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Kristi Heim: The World in China

Seattle Times reporter Kristi Heim explores a changing China on the world stage.

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August 24, 2008 7:30 AM

Closing ceremony: Chinese youth culture and a double-decker bus to London

Posted by Kristi Heim

If Beijing's opening ceremony was full of tradition, its closing was meant to carry China into the modern world and hand off the games to London.

What passed for modern in China was a little odd: 200 Chinese drummers in gold bicycle helmets, riders on "wheels of light" circling the stadium and "bouncing and flying men" wearing silver body suits and special shoes that propelled them high into the air. Young women in sports clothes played the erhu, (a traditional stringed instrument) to accompany a pop song.


After athletes entered stadium, I noticed Lauren Jackson and Yao Ming exchanged a big hug on the field. The atmosphere was all youthful energy, with athletes mingling around in center of the stadium.

The Games that set 38 world records and 85 Olympic records were then handed off to London when a bright red double-decker bus drove into the stadium, peeling away to expose a garden.

Singer Leona Lewis emerged on a platform through the middle of the bus, and then the guitar chords of Led Zeppelin began. Jimmy Page appeared and played a rousing duet of "Whole Lotta Love" with Lewis. Too bad no one in the crowd seemed to recognize him. David Beckham emerged next to them and kicked a soccer ball into crowd. Placido Domingo and Jackie Chan both sang on stage later.

This time the ceremony was mercifully short, not as impressive or sweeping as the opening, but fitting in its own way. As the stadium screens were transformed into airport departure signs, and an airplane ladder rose into the night sky, I realized this time I would be more than happy to board.

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August 22, 2008 11:06 PM

An Olympics beyond gold medals: one alternative view

Posted by Kristi Heim

What images and memories will people take away from these Olympics, beyond who won gold?

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One Chinese observer, Xiong Lei, is disgusted with medal counts and doesn't think much of Liu Xiang, either. She's a retired senior writer and editor of Xinhua News Agency. It was fascinating and refreshing for me to hear her very international view of the games.

Liu Xiang, the Chinese sports icon who dropped out of the Olympics just before his first race, lost the moment Dayron Robles walked into the Olympic Village, Xiong said. Robles "was eating what he wanted to eat. He was playing what he wanted to play... just a normal man," she said. In contrast, Liu was a special athlete surrounded by coaches and boosted to star status, all the while avoiding the public and hiding an injury. Liu was no hero.

When she thinks back on the highlights of the Beijing Olympics, Xiong will think of these people:

--British marathon runner Paula Radcliff, who finished the race in pain without any hope of getting a medal.
--Oksana Chusovitina, the 33-year-old German gymnast driven to compete and use her prize money to cover medical bills for her son, who has leukemia.
--Iraqi athletes like Dina Hussein, who risked her life to train for the games and crossed a battlefield just to buy shoes.
--Asenate Manoa, a runner from the Pacific island of Tuvalu who never used a starting block before participating in these games -- Tuvalu's first Olympics.
--Swedish Table Tennis veteran Jan-Ove Waldner, who played several generations of Chinese players and kept the sport alive in an unlikely place.

Here is a link to Xiong Lei's column.

And just for fun, another alternative view of medals, suggested by Australians as a per capita resorting of the ranks:

Gold medals by population:
1) Jamaica
2) Bahrain
3) Estonia
4) New Zealand
5) Slovakia
6) Australia

Total medals by population:
1) Jamaica
2) Slovenia
3) New Zealand
4) Australia.

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August 22, 2008 8:46 PM

Three countries borne by one athlete

Posted by Kristi Heim

The American flag bearer at Sunday's closing ceremonies is neither famous nor decorated with a lot of gold, but she couldn't be a better choice. Khatuna Lorig, an archer, has represented three different countries in her Olympic career: the former Soviet Union in 1992, Georgia in 1996 and 2000, and the United States at these games.


Lorig, 34, was chosen yesterday by fellow athletes -- the U.S. captains of each sports team. She was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and immigrated to the United States in 1995, but did not get her citizenship in time to compete for the U.S. in 2000 or 2004. She lives in California, where she works at Home Depot when she's not training.

Lorig's parents still live in Georgia, where Russian forces have been battling Georgian troops in the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

In the first week of the Games, she was shocked to turn on the television and see the conflict erupting there, Lorig told Reuters last week. "My parents are over there, very close to that area where the situation is happening. But I got to talk to my mom on the telephone this morning and she's fine. She was happy to hear from me and just told me to get my mind back into the Olympics."

Lorig didn't advance past the quarterfinals this time, but she said having a chance to carry the flag is "almost like winning a gold medal, maybe even better."

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August 22, 2008 6:23 AM

A patch of green in a sea of gray

Posted by Kristi Heim

Beijing is a grand city on a larger-than-human scale, but it makes living here a daily confrontation with huge boulevards, traffic, noise, and mountains of glass and cement. After pounding pavement all day on three hours of sleep, I was desperate for some relief.

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Most of the farmland in Beijing has been turned into buildings. But there's one place where a prime piece of farmland has been preserved, a refuge for people looking to escape the city. A couple turned it into an organic fruit orchard, botanical garden and lake, with a restaurant that serves food from the garden.

I visited The Orchard, opened in 2002 by West Virginia native Lisa Minder and her husband Wu Yintao. They manage to do something good for the environment, sustain a healthy business and find room for charitable projects. Such are the pockets of green among an ocean of gray.

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At a Starbucks cafe nearby, students from Beijing Forestry University were surveying customers about Beijing's so-called Green Olympics. Starbucks was sponsoring their work, along with an earlier event called the "Green Long March," where student volunteers walked along the Yangtze River to raise environmental awareness. They asked people what they thought about the ban on free plastic bags in Beijing, the odd-even days traffic system to reduce driving, and the state of the environment in Beijing.

My response: no medal yet. "Jia You!"

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August 21, 2008 11:50 AM

A personal quest for Hope

Posted by Kristi Heim

Hope Solo, that is. I just watched the U.S. women's soccer team beat Brazil 1-0 for the gold medal, a game that must have felt like justice after last year. Several big saves by Solo were key to the win. In a sense, she had a chance to prove what she famously said after last year's World Cup defeat: that she could have stopped the Brazilians' four goals if she'd been on the field and not on the bench. This time she was.

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"I'm on cloud nine," she said. "I was floating out there. It didn't seem real. I didn't shed a tear. I didn't cry. I can't really believe it. I put my phone by the goal post. As soon as that last whistle blew, I called my brother. It was amazing. He was in tears. He was here for the World Cup, for my dad... I just was screaming in the phone. I was running around the field screaming."

Solo said she was "going through hell" for the last 10 months following the death of her father, and then being sidelined and getting the cold shoulder from teammates after her World Cup remark. In the end, she and the defense shut down the world's best player, Brazilian forward Marta. Later on the medal stand, Solo kissed her gold medal.

"Many people dream of this all their lives," she said. "It's significant for my family, for my friends, to how far I've come over many years. I think this medal it, I don't know... it represents my family."

Indeed, the U.S. team must have felt like the underdog in Beijing. The mostly Chinese crowd booed when the U.S. took corner kicks and screamed for "Ba-xi," the name for Brazil in Mandarin. It was a rainy night, so the hosts just happened to have bright yellow rain tarps to hand out, making the stadium awash in Brazil's color. Not many people were counting on them to win.

"I think we thrive when there's so much doubt," Solo said. "When we're the underdogs. We heard betting for the Japan game was four to one against us. We know a lot of people doubted us against Brazil... I think our defense really won this game."

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As for whether Solo felt vindicated, she said: "I don't even think about whatever I said last year. I said everything under emotions. I'm just enjoying the moment right now. I feel great. I just won a damn gold medal."

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August 21, 2008 12:20 AM

Lost in the heart of China

Posted by Kristi Heim

Outside National Stadium, I met a man from Reno who brought his 79-year-old father to the Olympics. He said one day his father was on the subway by himself when he struck up a conversation with a local Chinese man. This total stranger then spent the whole day guiding the guy's dad through Beijing, visiting museums and even paying for his lunch.

Yesterday Steve Kelley and I got lost in a hutong, one of Beijing's famously narrow alleys winding through a warren of ancient single-story houses. Turned out to be one of the best moments of the trip, as Steve writes in his column today. We were adopted by a couple in their 80s, invited inside family homes and shown wedding pictures, and introduced to one of Zhou Enlai's security guards.


It started when the hutong we were following dead-ended at the Qianjin Guesthouse. Zhang Guangrong, the 20-year-old son of the proprietor, offered to help us find our destination, but we decided it was more interesting to explore the hutongs with him. This is one of last remaining parts of the original city that hasn't been demolished and replaced by skyscrapers. I had written about the pre-Olympics construction boom displacing old neighborhoods and their cultural heritage. Residents said this neighborhood isn't entirely safe from destruction, either. Meanwhile it's an oasis of calm and quiet, with pomegranate trees, red peppers drying in the sun, ancient doorways protected by stone lions, and elderly people out for a stroll.

One of them was Song Zhilin, who saw us and piped up "welcome," in English. I started chatting with her and she offered to let us take a look at traditional "siheyuan" or four-sided courtyards in the area. I heard her tell Zhang that her husband, Li Tieniu, 87, had worked for Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. She led us through her neighbors' courtyards, one beautifully preserved for more than a century that housed four generations of the Ren family.

At last we stopped at her own house, just two small and dark rooms. Above the bed were various framed black and white photographs, and Li proudly took down one of himself in the military in the 1940s, and another of Zhou Enlai. Though the couple's house was modest, Li was happy to have Americans in it. After all, the man he so admired helped make such an exchange possible. Far from the fanfare of the Olympics, here was the real heart of China we were lucky enough not to miss.


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August 20, 2008 6:31 PM

Some things get better, others get worse

Posted by Kristi Heim

While some doors to freedom in China have opened since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), others seem to be slamming shut even as China welcomed the world here for the Olympics.

China promised the International Olympic Committee that three public parks would be designated for protests. People would be allowed to demonstrate there during the Games after applying for permission through Beijing's Public Security Bureau. It turns out that none of the 77 applications were approved, Chinese state media reported. But that doesn't mean no action has been taken on the applicants. As I suspected last week, now it seems that the application process itself was nothing more than bait.

Among the applicants were two women, Wu Dianyuan, 79 and Wang Xiuying, 77 who wanted to demonstrate in the park against being forcibly evicted from their homes in 2001. When they returned to check the status of their application, they were arrested, interrogated for 10 hours and then sentenced without trial to a year of re-education through labor, according to Human Rights in China (HRIC).

This follows the case of Ji Sizun, who was arrested and detained after he applied to demonstrate in one of the parks. Ji, 58, went to a police station in Beijing Aug. 8 for a permit to hold a protest, stating he would call for greater participation of Chinese citizens in the political process, and denounce official corruption and abuses of power. He was arrested three days later when he returned to check on the status of his application.

Wang Wei, the Beijing Olympic Committee spokesman who headed Beijing's bid in 2001, said at the time that he was confident hosting the Games would enhance human rights in China.

In a news conference yesterday, Wang was asked why none of the applications were approved and why some of the applicants had been arrested. All but three of the applications were withdrawn by the would-be demonstrators after being dissuaded by the authorities or discouraged by the process itself.

He said the process was meant to address problems, and was not merely "for the sake of demonstration." He compared filing for a protest to filing for a divorce, as if it was inherently a bad thing that should be intercepted and prevented if possible.

The issues behind the protests were resolved "through dialogue," Wang said. "This is the way we like to deal with things in Chinese culture."

But I suspect that some people in Hong Kong, Taiwan or other Chinese communities around the world might disagree. People here in Beijing might disagree, too, if they had a chance.

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August 20, 2008 9:11 AM

A music revolution in China

Posted by Kristi Heim

Inside the National Center for the Performing Arts, a group of middle-aged Chinese music lovers is rocking out to the Scorpions.

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Their joy is apparent, especially for those who remember the time when they were forbidden to listen to any music from the West.

During the Cultural Revolution, even classical music was considered "a bad influence of the Western world," said Chen Li, a Beijing arts critic who lectures at the center. So Chen listened in secret.

Now he's inside one of the premier arts venues in China, if not the world, transfixed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing a special concert with the Scorpions on DVD. "This is globalization," he said.

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These are a few of the 600 members of a music club launched in the new performing arts center in Beijing. Just west of Tiananmen Square, the colossal ultra-modern dome known as "The Egg" is to the arts what China's Bird's Nest stadium is to sports. The music club is hosted by the arts center and meets here every weekend.

The aim is to give people the space and the means for learning how to appreciate music.

"People have their material lifestyle satisfied, so they need more, something spiritual," Chen said. "China is opening up. and it's opening everyone's eyes. A country's strength doesn't mean just military, it's also economic, it's cultural."

When he was young, Chen listened to classical music by himself behind closed doors and gradually developed a love of opera, especially for the soprano Maria Callas.

"She was singing with her life," he said. "She could bare her soul and shine a light on others with her voice."

Now he can share his love of music openly with others, in the grandest of places.

Music club 020.jpg

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August 18, 2008 10:06 PM

Liu Xiang and Chinese "national glory"

Posted by Kristi Heim

If it wasn't clear from the 70-pound pixie gymnasts already, Liu Xiang's saga shows how an athlete's life here, his body and his glory or failure, do not really belong to him. They belong to his sponsors, the media and the state.

Liu was the center of an elaborate show where his success was used for larger purposes, mainly overcoming deep national insecurity, and of course making money. China is different from both the former Eastern bloc's authoritarian control and U.S.-style commercialization. It's both of them and more.

Even while plagued with injuries, which his coach blamed on training too much due to the pressure, the event was so over-hyped that Liu had no choice but to enter the field and make his pain public. Today a full page spread in the China Daily turns his tragedy into an ad for Nike: "Love sport even when it breaks your heart," it says.

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Liu's Website makes the point that he is "the first Chinese man to win a gold medal in Olympic track and field, first Asian man to win an Olympic sprint competition, and first athlete not from North America or Europe to win an Olympic medal" in the hurdles. His success was meant to prove the strength of Chinese bodies, the individual as a metaphor for the national.

After winning a gold medal four years ago in Athens, Liu himself seemed surprised "Given the Asian physiology, few expected that a Chinese would ever be able to run under 13 seconds," he said. "I believe this is like a sort of miracle."

Following his departure from the race yesterday, as Liu sat depressed and avoiding the public eye, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping conveyed official wishes to him through China's sports ministry. "We hope that after he recovers, he will continue to train hard and struggle harder for national glory," Xi said.

Liu Xiang 001.jpg

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August 18, 2008 8:12 AM

Video: China's biggest Olympic hopeful walks away

Posted by Kristi Heim

This is a shock felt around the country. Chinese superstar Liu Xiang bowed out of the Olympics this morning because of a longstanding injury to his Achilles tendon. As the icon for Chinese sports, Liu faced enormous pressure to bring home gold. In Beijing's National Stadium, 91,000 fans watched as Liu limped back after another athlete's false start in the men's 110m Hurdles. He grimaced in pain, then walked off the track. I spent the day talking with fans, who were crushed by the news but also eager to voice support for him.

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August 17, 2008 7:13 AM

Chinese want to study Michael Phelps' genes

Posted by Kristi Heim

After Michael Phelps hit the magic number "8" in gold medals, the most of any athlete in Olympic history, a question started to form in the minds of people in China: Where can we get those genes?

A TV commentator suggested Phelps' mother Debbie should stay in China so people here can study how she produced such a great son. "She should be checked to find out how she's different from other people," a local friend of mine said, welcoming the idea. "How can she make Michael Phelps?"

"Big Fish," as Phelps is called here, "isn't from the Earth, he must be from another planet," a Beijing newspaper quipped.

Since Phelps won eight medals in eight different swimming events, another idea was proposed in a joke circulating on the Internet. Chinese could win more medals if only they had different versions of ping-pong (Table Tennis as it's known officially). There could be ping-pong with a vertical paddle, ping-pong with a horizontal paddle, etc.

If the number "8" signifies good luck in China, "it's a lucky number for me now, too," Phelps said in a press conference. "Seeing 8-8-08 and opening ceremonies starting at 8:08, I guess it was maybe meant to be. For this to happen, everything had to fall into perfect place. If we had to do this again, I don't know if it would happen the way we wanted to, to the T."

Speaking of gold, Phelps also shared a good lesson for life: practice is like putting money in the bank. When he was tired and didn't want to keep training that day, his coach prodded him, saying it was "like making a deposit," Phelps said. So he kept socking money away each day until the Olympics, and then withdrew "just about every penny."

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August 16, 2008 7:15 AM

Scenes from Beijing Nightlife

Posted by Kristi Heim

It's a good thing I don't live in Beijing. I might never sleep.

Everything that goes on in any hip city around the world is going on here, only pumped up on EPO.

Club Suzie Wong is designed to look like an old opium den, but somehow it also hosts "Riviera Pool Parties." GT Banana, a megaclub that holds 2,000 people, boasts a decor of "Hollywood meets luxury space shuttle" (no economy class space shuttles, please).

Factory 798 took an old East German and Chinese factory compound and transformed it into an artist mecca with more than 100 galleries and performance spaces. Beijing also has hundreds of spas, massage parlors and tattoo shops, but many of them have been shut down around the Olympics for the intolerable crime of appearing seedy.

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I started one evening's entertainment at a Xinjiang restaurant. That's the province in the far northwest of China home to the Uyghur ethnic group. The sprawling place had two floors of seating and a stage. When the band came on play "Xinjiang music," they turned out to be very well versed in the Gypsy Kings.

Next stop was the grand opening of a nightclub inside a huge new shopping mall (actually there are no shopping malls in Beijing that are not huge and new). The club put on a "high heels contest" and local would-be models and actresses turned out in droves. I met a guy who was getting rich as a middleman in oil sales, who said he met a table full of people in the same business.

A woman sitting next to me kept flashing her Mercedes car keys, and a guy with low-slung pants kindly bent down right in front of me without my having to ask. Are those Spiderman boxers? But come on, if you don't need an extra hand to hold the jeans up, they don't even count.

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August 15, 2008 8:57 AM

Spectacular volleyball and good sports: US vs. China

Posted by Kristi Heim

Basketball is a new love, but volleyball has long been dear to Chinese hearts. That's why it was no surprise to see a packed Capital Gymnasium for tonight's U.S. vs. China women's volleyball match. Local news media had billed the event "The Battle of Peace." Tens of thousands of fans turned out, as did China's President Hu Jintao. The teams did not disappoint. They played each other set for set and sometimes point for point, trading wins and working the crowd into a frenzy until the Americans finally prevailed in the fifth set.

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The teams had something in common: "Jenny" Lang Ping, China's star player turned U.S. coach who is beloved by both sides. She guided the U.S. team to victory, but the Chinese crowd roared when she entered the gym and again when she left it.

After the match, Lang said she treated the game like any other. She said she was an excitable player in China, but now she has to bring balance to a U.S. team that is "more emotional, very passionate, -- but sometimes too much."

"I think she's torn when we play China," said Heather Bown. "She has loyalties to her home country, but she believes in us. I'd rather have her on my side."

After the game I met a group of Chinese volleyball cheerleaders called the China Dolls. I saw President Hu and his entourage being whisked away in a fleet of black Audis.

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Outside, practically everyone I ran into remarked about the results. "Congratulations," one man in his 20s said while waiting for a taxi outside the gym. He offered us the cab he'd been trying to hail. "Our China lost. America played so well," a taxi driver said. "The Americans were great," the hotel doorman said when I mentioned I had been at the game. No matter how loud the shouts of "Go China!" in the stands, they were nothing to match the power of humility and good sportsmanship in those words.

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The match came down to the final set, which the Americans dominated, 23-25, 25-22, 23-25, 25-20, 15-11. The United States improved to 3-2 in pool play while China, the defending gold medalists, fell to 2-2.

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August 14, 2008 12:20 AM

Looking at protests in China, then and now

Posted by Kristi Heim

Once upon a time the Chinese government actively encouraged freedom of speech and solicited public criticism about the political system.

It was called the Hundred Flowers Campaign, begun in 1956 with a poem "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend."

The movement went along for about a year until Mao felt his power threatened. Then, with their identities and opinions exposed, many of the critics were rounded up and jailed, and the chilling effect on dissent was felt for years to come. Some say that was the intention all along.

That piece of history is interesting to think about in the context of events over the last week.

A grassroots legal activist, Ji Sizun, is being detained after he applied to demonstrate legally in one of the designated "protest zones" established for the Beijing Olympics, according to Human Rights Watch. Ji, 58, went to a police station in Beijing for a permit to hold a protest, stating he would call for greater participation of Chinese citizens in the political process, and denounce official corruption and abuses of power. He was arrested on Monday when he returned to check on the status of his application.

There were other incidents, including the arrest of two Christian activists on their way to church and the manhandling of a British TV reporter by police. Ji's case conflicts directly with promises Beijing made to the International Olympic Committee to allow protests in public parks with prior approval.

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The topic came up in a heated news conference this morning, when several reporters grilled IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies and Beijing Olympic Committee executive vice president Wang Wei about the issue. One reporter repeatedly asked Davies whether the IOC was embarrassed about the failure of those pledges.

Wang, who was secretary general of the committee that bid for the games, responded with an impassioned speech.

China enjoys greater freedom today than it has in the last 30 years, he said. "Everybody is happy. People are optimistic about their own future," he said. "Of course there are exceptions like in any other country," he added. "Some people are not satisfied. That's true."

Wang said that while "we welcome suggestions, constructive advice from all the people, a few people come here to be critical, to dig into small details to find fault. That does not mean we are not fulfilling our promise."

The media should pay more attention to the prevailing sentiment of ordinary people, he said. "You cannot underestimate the wisdom of the Chinese people."

If that's true, then it would make even more sense for all of them to be heard.

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August 13, 2008 5:03 PM

Video: A look at traditional sports in China

Posted by Kristi Heim

The first morning I arrived in Beijing, I took a long walk through Ritan Park and shot some video of ordinary people exercising. I was astounded by all the different activities. My personal favorite (sorry, didn't get it on the video) is walking backwards. It should really be an Olympic event. Turns out this was the only sunny day we've had the entire trip.

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August 13, 2008 11:27 AM

Russia and Georgia face off on the beach -- sort of

Posted by Kristi Heim

Associated Press

Russia's Natalya Uryadova, right, walks away as Georgia's Christine Santanna, center, and Andrezza Chagas, hug after their volleyball match.

Less than a week after Russia and Georgia faced off in a sudden war over a disputed province, their national athletes faced each other Wednesday in what was expected to be an emotionally charged Olympic competition.

In one of the more surreal moments of the Games, cold, hard geopolitics landed in the middle of a beach volleyball match, with bikini-clad rivals, "beach girl" cheerleaders, riffs of AC/DC over the loudspeaker and mountains of sand forming a fake beach in downtown Beijing.

The mostly Chinese crowd cheered excitedly for the Georgian team, the underdogs in politics and volleyball -- except their players were actually from Brazil.

After the game, a media swarm focused on how the Georgian athletes were coping with war back home. It turned out that Russian player Alexandra Shiryaeva was the one who had family members in Georgia. Georgian teammates Cristine Santanna and Andrezza Chagas, both born in Brazil, have dual citizenship but have only visited Georgia twice.

Santanna goes by the name Saka, and Chagas by Rtvelo, chosen by their coach. Their names put together form Sakartvelo, the Georgian word for Georgia. The pair were invited to play for the team by the Georgian president and his wife, a beach volleyball enthusiast.

At the start of the game, Santanna, 29, and Chagas, 31, crossed under the net to give their Russian opponents a hug. But Georgia's first serve hit the net and the team went on to lose the first game 21 to 10. They fought back, rallying intensely and hammering spikes to the back court to win the next two games and the match.

After the game, the Russians' exasperation spilled into a testy exchange. They were unhappy to lose the match and see what would be their first Olympics mired in politics.

Santanna called the victory "special" because of the ongoing conflict and the possibility of Georgian athletes having to leave the Olympics to return home. "Yes, I feel more Georgian now," she added.
"If they are Georgian they certainly would be influenced, but they're not," a dejected Natalia Uryadova, 31, retorted.

"These girls are Brazilian," Shiryaeva said. "I don't think they even know who the Georgian president is."

In the end that didn't matter, because the win trumped everything.

"Right now even a little success for us is very important," said Giorgi Tschanishvili, press officer for the Georgian team. "There is an abnormal situation in our country. The athletes -- they can't concentrate. Our judo wrestlers they lost.

"The athletes are too distracted thinking about what's happening at home," he said. "It's absolutely crazy. We know that some of them lose their friends, their family members... This win, maybe it will help us."

Although Georgia's beach volleyball players live in Brazil, they also felt the weight of the situation, he said.

After scoring the last point, their nervousness gave way to elation. Still coated in sand, Santanna and Chagas held the white and red Georgian flag, posed for pictures and signed autographs for Chinese and foreign fans.

"We fought two years to be here," Santanna said. "I'm very proud today, not only because it was against Russia. It's a tough competition."

Santanna praised her opponents. "I want to compliment them. Despite where we come from today, we had a good match back there," she said. "I don't want this to become a war between us. I respect them as players."

Shiryaeva, 25, also struck a conciliatory tone and asked the media not to exaggerate the conflict in the sporting arena.

"We play against the team, not against Georgia," she said. "I want you not to make like a continue of the war. It's just a game."

But she had real worries, too. "I hope the conflict ends... many of my relatives live in Georgia," she said. "I know this must stop."

In Beijing, relations between the athletes at the Olympic Village have been so positive, she said, "If I don't have Internet and TV, I never see there is conflict between Georgia and Russia."

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August 12, 2008 9:39 AM

Hey, where did you park the tank?

Posted by Kristi Heim

This is indeed an Olympics with Chinese characteristics. Journalists covering the Games had a surprise waiting for them this morning at the gate of the Main Press Center. It was an armored vehicle (not a real tank, as I thought, which would have treads and a very long gun).

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Perplexed and a little bit anxious, several reporters asked the Beijing Olympic Committee spokesman if there was some kind of new threat to warrant ever more fortress-like security measures.

His answer: Oh, that? I didn't even notice it.

It could be that the Public Security Bureau deployed the vehicle without informing the Olympic Committee. The spokesman mumbled something about increased security after American visitor Todd Bachman was stabbed to death in a popular tourist spot Saturday. Yes, an armored car would offer good protection against a knife wielding madman in a tower on the other side of town.

As to its real purpose, we still don't know. I guess the other parking lot was full.

Meanwhile, China Central Television's broadcast of the Opening Ceremony is getting uniformly panned by viewers in China. CCTV was the only channel they could watch for the broadcast. But when viewers in China got a look at NBC's coverage via the Web and realized what they had missed, their dissatisfaction grew even deeper.

Turns out some of the fireworks shown on CCTV were fake, because visibility was poor and filming them live from a helicopter would be too dangerous. But the lifeless delivery and poor camera work was what really angered viewers. They also learned that the 9-year-old girl they thought was singing the national anthem was actually performing a lip-sync version because she was deemed more attractive than the child with the real voice but crooked teeth.

Some people writing comments online tweaked "CCTV" in Chinese to translate to "a body without a head." The film crews and announcers were not chosen for their ability to hold a camera or host a performance, say critics. They were people with government connections and untarnished political records who passed the Party's good behavior test.

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August 10, 2008 9:28 PM

The power of sports to uplift and inspire

Posted by Kristi Heim

If you want to see what's beautiful about the Olympics, these faces say it all.

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Like the image of Russian and Georgian athletes embracing on the podium yesterday, this is the Olympics at its best.

I met some amazing fans at last night's basketball game between the U.S. and China. The event embodied the kind of friendly competition and mutual admiration that left everyone walking away happy.

The two young Americans are Stephen and George Pond of Winston-Salem, N.C. They could barely contain their excitement.

"This is the best thing ever," Stephen Pond said before turning around to high-five a Chinese fan holding a large red Chinese flag behind him.

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Actress Glenn Close was sitting nearby, but I didn't recognize her immediately. She was in Beijing with her husband to watch the games, and apparently enjoying a rare bit of anonymity because she even got up to buy her own beer. I was interviewing another fan, Ron Meyer, when she came up to chat with him. She was completely down to earth and friendly. After the game, she took a picture of some Chinese fans. I bet this beats courtside seats at a Laker game.

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Below are the Chinese fans that attracted Close's attention (and mine). They are Beijing residents Jia Dongzhuo (right) and Zhan Yi. Even though China lost the match, Jia said that just being there was "brilliant."

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August 9, 2008 9:18 PM

Update on mood and security in Beijing

Posted by Kristi Heim

The mood of these Olympics today has suffered, at least to me, because violence here and elsewhere in the world has set nations apart and marred what everyone hoped would be peaceful time.

The International Olympic Committee said Georgian and Russian athletes would continue competing in the games despite war breaking out between the two countries in a contested Georgian province and hundreds dead after Russian bombing.

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Australia is advising its athletes to wear clothes that make them clearly identifiable as Australians as a security measure following an attack on American relatives of a US volleyball coach (see previous blog entry for details). An Australian journalist asked Beijing authorities whether other athletes should wear something to identify themselves by their nation to be safer, implying that it's dangerous to be mistaken for an American.

"Of course not," said Wang Wei, Beijing Olympic Committee Secretary General. "This was an isolated criminal act. We have no reason to believe the action was targeted on any specific nation."

Wang said Beijing plans to increase security of scenic spots in response, while not limiting access by tourists.

Meanwhile new explosions rocked China's far western Xinjiang province today. Seven bombers and a security guard were killed and four people injured, according to Xinhua.The attackers targeted the local government, public security bureau and the economic and trade committee. Separatists are using the Olympics "as a platform for magnifying their impact," Wang said.

Besides the gloomy news, it's pouring down rain.

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Not enough to extinguish the flame, though.

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August 9, 2008 6:50 AM

U.S. visitor killed in Beijing

Posted by Kristi Heim

Only know the basic details that tragedy has marred these Games after a Chinese man attacked two American tourists, killing one and injuring the other before committing suicide. The man who was killed was identified as a relative of a coach of the U.S. Olympic men's volleyball team. The woman with him was seriously injured and is in a nearby hospital. The attacker then killed himself by jumping out of the Drum Tower. He was identified as Tang Yongming, 47, from Hangzhou.

The incident happened around noon today (Saturday) at the Drum Tower, a place I visited twice in the last week. It's a popular destination for tourists in the center of Beijing. It's now early Saturday evening.

One question on people's minds is whether the victim was targeted as an American and what the killer's motive might have been. Clearly the victim was a foreign tourist and the act a very public one. Any violence toward visitors is extremely rare and we've been treated well by everyone here. I lived in China off and on for almost 20 years, traveled alone throughout the country. Never once had an encounter of violence or even so much as a verbal attack. Obviously this casts a huge pall on the Games. One lesson is that with all the massive security the authorities have put in place, it's impossible to prevent random and unpredictable acts of violence. That's true anywhere in the world.

I'm very interested to know how the hosts will react to this. I'll update when I have more information, but the story is all over the Internet.

UPDATE: The victim is Todd Bachman, the father-in-law of US Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon and the father of Elizabeth Bachman McCutcheon, a former player, according to US Olympic Committee. The woman injured was Barbara Bachman, Todd Bachman's wife. Her injuries are serious and life threatening, the US Olympic Committee said. A Chinese tour guide with them was also injured and hospitalized. Elizabeth Bachman McCutcheon, the Bachmans' daughter, was with them at the time but was not injured. The Bachmans were not wearing anything that identified them as related to the U.S. Olympic delegation.

UPDATE: Barbara Bachman was in critical but stable condition at a Beijing hospital after undergoing eight hours of surgery.

Today (Sunday) Chinese President Hu Jintao expressed sympathy to President Bush during a meeting between the leaders in Beijing. "I would like to express my heartfelt sympathy to you and the family of the victims over this unfortunate incident," Hu said. An investigation into the incident has begun.

The Chinese magazine Caijing reported that Tang quit his job with a local factory several years ago, sold his apartment in 2006 and was divorced in 2003. Jobless, he came to Beijing in August 1. His motivations are still under investigation.

Sample of reactions from Chinese blogs:

"A tragedy for the American team (but) the more difficult the road, the stronger you will be."
He will always be a national criminal... tell the whole country to spurn him."
"Falun Gong did it to shame China"
"The motive was to destroy the Olympics... China has lost face."

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August 8, 2008 5:44 AM

Opening ceremony spectacular

Posted by Kristi Heim

Opening ceremony began with an intensity that was actually startling, the stadium surrounded by a red ring of fire that exploded into the night and the beating of 200 drummers. The performances then alternately ranged from soft and beautiful to thunderous and dramatic. A Chinese traditional culture motif ran throughout, with folk dancing, martial arts, calligraphy, music and even quotations from Confucius. At one point a giant scroll lighted from inside unfurled across the stadium and writhing dancers painted characters on it with their bodies.

Another highlight was an image of the Silk Road carrying a performer like a silk carpet, and the top band around the stadium turned into a blue sea of waves. This was supposed to show the exchanges between ancient China and the rest of the world. Dancers then surrounded the stadium holding long oars stretching out to the sea. The meaning was so traditional but also expressed in a way accessible to everyone.

Now the athletes are making their way into the stadium. Rousing applause from the crowd for Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Cuba, Canada, Iraq... so far it's a very joyous atmosphere, setting a good tone. I've been juggling a hand held video camera, camera and tape recorder, trying to catch snippets of everything. It literally feels like a sauna in here, and everyone around me is drenched in sweat. I pity the athletes wearing suits tonight.

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August 8, 2008 2:24 AM

Your first peek at opening ceremony

Posted by Kristi Heim

Nothing has started yet, but I'm in National Stadium (the Birds Nest) and thought I'd share some impressions and pictures. Lots of security: two tanks on the intersection leading toward the stadium, helicopters overhead. Absolutely sweltering in the stands, which are still almost empty, but the stadium itself is impressive. I did get to meet an interesting Olympics fan: Tan Huaiyu, a 40-year-old Beijing resident who wore a bright yellow afro and proudly displayed the two dozen tickets he has acquired to nearly every event in the Games. "This is called passion," he said.

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August 7, 2008 4:15 PM

Opening day skies: white

Posted by Kristi Heim

For what it's worth, here's what the weather looks like on the morning of opening ceremony. It's about as hazy as it has been all week. I can barely see across the street. Below is a photo I took of the stadium yesterday.

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August 7, 2008 2:41 PM

Is the number 8 always lucky?

Posted by Kristi Heim

Chinese people are starting to wonder. I called a friend of mine in Beijing the other day to find a couple getting married on 8-8-08, the supremely auspicious date chosen for the opening ceremony.

Well, apparently not everyone is willing to put so much faith in a number.

"Ba," or eight in Chinese, sounds like "fa," the word for wealth. That's the reason for the local obsession with 8s on license plates, phone numbers and dates for important activities like weddings and the Olympics.

But some people have begun questioning just how lucky the number can be in light of recent events.

The Sichuan earthquake occurred on 5-12, they point out (5+1+2=8). Piling on evidence, they go back to the disastrous snow storms that hit around Chinese New Year on 1-25.

Internet sites have been rife with debate and speculation.

I suspect neither good luck nor bad, just resigned to calculating my own fate: 8+8+8 = 24. The number of hours until any of us can get to sleep again. It's going to be a long, interesting and memorable day.

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August 5, 2008 11:41 PM

Olympic torch runs through Beijing

Posted by Kristi Heim

The pre-Olympics excitement reached a fever pitch today when the torch arrived in Beijing. I went out to watch it with Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar in the heart of the city near the ancient Drum Tower. I've been in crowds before but never one quite like today.

Thousands of onlookers gathered all along the relay route and waited hours for the runners to arrive. People had small red flags and hearts pasted on their cheeks and waved larger flags in their hands. A bright red Coca-Cola bus snaked through the crowd and led a chant "Go, China," "Go, Liu Xiang," "Go, Yao Ming," "Go, Beijing," "Go Olympics."


Spectators posed for pictures long after the torch runners were gone.

As the torch procession started moving toward us, the surge of humanity pressed against police and volunteers who linked hands to form a barrier. "Get back!" a security officer kept barking at the fans, ordering them behind a white line. The crowd was sweltering and manic. It seemed someone might easily get trampled.

There was a minute of levity when people near me erupted in laughter at someone's off-key singing. But mostly the mood felt anxious.The expression on peoples' faces was emotional and full of longing. With expectations this high, I had to wonder whether they could ultimately be fulfilled. For good weather, for gold medals, for international acceptance and praise. A middle aged woman in the crowd smiled at me, tentatively at first and then warmly, happy to see a visitor witnessing China's big moment.

I asked two teenage boys who they hoped to see running past. "Liu Xiang," one said. "Yao Ming," chimed the other. But neither athlete was running this leg of the relay, sponsored by Lenovo. The corporate torch bearer hopped on a bus after his short run, and I heard a voice in the crowd ask "Who is that?"

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August 5, 2008 10:37 AM

Peaceful coexistence: The real and the fake

Posted by Kristi Heim

Beijing sells official Olympic souvenirs in a place where tourists can't miss them -- inside the market for pirated goods.

The sprawling indoor mall called Silk Alley is home to dozens of small shops selling fake brand-name clothing, golf gear, watches and other products.


It's a mecca for tourists from around the world looking for designer knockoffs at a fraction of the price real ones cost. In Beijing, some trademarks enjoy more protection than others: The stand for authorized Olympic souvenirs sits inside the main floor just opposite a shop selling fake Ralph Lauren polo shirts.


Among the trendy clothes for sale was a new creation giving Starbucks some free advertising. Vendors put a large green Starbucks logo on the front of T-shirts and sweatshirts.

No irony in this iron-on: even as it shrinks in the U.S., the chain is still expanding briskly in China as a popular hangout.

For more on this, read this piece on China's teeming world of fake goods.

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August 3, 2008 7:07 PM

Beijing skies turn hazy

Posted by Kristi Heim

It's Monday morning here, just four days before opening ceremony, and Beijing is once again blanketed by a thick haze. Hard to say if it's pollution or just fog, but it feels miserable outside. Here is the view looking northeast from the central business district:


Local residents have been told that new limits on driving might be needed to take another 10 percent of cars off the road during the games. I've talked with three Beijing residents who drive regularly and none was upset by the restrictions. In fact, people concerned about air quality wondered why the caps were not imposed much earlier.

But even with stringent rules and impressive technology, Beijing seems to be facing the reality that nature can't be turned on and off like a switch.

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August 2, 2008 3:47 AM

Beijing: First Impressions

Posted by Kristi Heim

Beijing has mountains?

A visitor unfamiliar with the city might have gone a long time before noticing. The Fragrant Hills don't make an appearance most summers when the capital is shrouded in fog and pollution. But when the plane descended into Beijing on Friday, there they were, along with blue skies.

The air quality seems substantially better than what I experienced last summer. A frequent visitor to Beijing from Canada told me said it was the clearest she can remember seeing the city in years.

Inside the brand new airport terminal, an immigration official smiled and wished me a good stay. Throngs of young volunteers in blue shirts welcomed guests in English. I turned a corner and almost ran into what appeared to be a large yellow space creature with antlers who was posing for a picture with a tourist. I realized this must be one of the five official Olympic mascots, a Tibetan antelope named Yingying.

Traffic coming into the city was so light I saved a few dollars on taxi fare, which usually costs more because of the extra time it takes wading through gridlock.


The air outside is fresh, but sidewalk seating is not allowed here during the Olympics.

On Saturday morning, I could see how the fortress-like security has put a damper on business. On a tree-lined stretch of sidewalk in the embassy district, not a single table sitting outside of Grandma's Restaurant. For "safety reasons," all of the cafes were told to do away with sidewalk seating until September. The new rule put an end to a summer weekend ritual, resulting in lost revenue for these small shops.

Local residents told me about the changes they do hope will last: non smokers now have separate sections in restaurants, buses and trucks aren't spewing so much filthy exhaust because of a crackdown on emissions, consumers are using fewer plastic bags now that shops have to charge for them, and people are not kept awake all hours by construction noise.

Everything's a little different, from the Buddhist shrines appearing in restaurants to the tattoos and pierced lips that have become trendy. Beijing is full of new streets, parks and buildings, including the cutting-edge CCTV headquarters that looks like a giant pair of shorts.

As the games approach, in the air I noticed a heavy dose of something that's become elusive at home and in many parts of the world these days: optimism.

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Recent entries

Aug 24, 08 - 07:30 AM
Closing ceremony: Chinese youth culture and a double-decker bus to London

Aug 22, 08 - 11:06 PM
An Olympics beyond gold medals: one alternative view

Aug 22, 08 - 08:46 PM
Three countries borne by one athlete

Aug 22, 08 - 06:23 AM
A patch of green in a sea of gray

Aug 21, 08 - 11:50 AM
A personal quest for Hope







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