The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.
December 21, 2007 5:44 PM
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The lights went dead inside Beijing University's new gymnasium a week ago, plunging some of China's best table tennis players into sudden darkness.
"I felt like the whole world had shut off," said Chinese star Chen Qi, who won a gold medal three years ago in Athens (Xinhua). "At that moment, I could see nothing at all."
Twenty minutes later the situation was resolved and Chen's International Table Tennis Federation ProTour match resumed. He and his partner Wang Liqin, ahead 3-0 against a pair of Singaporeans when the blackout occurred, quickly wrapped up a 4-0 victory. Eventually, Chen and Wang struck gold - Chinese paddlers placed first in all four of the tournament's events.
China's Guo Yue and Li Xiaoxia defeated Tie Yana and Zhang Rui of Hong Kong Tuesday. (Xinhua photo)
While Beijing's Olympic organizers failed to predict the outage, they've been waiting for something like it to happen. Both the 2007 ITTF ProTour and the 2007 International Table Tennis Invitational (also held at Beijing University) were scheduled in concert with 'Good Luck Beijing.'
'Good Luck Beijing' refers to a series of 42 international athletic competitions currently underway. These tune-up events are designed to help Olympics athletes, organizers and volunteers prepare. Interpreters are drilled, teams are formed, new venues are put to the test - and next August's Games are HYPED, HYPED, HYPED!
Hoping for an Olympic preview, I snagged tickets to the Invitational's finals - set for Wednesday evening.
I'd never attended a big-time table tennis match. Like most Americans, I equate the sport with flip-flops and laughter. It's different, less casual here. Most everyone plays table tennis in China. Children worship pro 'paddlers,' who frequently appear on TV.
"In table tennis, we're the best," one satisfied man explained Wednesday. "It's China's game."
More than 300 million Chinese take part, according to one report. Nearly 30,000 receive formal training and 2,000 compete professionally.
Table tennis is a spectator sport - check it out (please allow time for video to load):
I arrived late to the tournament. Beijing University is located near the city's high-tech sector, blocks from a monstrous Wu-Mei (Wal-Mart) and two manic malls. It sits on Zhongguancun Dajie (Zhongguancun Big Road), which during rush hour turns into a parking lot. Between angry honks I heard someone mutter, "You see? There are too many people in China."
Off Zhongguancun, I ran into a band of perky 'Good Luck Beijing' volunteers. They beamed and spoke perfect English. "This way," "thank you," "of course," "to your left," "here you are," "enjoy!"
The gymnasium, less than half-full, was bright and new. Most of my fellow fans looked rich - well groomed, well dressed, well acquainted with luxury. Their collective disinterest made for a quiet event. I took in the facility's jumbo-tron and drank from a clean water fountain. It hardly felt like Beijing.
Each time a paddler wound into his or her serve, the crowd hushed. Vicious rallies followed on a few occasions, forcing both players (all four during doubles) back away from the table. I gasped for breath. But the surgical slams and serious spin applied by Chen and his dominant teammates kind of ruined the fun. My 50元 seats (US$8) were upper level - out of earshot and removed from the action. From the outset, it was clear the Chinese would win.
Local government officials doled out the awards. Out on the concourse, I approached a middle-aged man and launched into my spiel - 'I'm here to research Beijing. What about that last match? Why table tennis? Got tickets for the Olympics?"
"I'm from San Diego," he replied.
A few Beijingers gathered around.
"Tonight was great. I'm glad the Chinese won," one woman said. "I've already ordered Olympic tickets. Now I'm just waiting for them to arrive."
I walked up to a heavyset man with whiskers.
"Oh, this was great!" he said. "Fearsome table tennis! The ushers were wonderful. Are you an American? Tell your friends to watch the Olympics. They'll get to know China."
"If tonight was any indication, the Olympics will go very well," an older man assured me.
One volunteer, a Beijing University psychology major, is also planning to work the Olympics next year.
"It has nothing to do with my studies," she said. "I just want to help out, have fun and represent my university - these competitions are very important for China."
I headed back to Zhongguancun Big Road puzzled. Had I received a realistic Olympic preview?
"Aoyunhui, zaijian!" a line of waving volunteers yelled. "Olympics, goodbye!"
Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented (please allow time for features to load):
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