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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 9, 2008 12:01 AM

The Forbidden City: There's no doubt where we are

Posted by Steve Kelley

One of the problems with visiting a city when it is hosting the Olympics is that the combination of government security and International Olympic Committee dictates masks much of the host's charm. When we leave one of these places we often think that we'll have to come back after The Games to see what it really looks like.

I did that in Barcelona in 1992. Went up the coast to Tossa de Mar for a week, then came back to Barcelona and it was a different place. Much more its hip and historic self.

In Atlanta in 1996, the entire city was turned into a honky tonk. There were almost as many carnival workers as athletes. It seemed like there was a Tilt-A-World on every corner. (OK, I'm exaggerating.) In Salt Lake City it was much the same. It was the first Olympics after 9/11 and the fences and concrete security barriers littered the city.

And let's face it, as beautiful as all of the newly built venues always are -- my favorite still is the VIking Ship that housed speedskating at the Lillehammer Games -- after a while a stadium is a stadium, a gym is a gym and all of us get lost in the competition. We could be just about anywhere in the world.

That's why this morning I got up early to accompany photographer Rod Mar (who I'm spending entirely too much time with) to Tiananmen Square and the Forbiddden City to watch the cyclists blur by on their way to The Great Wall.

For this event, there was no doubt where I was. There was Chairman Mao's portrait looming like a deity's over the scene. That picture of course is legendary. And the shot Rod got of the cyclists passing with Mao in the background is a classic.

For me, because I wasn't working on deadline, I got an hour to walk around. To stop in the square and think about the tanks that rumbled through and the violence that happened here.

For the few events like this, that are free to the public, the squares almost always are packed with people and the avenues are lined with spectators. But Saturday the scene was surprisingly tranquil. Most of the people there, I got the impression, were tourists, who were there for two of China's most popular attractions, not the Olympic event. And when the cyclists came by (they were in our view for all of about 11 seconds) there was no cheering. It was as if nobody was paying attention.

But for me, it was magic. I was in Tiananmen Square. There was no Coke banner covering Mao's face on the Forbidden City's wall. The square didn't have some mini-roller coaster rattling around. There was no doubt where we were. This was China. This was real. .

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