Sunday, August 31, 2008

What was I expecting?

I have been profoundly disappointed in my experience of the Beijing Olympics. It was an event I had been looking forward to ever since I arrived in this country six years ago. It was a large part of the reason for my coming here in the first place. Yes, I feel dejected, deflated, and a little lost.

Some people have asked me: Well, what were you expecting?

I think the answer to that was implicit in my post of complaints about the Olympics over on The Barstool the other day; but I will try to define a little more closely what I had hoped for or imagined for these Olympics.

I had wanted to be able to enjoy it with all my friends. (Many of them had got kicked out of the country, or decided they didn't want to stay here in August.)

I was hoping to make some new friends. (I had naively envisaged huge numbers of foreign tourists; in fact, we got considerably fewer than in a normal August.)

I had expected crowds in the streets almost everywhere, certainly around any of the main foreigner-targeted bar-and-restaurant areas. (There were hardly any crowds anywhere; foreigners were usually only spotted in twos and threes [and almost invariably wearing Olympic badges; it became a contest to find a foreign visitor who wasn't part of the Olympic set-up; most people without badges in fact proved to be Olympic workers who were being discreet about the fact, or resident expats like myself], not in tens and hundreds, exuberantly conga-ing down the road.)

I had been hoping some overseas friends might visit. (Few expressed any interest; none could get visas.)

I had been looking forward to introducing visitors to the Beijing I know and love, to its street life. (Nearly all Beijing's street food vendors and a fair few small restaurants were closed down. No-one was allowed to put chairs and tables out on the sidewalk.)

I had been expecting that we would be able to watch the Games outside. (That was how we'd enjoyed the Football World Cup two years ago. Every bar bought extra television sets, and many of them were set up outside. And there was a huge projection screen erected in the circular altar enclosure at the centre of Ritan Park, accompanied by numerous food & drink concession stands; that was a great place to watch the sport. There was nothing like that for the Games this month).

I was expecting that we'd be able to watch coherent coverage of the Games, with English commentary. (In fact, most of the sports bars were unable to find satellite channels covering the Games, and we had to make do with the terrestrial Chinese coverage - which was just godawful.)

I was expecting much more vibrancy from the local people. (Apart from a handful of popular events like basketball and ping-pong, most Chinese appeared massively indifferent to the Games.)

I was expecting the city to be packed. (It often felt semi-deserted.)

I was expecting the city to be buzzing with excitement about every little piece of Olympic news. (Apart from noting the relentless daily increase in China's enormous haul of gold medals, no-one really seemed all that interested in the details.)

I had expected almost every bar to be busy, all night, every night. (In fact, with only a handful of exceptions, the bar scene was very, very quiet this month.)

I had been hoping for a fortnight-long PARTY, a carnival atmosphere. (I guess the Chinese just aren't carnival people. Or their government doesn't allow them to be.)

Perhaps I was foolish ever to envision any of this. But that's why my sense of disillusionment has been so profound. Almost all of my hopes for these Olympics - hopes that I'd been building up for 6 years - were entirely disappointed.

Olympic Chinglish hilarity

If you've been suffering, as I have, the local Chinese television coverage of these Olympic games, you will have seen the numerous ads for Tsingtao beer (the dominant Chinese brand, though I personally much prefer the local Yanjing product, brewed in the Shunyi suburb of north-eastern Beijing): the glamorous diving champion, Guo Jing Jing, and numerous others invite you to raise a bottle with them to toast the Olympics. There's a special website you can go to, to join in all the fun of this special Olympic promotion:

This site even has an English version. Well, a Chinglish version.

Honestly, you have to go and check this out. It's f***ing hilarious! Isn't it amazing that a multi-million dollar company that is actually making big efforts to market its beers overseas would not bother to employ any native speakers in polishing its online copy?? No, of course not - this is China.(Correction: There is in fact some decent English on the site [although occasionally prone to a certain floridness of style: check out the 'History of the Olympics' section!], but I fear not many people will drill down that far, since the titles and menus are so bad. I have to add this acknowledgement, since a friend of mine was involved in preparing some of this copy. I'm not sure if he ever got paid for his efforts, though.)

The opening banner (blink, and you can miss it; even if you don't miss it, you might have trouble believing it; I've had to click back on it several times to convince myself that this is really what it says....) is this quite incomprehensible slogan:
"Chinese have never condensation like this time."

Any offers, anyone? Any idea at all? Nope, it's got me stumped. (And I 'translate' this kind of guff for a living!)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why pandas are going extinct

Because they're wusses.

This gem is another from my new favourite website, FrostFireZoo.

Beijing's buses

As a brief postscript to that last rant about the shortcomings of the subway link to Beijing's Olympic venues, I should say a few words about the buses here in Beijing.

Now, I like using the buses here. The fleet has been completely modernised in the last few years, so the vehicles are all very new and clean and comfortable, with air-conditioning (some of the old ones used to just have a couple of small fans!). They're very cheap (only 4 mao per trip on most routes, if you've got one of the new electronic travelcards). And, outside of the evening rush hour, they're not usually too crowded.

The trouble is, it's incredibly difficult to find out where they go. The drivers and conductors never speak a word of English (so much for Beijing's efforts to learn English for the Olympics!); and none of the signs at the bus stops have any English on them (although most buses do now at least have pre-recorded announcements of the stops in Chinese and English; though that doesn't help you to decide if this is the bus you want to get on). In fact, even the Chinese have difficulty reading these signs, because they laboriously list every single stop - often using placenames that are obscure even to local residents, and completely alien to anyone from another district. There's usually a stop every few hundred yards. And many routes wind from one end of the city to the other, covering 20 or 30 miles or more. Can you imagine how difficult it is trying to pick out the name of the stop you want from a board covered with at least 50, perhaps sometimes nearer to 100 different names, many of them using rare and unfamiliar characters? Many Chinese have told me that it is hard. I haven't got much of a hope - even when I know the name of the place I'm going to in characters (which isn't often). And, of course, there are no maps.

There are a number of websites that provide information about the bus routes, but they never seem to have an English version. This one - set up especially for the Olympics, I think, or certainly heavily revamped for them - supposedly did have an English page, but it's offline at the moment.

There were supposedly 34 new bus routes set up to serve the Olympic venues, but with no information about these available in English, it was never very likely that many Western tourists would try to use them (of course, not many Western tourists came anyway, and the government wasn't much concerned about doing anything for the convenience of the ones who did). The one major failing I found with the Olympic volunteers was that none of them seemed to have a clue about the public transport links to get people away from the venues after an event.

Using the buses is great, once you know where the routes run. The only way, really, for a bumbling foreigner like me to find out where they run, is to get on them at random and ride to the end of the line, noting road names and landmarks along the way.

For Olympic visitors, that wasn't really an option. I saw plenty of Chinese at bus stops near the Olympic venues (perhaps out-of-towners?) looking lost and baffled too; this wasn't just a laowai problem.

Unconnected (Beijing's public transport system, that is)

I've seen many different projections of what Beijing's subway system is supposed to become over the next few years. 2 or 3 years ago, this is what they were saying the network was supposed to be like for the Olympics.

Er, we didn't quite get there. Lines 4 and 9 down in the south-west there are still at the planning stage. The fast link to Shunyi (the grey line running due north over on the east side) is, as far as I know, just a fantasy. The "L1" airport express and the new Line 10 (the one carrying the bulk of the Olympic traffic) were only rushed into service just a couple of weeks ahead of the Games.

Line 10, you might notice, takes a rather curious route. It follows the city's 3rd Ringroad (the city now extends up to, and somewhat beyond the 5th Ringroad [but there is, famously, no 1st Ringroad!]; so the 3rd Ringroad defines the limit of the 'city centre'); but it only goes half-way around. Well, perhaps there is some sense to that: the north and east sides of town are much more developed than the south and west, with the south-east 3rd Ring being the hub of the Central Business District. However, the main Olympic venues are all on the North 4th Ringroad.

Also, you'll notice that this Line 10 is almost entirely separate from the rest of the network. There are only two interchange stations, one with the hellishly overcrowded Line 1 in the far south-east, and one with the (rather nice, only open a year) Line 5 in the north.

To give access to the Olympic Green and other venues in the vicinity, a short additional line was built. How dumb is that?! I suppose they wanted to set up extra security checks for spectators at the entry to this line, the origin station of Beitucheng, rather than at its exits at the subsequent Olympic stops. But really, how difficult would it be to have these checks at the exits? Requiring visitors to get off one line and move on to another, through a ticket and security check, was a huge pain-in-the-arse.

And if they were going to insist on such an unnecessary changeover, could they not at least have run the 'Olympic line' into the nearby Huixinjie Nankou station, which serves both Line 10 and Line 5?

If I wanted to go to an Olympic venue by subway, I'd have to go 2 stops east to Yonghegong on Line 2, change to Line 5 and go 3 stops north to Huixinjie Nan, change to Line 10 and go 2 stops west to Beitucheng, and then go through all the hassle of getting on the 'Olympic line' and going another 1 or 2 stops north to the venues. Expect an average of at least 5 minutes for each interchange (more in the evenings, when the train frequency is much lower). I could walk it in just over an hour; it might be quicker. It's particularly frustrating for me, since I live almost due south of the Bird's Nest; but getting to the Olympic Green by subway is an almost equally convoluted process no matter where you're coming from in Beijing.

When I went to see a diving event at the Water Cube one evening, I was faced with the possibility of trying to follow this tortuous route in reverse to get back home. Ordinarily, the Beijing subway system (though the evening service is much better, and runs much later than it did when I first came here 6 years ago) winds down well before midnight, and for the last hour or two the trains come along only once every 15 or 20 minutes. After the evening rush hour is over, the train frequency usually falls to one about every 8 or 10 minutes. The service was probably enhanced during the Olympics, but I didn't see or hear any announcements to this effect. I calculated that it was almost certainly going to take me well over an hour to get home by subway and, if I was unlucky with the changes, perhaps nearer to two hours; there was an outside chance that I'd miss the last train home on Line 2 altogether and have to walk the last mile-and-a-half home; it was dangerously likely that I wouldn't be reaching Line 2 until its last hour of operation, and would thus probably be facing a long wait for my final train. I decided not to bother.

Of course, I ended up having to walk more than half way home before I was able to get a cab.....

How I nearly got killed during the Olympics

Crossing the road, of course.

I was using all of my usual caution, but......

I was crossing Jiugulou Dajie, near my apartment. There are two lanes northbound and only one southbound on this street (part of a cunning traffic-flow plan to try to empty out the city centre??). As often happens, the southbound lane was backed up all the way from the bottom of the street, three-quarters of a mile distant.

So, I crossed. The southbound lane wasn't moving. The northbound lanes weren't very busy. It shouldn't have been a very difficult or risky undertaking.... but I was using a pedestrian crosswalk, to try to be extra safe (Hah! Like anyone in Beijing pays any attention to crosswalks!).

Of course, when I reached the northbound lanes, I was looking out for traffic from the right. I hadn't anticipated that some cunt in a black Audi - one of those "I'm an important cadre, I can do whatever the fuck I like" types - would be driving south down the northbound lane. Quite fast. And without paying any attention to the possibility of pedestrians attempting to use crosswalks.

It was a very close shave.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Barstool's been getting Olympic too

There's been quite a deluge of Olympics 'coverage', of course, here on Froogville in the last month, but I have devoted a few posts to it also over on my 'drinking blog', Barstool Blues.

In the interests of comprehensiveness, I thought I'd post the links over here.

I described my experience of the Opening Ceremony here, and my rather less enjoyable time on the last night of competition here.

In the last 24 hours, I have offered a couple of summaries of my impressions - the bits I enjoyed most, and why - on the whole - I thought the Olympics in Beijing weren't much fun.

The latter piece includes a lot of links to key Olympic stories in the online media.

Who says the Chinese don't know how to root for other nations?

Oh, how I wish I had a picture to accompany this one......

A few days ago, I was out on an evening hutong wander when I came across a middle-aged Chinese lady walking her dog. It was a fairly standard-issue Beijing dog: compact, yappy, white, fluffy.

Well, except that the bobbles on its ankles and a thick stripe on the top of its head had been dyed bright orange, and its hind quarters green.

Yes, on some inexplicable whim, this lady had decided to support Ireland in the Olympics. I kid you not.

Mileometer Note: This is Post No. 1,200 here on Froogville. My, how it grows and grows!

More Olympic security holes

I remarked the other day on how it was relatively easy to smuggle knives on to the supposedly very "secure" subway system here in Olympic Beijing (and how it was positively encouraged on the totally non-secure buses!).

Now that the games are over (I felt inhibited earlier), I can share with you some further observations on the shortcomings of the security arrangements at the venues themselves.

At the venues, there was one of those metal-sensor 'doorways' they use at the airports - but no-one was paying much attention to that, because they pretty much expected you to have forgotten to take your keys or your mobile phone out of your pocket, and they were allowing you to carry quite a lot of stuff through with you.

There was a pat-down afterwards - but it was a fairly cursory pat-down: armpits and hip pockets only. And it appeared to be being conducted by student volunteers who hadn't had much training.

There was a bag-scanner, but it didn't appear that the volunteers operating that were taking their duties any more earnestly than those operating the ones in the subway stations (who pay no attention whatsoever, and often nod off to sleep). Moreover, they were being pretty free and easy over what you had to put through this scanner anyway.

The pat-down people had hand-held metal-detectors, but weren't using them much.

There were no dogs. No explosive-sniffing devices.

There didn't appear to be any professional security personnel supervising the operation at all. (I'm sure there must have been a few. Perhaps they were cunningly disguised as undergraduate volunteers?)

As I've said before, I think they were skewing that crucial balance between risk and inconvenience way too far towards risk. It really would have been terribly easy for a malefactor to take just about anything they'd wanted into an Olympic venue.

On my first visit to an event, I had wrapped up my camera in a plastic carrier bag to protect it from the threatened rain. As I approached the security check, I dumped all my other metal pocket contents into this bag, thinking that I would be asked to put it through the bag-scan. Instead, they just asked what was in the bag, I said a camera, and they invited me to walk with it through the 'doorway' scanner. No-one actually bothered to look inside the bag, either before or after the scanner. Heck, if they were really being sticklers, I'd have expected them not just to look at the camera, but to examine it closely and ask to see it in operation - a bulky SLR camera (like a laptop computer) is one of those things that are very easy to hollow out and fill with explosives (or detonators, or small firearms, or.....).

A few days later, my friend The Artist went on to the Olympic Green to meet some people and take some photographs. She took her tripod along - which is actually one of the things quite expressly prohibited on the notices in front of the checkpoints. The volunteers queried this, and she gave them her best 'helpless' look. Some kind of 'supervisor' was summoned - who immediately OK'ed her to take it in, without even examining it to see if its hollow legs had perhaps been filled with nitrates or cocaine or whatever.

I've seen and heard of numerous similar examples too. The "security" was pretty much non-existent.

I wonder if they might have let me take my guitar in???

(Hat-tip for this pic to my old friend Tolstoy, who recently put me on to the marvellous FrostFireZoo website.)

A post-Olympics haiku

The damp air smothers,
Makes every step an effort.
Beijing in August.

Yep, the secret weather-control machine has now been mothballed, and we've got our regular - exhaustingly humid - August weather back. Boo.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ping-pong's coming home!

Ah, dear old Boris! He may be the world's most slovenly public figure, but he seems to manage to get away with any fashion disaster, any gaucheness, any lapse of tact - because he is, dammit, such a beguilingly jolly fellow.

Here is the speech he made at the 'London House' exihibition centre here in Beijing on Sunday night, shortly after receiving the Olympic flag on London's behalf at the grand Olympics Closing Ceremony. In keeping with the sly wit of Britain's contribution to the ceremony (satirising the shortcomings of Chinese manners when boarding public transport and when driving on the roads), he made gentle fun of the Chinese propensity to claim that they invented everything - including football, skiing, golf - by pointing out that China's favourite sport, ping-pong, was actually invented in England. Good stuff!

Non-Brits who fail to get the "coming home" reference should check out this post of mine from a couple of months ago.


There were mixed signals on ticket-touting (or 'scalping', as our American friends say) during these Olympics.

All official announcements seemed to maintain that it was heavily outlawed. And there was at least a 'mini-crackdown' during the first week of the Games, with many touts (either 221 of them, or 276, or..... depending on which of the local media reports you follow) - including at least a small number of foreigners - arrested for the activity. I was rather shocked to learn that one of my Chinese acquaintances (a young woman, white-collar, eminently respectable) had served a 14-day period of detention for circulating by e-mail a list of tickets she and a friend had available.

However, around most of the venues, touts - both Chinese and foreign - were operating with apparent impunity, often right under the noses of the police or security guards. Business was particularly brisk out at Wukesong, where the basketball and baseball were big draws (but there were still lots of empty seats). Also, I gather, at the boxing (where it was difficult to give the tickets away, the Chinese being strangely uninterested in the sport, despite their common predilection for violent spectacle). However, my journalist friends tell me that there were quite a few around the Olympic Green as well (including a couple of Liverpudlian 'scallies' who are notorious for buying and selling tickets at every Olympic Games).

I was also told - though rather too late on in proceedings for it to have been of any practical use to me - that a big foreign sports bar far out on the east side of town had a 'resident' Chinese tout who would turn up at 8pm or 9pm each night with a big stack of next-day tickets - the majority of them on offer at cost price. (This is actually rather more than touts usually charge here. Vast blocks of tickets for any major public event are given away as corporate freebies or distributed to CCP cadres and government offices. The majority of these are unwanted, unused, and eventually filter their way down to the streets. They may have passed through several sets of hands before they make it to a piao fanzi, but as often as not they will have been handed on at each stage FREE - as a favour to friends, family, or guanxi ['connections'] - or at only very nominal cost. So, the guy trying to flog you a ticket on the sidewalk has usually paid little or nothing for it himself, and is quite grateful to make any reasonable return at all. He knows that most events are nowhere near sold out; that often, no matter what the official 'sold out' notices say, there will still be a few tickets available from the box office; so he's not nearly so greedy as his Western counterpart. You can usually pick up a ticket for something from a Chinese scalper at a substantial discount on the cover price.)

It seemed that there were some places where it was dangerous to ply the trade, but others where the police were quite happy to turn a blind eye. Some people speculated that there might even be - at least unofficially - a system of "approved zones", rather akin to the infamous "protest zones" established in some of the city's public areas. "This is a designated illegal activity zone. If you want to do anything illegal, please keep within the boundaries marked by the tape. The PSB thanks you for your cooperation. And by the way, my brother-in-law would like two tickets for the taekwondo on Saturday. Thanks very much."

This is China. It might be so.

Escape from the Olympic Green

Now, in most ways (except the security!) I would say that China's Olympic preparations were very, very good, and things ran very smoothly over the last few weeks.

And the following gripe is, I acknowledge, one that could probably be levelled against any major public event anywhere in the world, and is not just a case of sniping at the Beijing Olympic Games in particular.

But...... the public transport links to the main venues, even to the Olympic Green itself, were not good. And the sign-posting around the HUGE Green area was pretty much non-existent.

After watching one of the diving finals last week, I found myself blundering around in the dark for some considerable time, trying - with mounting desperation - to locate the pedestrian exit at the south end of the Green that I had used when visiting during the day the week before. I failed to find it. Perhaps it had been moved or closed.

I did eventually find a sign to an exit; but it appeared to be pointing to one of the Entrance Security Checkpoints. These, gallingly, were not available to use for exit, even near the end of the day - when everyone was starting to leave, and no new visitors were being admitted. Dumb. Unnecessary. Annoying.

An over-eager but not terribly helpful volunteer tried to point me in the direction of the real exit, but pointed me in so many different directions (mostly back the way I'd come, towards the Water Cube) that I just got confused and pissed off.

I soon found an exit on my own; but it was not the one I had used previously, the one that would let me straight out on to the 4th Ringroad, where there was a reasonable chance that I might have been able to pick up a cab. No, this one took me on a great flyover across the 4th Ring to some of the other Olympic venues on the south side. This street, Beichen Lu, was completely closed to regular traffic for a good half a mile or more of its upper stretch. There were a few buses, but there was no indication where any of them were bound, and I couldn't be bothered to take the risk. I walked on gamely (praying that the rain would not resume), and eventually hit roads with traffic on them. Me and the other couple of hundred early leavers from the Green - so it still took me quite a while to get a cab.

The whole ordeal took me 75 or 80 minutes. In 'normal' circumstances, I could probably have completed my journey entirely on foot in that time.

I heard many other similar stories of complaint over the two weeks of the Games. Entry and exit was not that easy, even when you were trying to achieve this (as I always was) at extremely non-busy times. Access in general was none too great.

I did in fact get the chance to pick up a ticket for the Bird's Nest for the following evening - but after the hassles of getting to and from the venue on this occasion, I decided I'd be happier just watching on TV, and passed on it (also, as it happens, I was more interested in watching the Brazil v Belgium bronze medal play-off in the football that night - although bloody CCTV, of course, didn't show it!).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Security" - the convenient excuse for everything

During the past week, I've had a couple of Chinese friends tell me very earnestly that all the vacant seats we saw in the Olympic venues were in fact necessarily kept empty because they were allocated to volunteers or "security staff".

I suppose the kernel of such an idea gets distributed through the propaganda channels, and then each person internalises it, becomes convinced of its truth, elaborates an explanation or defence of the theory with which to confound any sceptics (i.e., us doubting foreigners).

They are soon quite impervious to reason, so all you can do is gently rag them about it.

"So, how many of these "security staff" are there supposed to be? Do we really need 1 of them for every 2 or 3 actual spectators? And if those seats are for them, why aren't they using them? Surely they can't all be wandering around in other parts of the stadium at the same time? Or perhaps they're all wearing cloaks of invisibility?"

No, the suggestion that there was any 'security' objective behind the masses of empty seats - whole rows, whole blocks of them, in every venue - was utterly fatuous. And if it were really just a question of improving evacuation times in the event of an emergency, the Chinese authorities would surely have gone the whole hog and cut stadium occupancy down to 20% or 30%.

The various cock-ups (and/or targeted discouraging of overseas tourism) involving visa issuing and ticket sales meant that the number of overseas visitors here this month has been pretty tiny, far fewer than in a regular August. And I don't think there have been that many visitors from anywhere outside of Beijing. The attendance situation was dire in the opening few days. The organizers were fudging the figures as desperately as they could, and press-ganging every spare volunteer they could find to come and fill up empty seats - but the official attendance figures were still below 60% for some of the less sexy sports. They weren't even very good for the swimming (in which China does not excel). Even the Bird's Nest was a bit thinly populated during the day (so I'm told by friends who managed to go; I wasn't lucky enough to get tickets for anything there), and only around 85% full for the big athletics finals in the evenings. It is said that the corporate boxes were especially underused, some of them completely deserted (someone was still trying to flog me seats in one just a few days beforehand, but wouldn't take a sensible offer).

For an Olympics where the organizers were bragging of their unprecedented feat of selling every single ticket in advance, this was a shocking, shaming development. After a few days, they began bussing in large groups of local sports fans (particularly for sports in the bigger venues, like football and baseball). They were also giving away scads of tickets to the volunteers - many of which trickled down to ordinary folks like me and my friends. People who'd actually gone through the rigmarole of the lottery to buy tickets may soon have been feeling a little pissed off; if you really wanted to go to something at this Olympics, you could get tickets for FREE - maybe not for the thing you would most have wanted to see, but for something. Why waste your hard-earned cash??

Business Week has a good article on this.

Swapping the days around

Well, the last two days have started off a bit drab and overcast (and we had a humdinger of a lightning storm last night, peals of thunder setting off car alarms up and down the street), but basically, apart from one grey, wet day last Thursday, we've now had 11 straight days of gorgeous sunshine - but without excessive heat or humidity.

This is NOT August weather for Beijing. It is June weather. The weather we didn't have this June (which was, in fact, mostly a time of damp, grey overcast and choking smog - the sort of thing we usually get for a couple of weeks in mid-October).

Or perhaps September weather. Certainly NOT August weather.

But if we're getting our September weather now, what are we going to get in September? And if we had our October weather in June, what are we going to get in October??

People who mess with the weather usually end up regretting it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hop on the bus, Gus

A couple of friends of mine have recently taken up wushu classes - a Chinese martial art in the kung fu / t'ai chi mould, which involves exercises with weapons like swords, staffs, and spears.

The sword is the most commonly used implement; and the typical practice sword is only slightly more substantial than tinfoil - it has no edge on it, and is extremely floppy. You might be able to give someone something like a towel-slap with one, but nothing more serious.

However, although such swords are a very familiar item in China and are well-known to be utterly harmless, both of my friends have been stopped from taking them to their classes by subway in the last couple of weeks.

They were both advised by the subway "security officers" at the baggage-scan checkpoint to take them on the bus instead. One helpful chap even advised on the route numbers to take.

Another striking example of the ludicrous loopholes in the "security" arrangements here in Beijing in recent weeks. There is no security on the buses at all. There is no security in most of Beijing at all. If psychopaths or terrorists want to start chopping people up with machetes or katanas...... they are advised to take the bus.

Not that there's really much "security" on the subway. I have seen one of the baggage scan operatives completely asleep at their post. I think most of us have by now. A friend reported meeting one of these guys off duty in a restaurant recently, and having him readily confess during a brief conversation that they pay absolutely no attention to what passes before them on the screens at all - because it is so boring, and because they know there aren't any terrorists in Beijing anyway.

Someone else was telling me recently that she'd baked a cake for a friend's birthday and, not being sure how well equipped this friend's kitchen was, had decided to take along a big knife to the birthday party for cake cutting. When she descended into the subway, she suddenly remembered that this might be a problem...... so she hastily slipped the knife into the box containing the cake and said to the "security" people, "Oh, it's just a cake. I don't need to put this through the scanner, do I?" "No, of course not. On you go." Another helpful tip for any would-be terrorists or psychos out there. You thought hiding metal implements inside a cake was just a stereotypical joke in sitcoms and cartoons? Oh no; in Beijing it works like a dream in real life.

Whole Lotta Jimmy!

Hah - the British contribution to last night's Closing Ceremony just cracked me up. It was very low-key compared to the cast-of-thousands hokum that Zhang Yimou and friends had been conjuring up for us, but it had a zestfulness about it that those grand spectacles had lacked. Heck, it had a sense of humour.

In fact, it was downright cheeky - dangerously disrespectful to the current hosts. No foreigner who's experienced life in China could view those scenes of people mobbing the door to a bus (only to shamefacedly withdraw when the cute kid emerges) or allowing someone to walk over a pedestrian crossing unmolested without a hearty laugh. That was spot-on satire. Unseemly jostling when boarding public transport and a murderous disregard of pedestrians on the road are two of this country's grimmest vices (and they have, alas, been very little improved by the pre-Olympic public education programmes here).

As if that weren't pant-wettingly funny enough, we then got Boris the Buffoon receiving the Olympic flag on our behalf. I shouldn't be too hard on the poor chap, since he is a lao tongxue of mine (an 'old study comrade', as the Chinese say - a contemporary at Oxford). However, I like him a lot better as a columnist, TV presenter, or rent-a-celeb, or just as a bloke to have a drink with in the Oxford Union bar (many years ago now); as a politician/national representative he is a perpetual embarrassment. Is he The Worst Dressed Man on the planet? I think it may be so. His clothes are probably of rather fine quality, but they never quite seem to fit; and he wears them so badly. He must be the despair of his tailors. Despite his enormous gut, I really don't think it is impossible for him to button up his jacket. And, my god, he actually walked off stage with his hands in his pockets. Not even his trouser pockets, but his jacket pockets! I don't think I've ever seen anyone so crassly inelegant.

But Boris, Beckham (gosh, didn't that young Chinese volunteer girl who caught the football look like Woody Allen with the Orgasmotron in Sleeper?), the Transformer-bus...... what did any of that matter beside JIMMY PAGE? It was so nice to see the great man riffing away once again. "I thought you were dead."

Not the third switch.....

As a postscript to that (uncharacteristically) upbeat last post, I should just point out that the weather control johnnies appear to have scrambled the controls on their miracle machine almost immediately.

Sunday morning was just heavenly...... but by lunchtime, a hazy overcast was building up, by mid-afternoon it was positively dingy, and by early evening it was threatening rain.

Today was fairly sunny again, but with much more haze, and the air quality has clearly taken a rapid nosedive. I imagine that many of those factories that have been closed for the last 2 or 3 weeks (at enormous cost to national productivity) will have been fired up into overtime working again even as the last marathoners were finishing.

You think the authorities are really going to go to that much trouble to clean up the air for the Paralympics? I severely doubt it. There might be a lighter version of the recent regime in place while the competitions are actually on, but in the interim, I think, it's going to be business (and pollution) as usual here in Beijing.

Set the dials to 'Peachy'

OK, credit where it's due - that secret weather machine of theirs really came up with the goods over the last 3 days of the Olympics. (Or maybe it was just that we had a light breeze out of the north dispelling the humidity and the cloud cover? Mind you, I wouldn't put it past the authorities here - given their expertise for marshalling the mass movement of their citizens - to have lined up a few million peasants around the northern suburbs of the city and got them all to exhale steadily in the direction of Tiananmen. Was that a whiff of stale garlic and cheap cigarettes we smelt on that wind??) Sunday was just gorgeous, sublime, perfect - one of the loveliest days I have ever seen here.

I had predicted a while back that no-one was going to break any outdoor records at this Olympics, at least not in any of the endurance events - but in yesterday's Marathon, both the winner, Samuel Gansiru, and the silver medallist, the Moroccan Gharib, bettered Carlos Lopes' 24-year-old Olympic record, and got pretty close to Haile Gebreselassie's world record (the Ethiopian had, of course, declined to participate in this race because of concerns about the air quality here). Gansiru didn't even look particularly tired at the end of it. I think I hate him.

The men were better served than the women for this event: the temperature was starting to push up into the 80s by the time they finished, but there was a hint of a refreshing breeze and only middling humidity - very nearly ideal conditions. A week ago, when the women ran, it was a little cooler, but rather drably overcast and intensely humid - and the air quality was therefore almost certainly way worse too (the API yesterday was pretty good; officially only 45).

Even though we got good weather and vastly reduced air pollution for most of the outdoor competitions in the second week, I suspect that this year's Olympians must have been suffering somewhat from Beijing's notoriously crappy air quality. The weather (and air quality) in the first week of the Games was mostly fairly grim, and the week before they started was just abysmal - that must have inhibited many people's training regimes.

But hey, no major harm done, it would seen. These African chaps can still nail 26 miles in close to 2 hours, and make it look as easy as a stroll around the block. And whether it was dumb luck or stupendously sophisticated micro-management of the climate, we should all be very grateful for such glorious days as the ones we've just seen. I just wonder how much longer it can last.....

Bon mot for the week (year, life)

"The disappointment of manhood succeeds the delusion of youth."

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

I am an Olympic slut

I think I must have seen my honey-of-the-month, the heart-meltingly pretty Swedish high jumper Emma Green, for all of about 4 or 5 seconds last night. She missed her jump (at 1.99m, I think it was), and that was it.

However, I wasn't too distraught because I'd already been smitten with another - Jonna Tilgner, who ran the first leg of the 4 x 400m for Germany. OK, so she did run - by some margin - the slowest lap of any of the 32 competitors in this final. But she's really more of a hurdler, you know. And she is way CUTE.

Hmm, perhaps this in-action shot doesn't quite do her justice. How about this one? Cute, cute, cute. Sorry, Emma, I could barely stay faithful to you for 3 weeks. Men are such fickle creatures. I will try to curb my wandering eye from now on. Perhaps it will be easier now that the Olympics are over.

A particularly petty Olympic price-gouge

Sometimes, it's the little things that annoy the most.

The other day, I dropped into my neighbourhood mini-supermarket on my way to the subway, to pick up a Coke. The girl at the counter asked for 3 kuai.

Coke has been 2 kuai for as long as I can remember. A few of the chain convenience stores have recently raised it to 2.50 - but that's about as far as Olympic price-gouging has gone. And I suspect these guys may have to back down and restore the 2 kuai price-point, because neither the major supermarkets nor the mom-and-pop xiaomaibu seem to have gone along with them.

3 kuai for a Coke??!! This was just really, really annoying.

I have used this store - infrequently, but fairly regularly - for around 4 years. I have bought dozens, perhaps even a hundred or more soft drinks there. They have always been 2 kuai. I paid 2 kuai for a Coke there last month. I paid 2 kuai for a Coke there less than a week ago. I would be willing to bet that any Chinese customers who wanted to buy a Coke there that very day would only be asked for 2 kuai.

Yes, perhaps it wasn't even really an Olympic gouge, just a foreigner gouge or a tourist gouge. Or perhaps it was just the silly girl getting confused about the prices.

But whatever it was, I'm afraid I got MIGHTILY PISSED OFF about it, and stormed out leaving the Coke on the counter.

The Beijing Olympics website kind of SUCKS too

Yep, I'm getting mighty fed up of the Beijing Olympics website.

I was hoping to go and see some of the Men's Marathon live this morning, but do you suppose there are any details of the course on the site? Not that I could find! (In fact, I couldn't find much information about the route anywhere on the Internet. There were a few blogs by Beijing-based runners who claimed to have found details of the route, but they weren't very detailed in their descriptions, and tended to concentrate on just a few sections of it, or the major landmarks passed. NO-ONE seemed to have a map. Perhaps it was supposed to be A SECRET - yet another cunning element of the mightily impressive [not] Olympic security regime.)

It does work, just about. But they are slow to update it. It's very barebones in appearance, and not especially user-friendly: the display of results certainly isn't easy to read, and there doesn't seem to be any single-page display of the results for all rounds of a competition, or any straightforward single-page timetable. There are some odd glitches from time to time, too (the medal totals in the gold, silver, and bronze categories not always tallying with the overall totals given for each country - well, you know, who cares about anyone else's medal total so long as China's way out in the lead?). Some sports - such as the astonishingly popular beach volleyball - appeared to be mysteriously missing from the dropdown menu listing events by discipline. And there is no search function on the site.

All in all, pretty sucky. I hope London can do better. Well, it can scarcely do worse.

CCTV..... still sucketh mightily

I switched on the TV early this morning, and was quite pleased to discover a fairly full rundown of highlights from yesterday's events in the Olympics. Well, a bit brief and choppy, but reasonably comprehensive.

And then they got to the Women's High Jump Final (which I'd largely missed last night, owing to technical difficulties at the bar I was in). And they showed 4 women, doing one jump each. In no particular order. Without any captions as to the height being attempted! I'm not even sure that Tia Hellebaut's winning jump was one of those shown. The final jump shown was an unidentified competitor failing to make an unidentified height (possibly the Olympic record holder, Elena Slesarenko, crashing out at 2.03m). Now, of course, if I'd been able to follow the Chinese commentary, perhaps it would all have been perfectly clear (although I'm not entirely convinced of this). But this is a very visual entertainment medium, people; and the majority of viewers in China are watching in bars and restaurants, or out on the street, without any sound (or with it drowned out by background noise).

We need the basic information in captions. And we need some kind of logical order to the presentation of events. Logic? In China?? Yes, perhaps I'm asking for too much.

And then.... I foohardily switched over to CCTV5, to see if there would be a further or better roundup of yesterday's events, and some previews of today's. There was a daily magazine show called 'Good Morning, Olympics' on; lots of inane chatter, precious few bits of film. Oh well. They're bound to mention the Men's Marathon at some point, right? They'll probably be showing the whole race - since this is the main sports channel, and there aren't any other events on this morning.

WRONG. 7.30 rolls around, and the inane chatter continues unabated. I have to flick through all the other channels to find pictures of all the wiry African lads leaving Tiananmen Square.

China's domestic TV coverage of this Olympics has been just un-fucking-believably BAD.

One further gripe: I had been hoping to catch the bronze medal play-off football game between Brazil and Belgium, but...... only a bronze medal + China not involved = minimum priority for Chinese TV programmers. I'm not sure if it was even shown live (it didn't appear to be on any channel I could find), but there sure as hell haven't been any re-runs. Not even any highlights, or a mention of the result. Nothing.

Whereas this morning, one of the channels was showing last night's Men's Table Tennis Final between Ma Lin and Wang Hao from start to finish.

Further update: That Lin-Wang match was just shown again on CCTV-5, straight after the live Men's Basketball Final. OK, table tennis is a big deal for the Chinese, but really...... this must be at least the 5th or 6th time it's been shown in the space of 20 hours..... while a lot of other events have been shown only once or twice, fleetingly...... or not at all.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Proof? (China's cheating exposed online)

I apologise for scoffing at the suggestion that Chinese gymnast He Kexin's birthday was January 1st. I am now quite prepared to believe that this is indeed her real birthday. January 1st, 1994, that is. One full year too young to be eligible for these Olympics.

Hacker Stryde has found pretty conclusive evidence of this on the Internet. It's worth checking his follow-up posts, here, here, and here as well.

The documents Stryde has dug up (all through easily reproducible searches, although, as he reports, many of the documents are being pulled from the Net shortly after their exposure) appear to be cached copies of the registration lists of China's National Gymnastics Federation.

The evidence of cheating is pretty damning now. What's more, the clumsy attempt to conceal this evidence makes the powers-that-be here look even more guilty.

The IOC is completely gutless and impotent - but this thing is bigger than just the IOC now. China really needs to come clean on this, and SOON.

Supplement: 'Stryde' is presumably the Mike Walker mentioned in
this article from the Wall Street Jounal the other day.

He and his small army of commenters have turned up a welter of incriminating documents through their crafty Web researches, and the IOC has finally been shamed into launching an investigation (I wouldn't put any money on them finding anything amiss, though).

I've asked him if he has found - or could find - anything on the ages of the other female gymnasts, or of these divers.

Inside the Water Cube

Thanks to my Chinese friend, Cindy, I was able to attend the finals of the Women's 10m Platform Diving on Thursday evening.

The Cube looks great at night, lit up a watery blue colour. And it's a very impressive venue inside. However, it was very far from full.

We didn't have too great a view from our nosebleed seats, but it was fascinating to be there and savour the sense of occasion. The result, alas, seemed to be something of a foregone conclusion - although there was a brief flutter of excitement (or perhaps I should say anxiety, for most of the crowd) when the Canadian, Emilie Heymans, displaced the Chinese from the lead with a great 4th round dive. She fell back to 4th after the final round, however, and Chen Ruolin comfortably reclaimed the lead she'd held throughout with a perfect final dive.

I assume that diving, like gymnastics, has a minimum age rule (i.e., that athletes have to be older than 16, or turn 16 during this Olympic year). I assume that, as with the gymnastics, China is blatantly flouting this rule. Bronze medalist Wang Xin looks all of about 11 or 12; Chen looks maybe 14 or 15. Of course, according to the official records they were both born in 1992, Wang on 11th August and Chen on 12th December. Hmmph - I'm sceptical! I think this ought to be looked into.

My jinx continues

Yes, I went to the Olympic Green again on Thursday...... and once again, Thursday was a rainy day. At least it wasn't a day of torrential downpours as my previous visit had been, and I didn't really get wet (just a mild drizzle as I was arriving at the venue).

But still, the correlation is quite striking: days during this Olympics when it's rained most of the day - 3; days when I've had tickets - 3.

The Empty Stool

I really should have taken a picture to accompany this observation, but, alas, my camera is kaput (or, at any rate, my ability to deal with digital photography is)......

The recording studio I've been visiting most days this week is in an apartment building, several storeys up. When I'm really on a fitness kick, I make a point of using the stairs; but this week, I'm still feeling a bit frail after my recent illnesses, so I was using the lift.

And I was struck by the poignancy of the empty stool next to the rank of buttons.

You see, one of the key elements of Beijing's Olympic preparations was to flush out and banish all those without the proper hukou residence registration - which means basically ALL of the city's migrant workers from other parts of China (who probably number at least in the hundreds of thousands, if not in the millions). Many hole-in-the-wall restaurants have undergone complete changes of staff in the last month (sometimes this has led to a slight improvement in the food or service, sometimes the reverse). My building appears to be down to a lone security guard on the front gate, rather than the three or four who used to man the post. And the lift girls who used to push the buttons for you (most apartment buildings used to have them, although they seem to be becoming less common in the newer places; Chinese job creation at its most desperate - an utterly pointless and unnecessary profession!) have almost all disappeared...... but in some lifts their little chairs remain, to remind us of their passing.

I suppose they'll all be back in October. I hope so. (It really is difficult to comprehend the scale of the social upheaval wrought by these ruddy Olympics!)

One of my translator friends reminded me the other day that 'the empty stool' is an image used by Dickens in A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come tips Scrooge off to the fact that without a richer diet Tiny Tim is not long for this world.

A quiet week

Sorry, I haven't been blogging much this week.

Working quite a bit during the day (contrary to all plans and expectations!), trying to get back in a regular running habit in the afternoons, watching the Olympics on TV every evening (and often staying out pretty late, needing a bit of a lie-in the next day to recover) - it just hasn't left me any time to commune with my keyboard.

Also, my computer is now so lamentably encrufted that it frequently grinds to a halt altogether (mouse frozen or keyboard frozen or desktop frozen or all icons unresponsive; the most common failing, in fact, is an inability to break my Internet connection...... which makes me worry that someone is hacking into the computer and keeping the line open...... perhaps the Kafka Boys down at the PSB are victimizing me again, trying out some of their new Trojan toys on me??). During one such seize-up on Tuesday, I was left with no choice but to kill the damn thing by cutting the mains power.

And it was two whole days before I even thought of trying to power it up again.

Anyway, I shall now seek to make amends for that uncharacteristic lull in my blogging habit by unleashing upon you a mini-blizzard of short takes on the Olympics. You have been warned.

Friday, August 22, 2008

An Olympic Daily Llama

Perhaps it's all been too much for the dear fellow.

I feel I know that expression. It could be China-medal-landslide-ennui; or "The scoring in diving works how?" bafflement; or "Not more f***ing basketball!" tedium; or "No, I am not a tourist or an athlete; I just happen to live in Beijing" exasperation.

More disappointment

OK, I admit it - I quite often pick a female athlete to support purely on the basis of her looks. I'm a man. This is how we work.

Thus, the most heart-wrenching moment of the week for me was not Liu Xiang's withdrawal from competition on Monday (that was pretty distressing, but hardly unexpected; it had been on the cards for months), but Lolo Jones's disaster in the Women's 100m Hurdles Final on Tuesday (she was storming to victory when she clipped the last-but-one hurdle with her leading foot and stumbled heavily; she managed an amazingly quick recovery, and made a desperate surge for the line to try to make up lost ground - but that half-second wobble is the difference between being first and last in this event).

Hurdles really is an evil event. Whoever thought of asking sprinters to jump over shit as well?? Cruel and unusual, I say.

Now, I believe Ms Jones is a terrific athlete; and she's also a very strong and goodhearted person who's overcome a lot of adversity in her life in the past, and has been able to bear this devastating disappointment with much dignity and good sportsmanship too. She is thus well worthy of our admiration, support, and sympathy on many counts. She just happens to be strikingly beautiful as well.

Random Olympic thoughts (1)

Am I the only person who finds Individual Sabre Women (the title of one of the fencing events) a strangely...... well, erotic concept??

Foil and épée just don't have that same resonance about them. What is it about the sabre, I wonder? Such a wonderful-sounding word!

Hmm, Individual Sabre Women...... could be a band name?

Things I don't understand about the Chinese....

I was checking out a new bar as a possible sports-watching venue last Saturday evening. The women's volleyball match between China and the USA came on.

This was a big deal for the home supporters: a head-to-head clash between two of the strongest nations in this sport, and also, of course, between the two great rivals for the top spot in the Olympic medals table.

After a few minutes, the barmaid came over and asked if I'd mind if she switched the channel to a football match. She suggested that the other two guys in the bar had requested this (pretty obviously a lie; I hadn't seen either of them say a word; and they were both American, and thus neither knew nor cared anything about the game). I presumed that it must be the girl's own preference, or that of some of her colleagues on the staff. I wasn't about to oppose her wish. I find volleyball terribly dull (although I had been getting moderately interested in this match because of the importance attaching to it); football is far closer to my heart.

However, this was women's football which is, well, a much less compelling spectacle (a bit like watching a Formula 1 race at two-thirds speed). Moreover, it was China v Japan. I boggled at the girl quite openly. "You might win the volleyball," I hinted.

OK, it was the quarter-final of the football, I think, but I did find the choice quite baffling. Women's volleyball is a far better TV sport than women's football. China's volleyball team is far better than China's football team. China's volleyball team was likely to beat the USA (although in fact the USA eventually claimed victory in a tight five-setter); whereas the Chinese football team didn't have a snowball's chance against Japan.

What on earth was their motivation here? Mere masochism? An unrealistic fantasy of avenging themselves on the "old enemy"? A pure love of the game of football regardless of the likely result? A premonition of the shaming defeat they were about to suffer at the hands of the Americans in volleyball?

I am at a loss. At the time, it simply did not compute for me at all.

A gosh-that-was-all-over-quickly haiku

Days pass in a blur
Over before it's begun
Ephemeral Games.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Chinese people LOVE me! (18)

"Chinese people love me because..... I sympathise with them over Liu Xiang."

Really, I do. I may have found myself (rather to my own surprise and disappointment, I may add) snarkily rooting against the home side on occasion (it's a reaction to all the crap us expats have had to put up with this year in terms of preparations for the Games and "security" arrangements, and to the ridiculous overkill of the Chinese media in trying to make the story of the Games purely, 100% about China's enormous medal haul), but I have cheered Liu Xiang every time I've seen him run since the last Olympics, and I was looking forward to doing so again this week.

He's the one true world-class sports star this country has. (I'm afraid I don't really count Yao Ming and the other major basketball players, because nobody gives a toss about basketball outside of America. Ditto, alas, with the other events where China is traditionally strongest. Diving is modestly photogenic, but dully repetitive; and its highly subjective - and, to the non-aficionado, utterly impenetrable - scoring system robs it of true sporting credibility. Badminton and table tennis are not that widely played, and are disdained in most of the West as "children's games". Shooting? Why is that even included? There were no guns in ancient Greece! And gymnastics - well, it's best not to mention the gymnastics at the moment, isn't it?)

Liu is an exceptional athlete - an Olympic champion, a world record setter, the first Asian to make an impact in track & field. He also seems to be a genuinely modest and wholesome sort of guy, a good role model for the kids. He'll be remembered for a long time. And I guess he's still young enough that he might get one more crack at an Olympic medal in London.

It's also great that he's found competition that can test him, especially Cuba's Dayron Robles. There's been very little to choose between the two over the past year or so, and stage was set for what might have been a truly great Olympic final between them.

So, it's really sad, not just for China, but for the Games as a whole and for the sport of athletics, that Liu has been forced to drop out because of his troublesome hamstring.

I hope the Chinese fans will go easy on him. I gather there's already been some sniping online about him being a coward and a quitter. Jeez! This guy is one of the toughest competitors in the world: I really don't think there's any way he would have withdrawn unless he really wasn't physically capable of taking part.

I do worry, though, that pyschological factors may have played their part in this. The injury does seem to have been strangely persistent, and it is the kind of thing that tends to happen when you're getting a little bit tight because of nerves. The pressure on Liu to repeat his Athens gold medal-winning performance in front of the home crowd had become unimaginably massive, thoroughly oppressive; and I was always anxious about whether he would be able to find his best form under these conditions.

But that was the great question of these Games; the major talking point, certainly, for the Chinese audience (who - rather worryingly for the organisers - now have no reason to pay any attention to the track & field events at all). Now, alas, we shall never know what the answer might have been.

But Liu isn't finished yet, I don't suppose. I hope he has a few glory days still to come - at the Asian Games, the next World Championships. And maybe in London in 2012.

Bon mot for the week

"A lie has speed, but truth has endurance."

Edgar J. Mohn (apparently! Another of those widely quoted but unbiographied mysteries of the Internet.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

CCTV's nationalism reaches a new low

On Friday, the Chinese tennis player Li Na pulled off a fine victory against Venus Williams in the quarter-finals of the Ladies' Singles (although Williams was woefully erratic, and - according to a friend of mine who was present at the match, rather distracted by an extremely hostile and unsporting Chinese crowd who were cheering all her service faults).

Yesterday, she lost the semi-final to Russia's Dinara Safina. Oh well. Good effort, Li.

At around midnight, the CCTV channel I was watching in a bar decided to show Li Na again. Her match against Venus. In its entirety. (But without the crowd noise.)

Not the more important match that had actually been played that day.

Not any of the other major events that had taken place that day (although we had at least had a few re-runs of Usain Bolt's comprehensive victory in the 100 metres before we got on to this; but that was it - no other roundup of the day's news at all).

No, we got the day-old and no longer relevant Li v. Williams match - from start to finish.

Chinese viewers might be forgiven for supposing that Li Na has in fact won the gold medal - since they'll almost certainly be showing this match again instead of the final tomorrow.

An Olympic tourist I met in a bar last night lamented to me: "It's strange, but I'm actually missing the Olympics by being in Beijing."

I despair of this country's TV service. 'SUCKING' no longer seems an adequate metaphor to describe it. And just in case you think I am being exaggeratedly curmudgeonly about this, my post on the subject yesterday has already drawn a passionately concurring response from a passing Chinese reader.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The great mismatch: China & the "Olympic spirit"

OK, now I really am shocked.

Doubts have been raised about the age of China's women gymnasts, who pipped America to the gold medal in the team event a couple of days ago. No shit?! They all look about 12. The rules say they have to be at least 16.

It would seem that spring-loaded moppet, He Kexin, is the most egregious offender. A sharp-witted journalist recalled seeing an item on Xinhua News about her last November, after she'd made a big splash at a major domestic gymnastics tournament (beating top gymnast Yang Yilin in the asymmetric bars event); her age was given then as....... 13. The article in question was removed from the website archive this Thursday - but the canny people at the AP had taken a screenshot of it.

As recently as May 23rd this year, the English-language propaganda organ China Daily was giving her age as 14. Guess what? That article is still available online, but the age has just been "corrected" to 16.

Ah, and this is really the kicker for me. In the wake of all the queries and criticisms this week, the Chinese authorities have produced her passport as proof of her age. Her date of birth (not previously mentioned or recorded anywhere??) is given as Jan. 1st 1992. What is she - a racehorse? Doesn't that just reek of a hasty fabrication?

Oh, maybe not. Maybe it's just an odd coincidence. Perhaps I'm just a snarky foreigner, always looking to put China down. That really is her birthday. And of course we shouldn't expect the state-run media here to be at all reliable on the facts about the shining stars of its national sporting firmament. Oh no. All a big misunderstanding.

Yeah, right.

They're all fairly obviously underage. I gather that questions were raised earlier this year in the Chinese media about two of the other three. He Kexin is a child.

China has, I would say, pretty much been caught red-handed cheating. But, since official documentation is so easily faked and modified in this country, it will be just about impossible to prove that. And perhaps no-one can even be bothered to make the effort. The American team seems disinclined to lodge an official protest. (I wonder, is this pure good sportsmanship - an acceptance that they were beaten by better performers, a reluctance to tarnish the image of the Games with a protracted rules dispute? Or is it a more political decision, prompted by the State Department's desire to maintain cordial relations with China?)

China can probably bluff this out, deny, deny, deny, and get away with it.

This would, I think, be a great mistake. This could be a turning point for Beijing's Olympics. If the Chinese authorities came clean, handed back the gold medal voluntarily, crucified (not literally, but you know what I mean) all the coaches and officials complicit in the age-faking, it would be a tremendously powerful statement against cheating, and an inspiring reaffirmation of the Olympic ideal of fair play.

If they don't do this - after they have devoted so much of their recent propaganda efforts to trumpeting how passionately China upholds the "Olympic spirit" - the rest of the world will ridicule them as liars, cheats, and hypocrites. And, unfortunately, doubts will fester as to the legitimacy of all China's other medal successes (which were probably all perfectly kosher - but mud sticks, and once you've got a national reputation for cheating [and covering it up!], no-one's going to trust or respect any of your athletes quite as much again).

Alas, it is a regrettable foible of the national character that any admission of error tends to be seen as a "loss of face", and is thus violently resisted. "Loss of face" is mostly about temporary embarrassment. What we're talking about here is loss of credibility. Once you've lost that, it takes a long, long time to win it back.

Think about this carefully, China. Do you really want to top that medals table that badly? At any cost? I do hope not.

CCTV - not all bad?

I was on the brink of offering a qualified apology for dissing CCTV5 yesterday for its almost complete neglect of Olympics stories involving non-Chinese athletes.

I hadn't realised earlier, but most of the CCTV channels are showing live Olympics coverage, at least during the evenings (and perhaps some of the local Chinese channels are as well; I haven't really investigated). So, CCTV5, the nation's flagship sports channel, is largely doing magazine round-up kind of shows, and carrying relatively few competitions live and in full. If you want to see all the swimming (or gymnastics or taekwondo or whatever), you have to click through the many available channels to find the one that might be dedicated to that.

However, I have been told by some friends who speak good Chinese, some who actually are Chinese, that the CCTV5 coverage mostly sucks: there's a huge amount of advertising, a huge amount of inane studio chatter, and the actual reports are so attenuated as to be sometimes unintelligible. People have complained to me that they can't even get a comprehensive and coherent account of China's medal successes from this channel.

And then..... last night I was trying to watch a bit of the men's badminton final (a big deal for China, since both of her leading players had made it through, guaranteeing another gold and silver to bump up the national medal tally even further). It was on CCTV, though I'm not sure which one of its many channels. I was standing with a bunch of local people watching a TV on the sidewalk outside a big Xinjiang restaurant near the new American Embassy.

They were showing the match without displaying the score.

Erratum: It appears that the match between Lin Dan and Chen Jin on Friday was only the semi-final. Lin steamrollered Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia in the final last night. This is what happens if you have to rely on snippets of secondhand and thirdhand gossip to build up your picture of the Games! Although I'm pretty sure that my belief that both Chinese players were in the final had come from a report on CCTV9.......

That reminds me

My delight in the unprecedented vividness of the sky last night, and J's further comment on it this morning, have reminded me that the evening of 1st August - the first day of brilliant weather that BOCOG's secret weather-control machine managed to conjure up for us - was, if anything, even clearer.

I was once again walking home through the hutongs around 1am that night. Searchlights - somewhere up on the Olympic Green, I guess - were playing across the sky, and the occasional wispy clouds. (Oddly enough, I haven't seen this effect again since. I wonder if they were intending to use it as part of the Opening Ceremony, but dropped it because of the much reduced visibility that night?) All along the alleys there were knots of people stood around gazing skyward, old folks slumped on chairs or stools watching, parents perched on the stoops of their homes with their children beside them, fascinated, delighted.

But then the searchlights shut down, and I found that people were continuing to stare up at the sky with just as much wonderment. I was briefly confused - and then I looked up and realised: they were counting the stars. Or trying to. The sky was pricked with thousands of tiny points of light. That is something you just never see in Beijing. Ordinarily, you gauge a clear night here, quite literally, by how many stars you can see: 5, 10, 20. Most nights you can't see any. But that night, there were thousands, tens of thousands.

There were far fewer stars on display last night (perhaps as much because of the high level of ambient light as the very slight haze), but the brightness of the full moon and the delicate colouration of the sky made it a uniquely beautiful sight.