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.
February 28, 2008 1:19 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
China's slender, sculpted Olympic divers may very well spring, twist and somersault their way to eight gold medals at this summer's Beijing Games. Only eight gold medals will be awarded. In other words, the Chinese expect to dominate.
Beijing's sudsy new National Aquatics Center, nicknamed the 'Water Cube,' may very well prove these Games' most memorable attraction. A perfect rectangle cased in ethylene-tetra-fluoro-ethylene (ETFE) membranes, the Water Cube was designed to resemble a natural collection of soap bubbles. In other words, it is one of a kind.
Last weekend, at the FINA Diving World Cup - a test-run for the Water Cube and diving's final Olympic qualifier - both facility and squad were on display. The crisply patterned pool impressed, as promised. But it was China's athletes who sparkled brighter.
"Our divers are really the best," one spectator, a young Chinese man, proclaimed. "They‘re quite fearsome."
On Saturday, February 23, I stopped by the Water Cube hoping to purchase tickets. But the competition, a volunteer informed me, had already sold out. I turned away, more than a little disappointed. Half a block later..."Yao piao ma? - Want tickets?"
I'd just watched two policemen run down a skinny man in slacks. Here was his twin.
We parled for a minute or so, eyes cast down self-consciously. I strolled away and edged back. He strolled away and edged back. My money ended up in his hands. His ticket settled into my pocket.
The next day, I squeezed through a makeshift gate onto Beijing's Olympic Green for the women's three-meter sychronized springboard contest. Everyone seemed excited - very few people have seen the inside of the Water Cube (only the 2008 Swimming China Open, held at the facility January 31-February 5, preceded FINA's event).
It was cold and the sky a dark gray. Compared to the renderings (computer-assisted) posted online, the real life Water Cube's globular sides appeared smudged, if not grimy, with construction dust and pollution.
The National Stadium, or 'Bird's Nest', this year's second-most peculiar and expensive project, is not yet completed. It and the Water Cube are located north of downtown Beijing, along the city's (philosophically significant) east-west axis.
"I don't think the Water Cube looks dirty," a Beijing woman told me. "It's pretty, especially when the walls light up blue, at night."
"I think the Water Cube is very good," said an 18-year old Qinghua University student, FINA World Cup / Olympic volunteer and Art/Design major. "It's a wonder, becuase it incorporates aspects of Chinese culture. For example, we believe that water characterizes gentleness. In ancient times, gentlemen were compared to water. The Water Cube resembles a Dragon's house, as well. It is certainly monumental."
Designed by Sydney, Australia's PTW Architects, the Water Cube was built at a cost of more than US$200 million. Unlike the Bird's Nest next door - price tag: US$425 million, the Water Cube may be converted into a shopping and leisure center after the 2008 Games.
Some Beijingers fear that the Bird's Nest, which will seat 91,000 people, could become a 'white elephant' post-Olympics. The Water Cube, 62,950 square-meters in area, will accomodate 17,000 spectators for the Games.
China's Olympic organizers brought the FINA Diving World Cup to the Water Cube as part of a year-long test series - 'Good Luck Beijing' (Check out 'Good Luck Beijing - table tennis,' published 12/21/2007 - another Blogging Beijing report).
After passing quickly through security - I left a package of bread from Xinjiang at the door - the Water Cube's polished interior opened up before me. White, stylish and bare, the lobby reminded me of a video IPod...super slick, but a pain to maintain.
A single cross section of the structure's eco-friendly, hexagonal plates was visible above the lobby, where baseball-capped volunteers helped me to my seat, their fanny packs swaying earnestly.
The pool was gorgeous - elegant, well lit and strikingly blue. National flags hung over both grandstands, though only the south stands were full. Across the water, I picked out Great Britain's backups lounging in sweatpants and short-sleeved red tees, laughing and dancing the YMCA.
"We've seen so many Goodluck Beijing games," boasted a ten-year old boy sitting with his mom and grandma. "Gymnastics, swimming, athletics, beach volleyball...and now diving. We've got tickets for the Olympics too! Those are hard to get. We ordered them early."
The crowd was relatively quiet, modestly partisan and 99 percent Chinese. Only for Wu Minxia and Guo Jingjing did they put up substaintial applause. According to the competition's judges, perched poolside atop grown-up high-chairs, it was applause well-earned.
The superstar pair, aged 22 and 26, earned six 9s, two 8.5s and a 9.5 on their fourth dive of five, slicing clean through a reverse 2.5 somersault pike.
"I'm here with my son today because of the Olympics," a 62-year old man from Henan province explained to me. "The Olympics are a world event and diving as a sport is representative of that. Personally, I prefer soccer and basketball, but with diving you're closer to the action. Olympics tickets are so hard to buy. We figured this would be a fun alternative."
Beijing's Olympic organizers have held two ticket lotteries for the 2008 Games, thanks to unprecedented demand. A third lottery will be held before the Olympics, later this year. Those lucky enough to score tickets could witness Wu, Guo and their teammates make history.
Last Sunday, however, provided cheap thrills aplenty - particularly once the synchronized springers were done. Joined by half the crowd, I lingered long enough to witness a dozen divers - Chinese, Ukranian, British, American - launch themselves, spinning, off boards and platforms of every height, over and over again.
Practice it may have been. In the eyes of the uninitiated - myself included - their relaxed, mid-air maneuvers nearly outstripped the real contest. Check out the video below and judge for yourself.
Water Cube diving practice (please allow time for video to load):
"Diving is my favorite Olympic sport," admitted another young spectator, also a student at Qinghua University. "As divers, we Chinese really excell. Of course, all of today's dives were beautiful. The American divers performed very well too."
I asked whether she hoped to become a Beijing 2008 Olympic volunteer - the majority of whom are university students.
"I really do," the 21-year old answered. "I've applied, but haven't heard back yet. I'd like to support China. Volunteering is what we college kids can do."
"I joined the volunteer corps because I'm a native Beijinger," a sleepy Mechanics major told me. "This probably won't advance my career. I just want to help others. We all feel this way."
Had he enjoyed the competition?
"It was ok - kind of boring."
On my way out of the Water Cube, I stopped off at a bathroom. The floor tiles were muddy and the toilets strictly 'eastern.' I wonder how many Olympic tourists will choose to postpone their 'business' rather than squat.
It was past time to leave when I approached - yet another - volunteer. 'Do you think,' I inquired, 'it's worthwhile to construct such a costly facility, when people across China go without enough food?'
"The Water Cube is worth what was spent," he said. "These Olympics are very important for our country and besides, the building's beauty entertains our laobaixing (common people)."
Deep in thought, I exited the Water Cube and made tracks for home. As I passed, a tall, well-fed man in street clothes whipped out his camera phone.
"Here, take my picture - with the Water Cube," I heard him say, handing his mobile to a tiny, affable construction worker.
Flash. The two men huddled close to examine the shot. They both grinned.
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