long way through the courtyard, and no one was lingering. My job morphed from pushing through the courtyard to dignitary escorting, picking out VIPs flagged at the gate and escorting them to the front. The Vice Minister of Commerce; the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs; the Chinese Ambassador to the United States.
And then, unexpectedly, a colleague and I found ourselves shaking hands with an extremely short VIP with a thick German accent. He introduced his family, grandkids, what have you. "Thank you so much for coming!" I gushed. I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I led him through security and then headed back to the gate.
My colleague maintains a healthy sense of childlike wonder when it comes to meeting major historic figures and was basically overwhelmed with glee. "We just shook hands with Henry Kissinger!" he said. "Henry fucking Kissinger!"
In to the event. I was tagged to sit in a back holding room with the WHCA sound guy and a microphone, ready to go live in the event the recordings to introduce the President didn't work. The holding room was just off the stage and wasn't really a room -- the walls were made out of sheets. Just past the sheets, a drum band some ten people strong was ready to go berserk. Two secret service agents joined us shortly after I arrived.
A sidenote on Secret Service: one of their primary functions appears to be looking great -- standing cross-armed at 6 foot 5, looking intimidating. It was a leitmotif of the ribbon cutting, and not one with which I was displeased.
The WHCA guy hit the intro button that kicked things off. It had taken me and two of the Chinese people I work with (both of whom are hyper fluent in English) a good chunk of time to translate the intro into Chinese. "Please rise for the posting of the colors, and remain standing for the singing of our national anthem." ("Posting?" they asked me. "Is that like raising the flag up the pole?" "No, it's like -- I dunno, like walking the flag in and tilting it. Or something."*)
Enter State Councilor Dai Bingguo. Ten seconds later, the President enters.
The walls of the holding room were made of sheets, and directly on the opposite side the drum band was going berserk, giving the crowd something to listen to while waiting. The drums were massive traditional chinese kettle drums, and the sound was deep enough that you could feel it in your stomach. So the President came in, felt the drums, and started doing a little dance to the beat of the music.
I would've killed for a video camera.
So the President is shuffling around doing a little dance, and it's just me and him, the sound guy, two secret service agents and the State Councilor. He sees me staring at him doing his little dance -- I was grinning like an idiot -- and he can tell I'm kinda chuckling at him and his dance, and we make eye contact. And he winks at me.
I got winked at by the President. And I kind of loved it.
And then his father, George H.W. Bush strolls in behind him, and feels the drums and starts doing the exact same dance.
The kept me in the holding room throughout the ceremony, which I watched via closed circuit TV. Secret service briefly gave me the third degree to find out why I was there, but eventually gave me a pin that silently informed other Secret Service agents not to shoot me. The Ambo spoke. Bush 41 spoke at length, and spent quite a bit of time reminiscing about learning Chinese when he was Ambassador to China. El Presidente spoke, and used the word "fabulous" a surprisingly large number of times for a straight guy. "My dad," he said, "was a fabulous president. And he was a fabulous dad, too."
I remained in the holding room until the President and his party had left, which means I was present for the casual strolling by of Laura Bush (I wanted to remind her that I was her dedicated note taker in Pakistan, but since she didn't remember me on the day that I actually took notes for her, I was thinking maybe I should just let it go. Also, Secret Service was totally boxing me in to ensure that I didn't do so). Laura Bush was followed by Barbara Bush, of Bush Twin fame. (Jenna did not, to my knowledge, come on this trip). I had questions for her too -- "wanna come to taco night?" probably would've been right up there -- but Secret Service was again all up in my grill, ruining my game.
The President left, Secret Service eased up and everything was ok. As if the joy of meeting the president and standing three feet away from him weren't enough, the guests hasn't finished all the food, which meant all the breakfast tacos I could shovel down my gullet. Jackpot.
*Finally conclusion on this was "xiang guoqi zhiyi, zou guoge" -- roughly 'face the flag as it's held high.' Note also, excitingly, that the verb for the national anthem is zou -- in Chinese, you don't listen to the singing of the national anthem, you listen as it's "walked out."
Posted by Dakota on 10:45 AM link |
Jordan Jovtchev! Jordan Jovtchev!!
Posted by Dakota on 1:14 PM link |
Dateline: Thursday, August 7
We've got a new recording on the main number when you call into the Embassy. It's a pretty standard message: You have reached the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China... and then the same again in Chinese. It's a step up from the old recording because the guy who did it has great Chinese -- certainly better than the last recording, which left a bit to be desired. But he recorded it in an odd radio announcer voice, and the vowels are distorted like we're back in the 1920s, and it drives me batshit insane.
The worst part: the guy who recorded it used a deep announcer-type voice. A lot of people know that I had a radio show back in the day (This is English Corner -- on Radio Jiangsu), and everyone has been accusing me of having been the one to record it.
I was at a site survey at the new embassy today, and the officer in charge of the event we ere surveying for came up to me and said "hey! that's you on the Embassy recording, isn't it?" I promptly responded in the negative ("no no no no no no no"), begrudgingly pointed at the guy who did in fact do the recording, and voiced my opposition to distorted vowels. I also mentioned that I've been begging to be the guy on the recording for over a year now, but to no avail.
She responded: "Well -- do you want to be the voice of this event? We need someone to announce the guests of honor."
And so I spent two hours in a back room at in the new Embassy, alone with a microphone and a sound technician, working through the following sentence:
"Ladies and Gentlemen -- the President of the United States."
Tomorrow is a ribbon cutting for the new embassy. Keeping in mind that the luckiest number in China is eight, a homophone for "wealth," we'll be kicking it off at 8:08 in the morning on 08/08/08. The ribbon will be cut by the President; it'll be my voice that brings him into the room.
Posted by Dakota on 6:24 PM link |
I was planning to attempt a post every day of the Olympics starting from yesterday and going to the bitter end, even on mundane days when I don't do much or see anything. I've got tickets to 13 events, so that in and of itself should be enough fodder. But what happened today can't be posted until tomorrow, which wrecks the entire concept of post-a-day, since it means tomorrow I'll be posting a day behind. But I guess mentioning this today technically counts as a post, so maybe we're ok and I'm just frontloading.
Usually when I try this sort of thing, it precipitates three to four months of silence, and I wouldn't be overly surprised if that were the case again. But there are enough athletes afoot and activists in the wings that I should be able to scrape up enough stories to keep something on the blog, I think. Anyhow, we'll see.
Posted by Dakota on 6:30 AM link |
Last night I had a dream that I ran into Team USA Gymnast and high-bar genius Jonathan Horton on the street near Worker's Stadium, about three kilometers from my house. I said to him: Hey, you're Jonathan Horton, Legendary High Bar Athlete. And he replied: uh... who are you are? And it was SO. AWKWARD. And then I woke up, and I felt HORRIBLE for the rest of the day because I had just blown my chance to have a casual conversation with Jonathan Horton, legendary high bar athlete.
I feel that this scenario is bound to repeat itself over the course of the next two weeks. It was only a dream. I'm still unsettled.
In related news, some obstinate members of the press are calling it the No Fun Olympics, a name which I totally don't support. But Beijing today isn't the same place it was two weeks ago. Sidewalk tables at bars and restaurants are no more, and they apparently won't be allowed back again until the end of September. They say that bars are now closing at 2 in the morning instead of staying open all night, although god knows I don't stay up late enough to notice. There's always been riot fencing across the center of some streets to prevent jaywalking, but now it seems like it's EVERY street, and long Chinese blocks mean that even crossing the street can be a chore.
There're patdowns and bag checks to get on the subway, liquids have been totally outlawed on flights and a park I visited the other day had a shiny new sign prohibiting explosives, crossbows and other items forbidden by Chinese law. I'm not complaining, though: a successful Olympics will be a secure Olympics.
Half the cars are off the road (even license plates drive on even numbered days; odd plates on odd), but it's still hazy. The weekend was blazingly hot but with gloriously blue skies, and we all all rejoiced that the Olympics had finally cleaned up the air. But from Monday through today we were back to status quo: everything's fuzzy at a distance. I'm not worried about it, though. The China Daily had a front-page article to remind us all that hazy air isn't necessarily a sign of poor air quality.
There's a lot more to be said, but I think I've said all I can for now. I'd suggest you fill your time by watching clips of legendary high barrist Jonathan Horton. That's right: he is capable of a triple twisting double somersault.
Posted by Dakota on 7:12 AM link |