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Steve Kelley: At the Olympics

Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.

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August 8, 2008 1:12 AM

Great people, spectacular sights but Chinese blunder with Cheek

Posted by Steve Kelley

Five days in a country hardly qualifies me as an expert, especially because so much of Beijing has been taken over by the Olympics that some of its heart has been removed.. But my early thought is that this certainly is a country of contradictions (The same can be said for the United States, by the way.)

Everybody I've met -- everybody -- has been unbelievably kind and helpful. Even the cab drivers have been affable. And cab fares are ridiculously cheap. (Sidebar: before the Olympics, the Chinese government bought all of the Beijing drivers yellow shirts and dark slacks, so even they are in uniform.) We also have these handy cards that show some of the landmarks, so that when we're going some place like the Forbidden City, we can just show the cab driver the picture of the place and the language barrier is bridged.

The city is huge, but it is remarkably clean. China's baseball manager Jim Lefebvre said the changes from when he got here five years ago are remarkable. He said the city used to be "kind of gray," but now it is all florals and greenery. Our accommodations are the best I've had in eight Olympics. The North Star Media Village is a collection of 30-story high rises that surround a beautiful countyard. The place is kept immaculate and there are gardens everywhere -- all violets and impatients. In the middle of the courtyard there's even a Buddhist temple.

And then there is the other side of China, the other side of Beijing. Every day has been gray and smolderingly hot. I can't imagine running an 800-meter race here, let alone a marathon. I've made a vow to myself to never again complain about the grayness of a Seattle winter. This Beijing gray is 100 times as oppressive and depressing as Seattle's gray.

The air is practically apocalyptic. Maybe it's haze. Maybe it's smog, but it is constant. And all it does is keep the heat underneath it like a foul-smelling down comforter.

But most disturbing about my first five days in China has been the news that the visa for Olympic speed skating gold medalist Joey Cheek was revoked. Cheek is the front man for an athletic group known as Team Darfur, which shines a light on the murderous Sudanese government, a government that China has supported.

This is supposed to be China's time to shine. These should be the days when it opens its arms to everybody. This should be a time of harmony. China should be an unambiguous ally to everyone. And, at least for these 17 days, Joey Cheek, whose Olympic soul belongs in Beijing, should be celebrated for his passionate activism, even by the Chinese government.

But in this case, it's as if China can't help itself. It has to be the way it is. It has to stifle Cheek's expression. It has to ignore its support for Sudan's government and ignore those who know that support is encouraging a violent regime.

The government doesn't get it. The worst thing it could have done was keep Cheek out of the country. All that did was draw more attention to itself. To its strange alliances with Sudan and Zimbabwe. To its human rights violations. Etcetera. At the least, barring Cheek from the Games was a monumental public relations blunder.

Like most places on the globe, the people here are warm and hospitable. You get the feeling they are thrilled to see the world coming here. Just a generation ago, China was closed to the world. That seems hard to believe now, as we walk around this city and see so many different styles of dress and listen to so many different languages being spoken.

But it's never the people. It's the governments that screw things up. It's the political leaders -- who are so removed from the reality of every day life -- making these wrong-headed decisions that affect the way their countries are perceived.

Five days into my stay in China, as the Olympic Games finally are about to begin, my early review is mixed. Great people, spectacular sights, hideous weather and a government that can't even loosen its grip for Beijing 2008.

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Aug 8, 08 - 01:12 AM
Great people, spectacular sights but Chinese blunder with Cheek

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