[chinese blood, irish heart] - DEFUNCT: "A summer of Olympic revelry"

Friday, September 19, 2008

"A summer of Olympic revelry"

I know it seems a bit disingenuous to my very own blog but this post is actually from our SCMP website where I discuss my experiences working in Beijing during the Olympics.

A summer of Olympic revelry.

So now that the Summer Games are officially over and the reins have been handed to London authorities for 2012, I thought I'd reflect on my experiences working in Beijing throughout the Olympics as a multimedia producer and photographer.

My first day at work was May 12 - a day of tragedy when the Sichuan earthquake occurred. I remember sipping noodles at a food court opposite our Beijing bureau when I suddenly felt an unusual movement coupled by what seemed to be a head rush. It was only later that day I realised it was in fact the massive temblor that has now claimed over 30,000 lives.

It was a giant blow to the psyche of the Chinese people who were busily readying themselves for the Olympic Games. A three-minute silence was held at Tiananmen Square one week after the quake to honour the deceased. May 19 was an unprecedented showing of mass mourning that got the attention of the world.

The media got its first look inside the iconic National Stadium or the "Bird's Nest" during the China Athletics Open. However there was a problem with my accreditation for the event. Our Olympics editor, Peter Simpson, suggested I use his press pass instead. If you thought it would be difficult enough for me to get past security, it also had his photo on it! Despite my initial concern, he assured me it would be no problem, citing the lack of credible security measures. And sure enough I strolled through. Still to this day I don't understand how I managed to pull it off.

One of the most interesting people I came across was a delightful police officer called Liu Liwen. I was impressed with his English (which he learned from watching various Hollywood films), but he also has a grasp of other languages such as Spanish, Swedish and Japanese. As you'll see in the video below, his New York accent and mannerisms are legendary.

Speaking of English skills, I attended a free language course taught by volunteer teacher Dana Ding. Her students were not only Olympic volunteers but also ordinary Beijing residents who wish to improve their English in time for the Games. Many were elderly people, and I was amazed by their linguistic ability and the enthusiasm they showed.

Since 2001, when Beijing won the bid to host the Games, authorities have launched a fervent redevelopment campaign throughout the city. However, one of the drawbacks has been the mass relocation, and at times eviction, of Beijing residents from their homes.

The neighbourhood of Dazhalan, south of Tiananmen Square, is a prime example. The government will demolish all old buildings in the area to pave way for the new. I met with antique store owner Li Fengxian, one of the last remaining tenants clinging on to her property. At the time I met her, the fate of her store was still unknown. She will just have to wait it out until the developers come knocking.

During my stay in the capital, the Beijing Organising Committee of the Games (BOCOG) regularly scheduled media tours. I had previously attended their events in the form of bland press conferences, i.e. those where "sensitive" questions, usually asked by foreign journalists, are always brushed aside. The first BOCOG outing I experienced was a trip to the spectacular Olympic Forest that boasted an equally spectacular view of the Olympic Green from its hilltop. It sounded like it would be a grand day out, but once we got off the coach the problems began.

The police kept us waiting at the entrance for 30 minutes despite the presence of BOCOG officials, and a game of "let me call my superiors" started. First of all, let me elaborate just how hot it was that day. Not only was the sky unusually clear, the mercury topped 35 degrees celsius. That equalled a lot of frustrated and sweaty journalists.

Once we finally got in, our indelible tour guides told us they didn't have enough cars to transport us to the hill top. So we had to take turns while the rest waited out in the open. Then there was the problem of arranging transport to go back down again. It was all a messy logistical affair. Not only that, the lack of English press releases really steamed some foreign reporters.

In the first case of a terror alert in Beijing, reporter Al Guo was on the scene when bomb disposal squads investigated a mysterious unattended bag on a street near the Forbidden City. Al took several photos of the incident but was brought aside by police and they questioned his intentions. Had Al told them he was a reporter they would've certainly deleted his photos.

With the stress of being the sole SCMP multimedia producer in town piling up, I took the opportunity for a quick getaway to Mongolia before the Games began. I was adamant I wouldn't do any work while I was there but I was so fascinated by the Naadam Festival, I couldn't resist! It's often referred to as the Mongolian Olympics and so it was an interesting opportunity to not only showcase this 2,000-year-old sporting spectacle but also to compare it to the Games.

I was fortunate enough to find an English-speaking wrestler to talk to me. In this video he said he has hopes for his compatriots, who up to this day have never won gold. His dreams came true when two Mongolians won gold at judo and boxing this August.

Back on the job again and refreshed from my Mongolian adventure, our very own paper made headline news on July 25. One South China Morning Post photographer, Felix Wong, was arrested when covering the chaos at Olympic ticket queues. Several other Hong Kong reporters were also manhandled by police. We tried to call him several times that day but to no avail. Felix eventually showed up back at the office frazzled but still in good spirits.

When I spoke to Felix for the video below, he wasn't allowed to discuss the fact that police charged him with assaulting an officer. What occurred that day is still disputed: police allege Felix kicked an officer in the groin and he was made to apologise. But the charges have since been dropped.

One Olympic highlight for me was meeting legendary sprinter Linford Christie. But first let me explain the background: Christie was in Beijing as an ambassador for the lingerie brand Triumph. The company held a fashion show at the 798 arts district and, as much as I'd like to ask a sporting celebrity about the latest underwear trends, I unabashedly delved straight into Olympic-related questions. Here's what he had to say.

My last assignment in Hong Kong before I left for Beijing was when the Olympic torch came to town. Seeing the flame again in Beijing in all its fiery grandeur was bit of a déjà vu. The atmosphere was just as electric, and hell of a lot more Chinese flags. The last leg of the relay kicked off at the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City, the spot where previous dynasties beheaded all sorts of bad people. One funny moment was when Yao Ming returned from his short run and was chased by legions of fans half his size, including me. Well, I'm not really a fan but I wanted to get some sort of sound bite from him.

Protests by the Students for a Free Tibet got off to an elaborate start when one activist scaled a lamp post near the Olympic Green to unfold a free Tibet banner. I narrowly missed another daring protest at Tiananmen Square but was lucky enough to redeem myself by acquiring the footage from the group's founder. You might also want to visit our YouTube version which has been bombarded by pro-China comments.

Corporate parties were all the rage during the Games. Sponsors went all out to bring the hottest celebrities and wherever possible, the latest medal winners. Budweiser hosted a huge party and boasted swimmer Michael Phelps would be attending. It was the night he won his eighth medal so I was primed and ready for his arrival, waiting outside by the stage all night while occasionally nipping off for a free pint of Bud.

Unfortunately, Phelps was a no-show and we were all quite disappointed, I think we waited for five hours. However the night was not entirely lost: another Olympic legend, Carl Lewis, made a brief appearance and I was lucky enough to chat to him.

As you might be aware, there was a genuine lack of news stories during the Games. What I mean by that is that sport-related news reigned supreme. Audiences around the world were glued to their TV sets and reading up on who won what. So reporter Al Guo and I set off to do an investigative report on scalping. Of course, ticket touting is nothing new and is a staple of any major event.

But what was interesting this time was that, although the Public Security Bureau declared scalping illegal and offenders liable to fines and jail time, I still saw droves of touts lined up outside various venues waving their tickets about despite the police presence. You might think our mission was to assess the ridiculous prices they were offering – as many foreign TV crews did – but in fact I was more interested in how they operated, and why they weren't scared to do it in full view of police.

Forty-five videos later and it was time to produce my final report of a wrap-up of the 29th Olympic Games. You can watch the video below to assess the legacy of the Beijing Olympics.

On a more personal note, my stint in Beijing was eventful to say the least. It was quite exciting and daunting at the same time being in China during such a tumultuous period. As a journalist working behind-the-scenes I learned so much more about the Games and China than I would have as an ordinary bystander.

Overall I would say the Beijing Games have been a tremendous success. So successful in fact it seemed to pull a cover over various controversies that have dogged the Games: Air pollution, underage gymnasts, manhandling foreign journalists, censored internet access, the fickle lip-synching fiasco, to name a few. People love controversies but they're just as quick to forget them. Hence, the Beijing Games can be seen as a 'propaganda Olympics', a means to show the world how modern and powerful China has become. Coupled with the country's impressive medal tally it's a great source of national pride and unity for the Chinese people.

It will be interesting to see how China develops once it gets over its Olympic hangover. Though the Games are over, there is still a lot to talk about China: Will the Communist Party introduce political reforms? Will China become a greener country? Will its human rights track record improve? These are among the plethora of issues facing this rising superpower.

All in all, I was glad to be a part of it and I hope you enjoyed our coverage of this historic event.