Beijing cheer permeates Olympic atmosphere

On 8-8-08, the day of the Opening Ceremonies – lucky in Chinese terms since the number ‘8’ symbolizes “prosperity” – it was hard not to get into the Olympic spirit in Beijing. The streets outside of the Wangfujing Metro Station were teeming with zealous locals waving flags, wearing temporary Chinese flag tattoos and donning headbands in support of their country’s efforts.

Following the Olympic Games for years on television didn’t quite prepare me for the three-dimensional coming-out sports party hosted by Beijing – and really, by all of China. For two weeks in a dizzying array of venues, elite athletes from several dozen sports congregate for a competition, doubling as a celebration, in a temporary home. On Sunday, I had the opportunity to watch U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson nail a balance beam routine to loud cheers in the team preliminary competition. That same evening, countryman and boxer Demetrius Andrade won a close, entertaining first-round bout against Kakhaber Zvania of Georgia.

The hallowed grounds of Wimbledon and Wrigley Field are experiences, but neither can compete with the sheer quantity and diversity of athletes, including world champions Johnson and Andrade, who descend upon a host city for the ultimate prize in sports. From a hospitality standpoint, the Olympics were a huge winner, all the more remarkable considering that the rushed tourism push had been previously unchartered territory to the country. On that note, here are some of the highlights:

The volunteers: Donning blue Beijing 2008 shirts, these bilingual volunteers managed everything from crowd control to security checkpoints, even dotting the sidewalks along major thoroughfares to direct tourists in the right direction. (One was particularly instrumental in bailing us out at the Beijing Capital International Airport.) If any one of them sensed that you needed assistance, he or she immediately rushed to your aid.

The mascots: The Beijing Games have five mascots – also known as the “Fuwa,” or “good luck dolls” – that represent each of the five Olympic ring colors and repeated syllable in the Mandarin phrase, “Beijing Welcomes You.” (For the record, that’s Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying, Ni Ni.) In the States, these five characters get little mention or air time. In Beijing, they’re everywhere. They’re plastered on billboards and subway ads. Animated versions appear on television screens during interludes at events. They also dominate Beijing 2008 merchandise, particularly in…

The Superstore: There are Beijing 2008 shops all over China – at airports, in Shanghai, Hangzhou and of course Beijing – but none tops the Superstore at the Olympic Green. Outside a space as large as a Best Buy, fans waited in line to enter a dizzying display of items that seemed to reproduce before their very eyes. To at least one Western shopper, the store reeked of kitsch. But for locals and Asian tourists, this Sanrio-style outlet was just up their alley, featuring not Hello Kitty but the Fuwa on items like mobile phone charms, miniature banners, knapsacks, pins and jade pendants. Most retail prices fell below US$30, which meant that there was some serious ransacking going on in a hilarious global display of mass consumerism. The scene became so hectic that, when thunderstorms touched down on Sunday evening, those who were inside the store saw it as a fine excuse to keep shopping. (When the weather got better, an employee had to make an intercom announcement saying that the rain had stopped and asking customers to please exit the building if they had already finished shopping.) Entire families sat on the floor to sort through multiple overflowing baskets of loot, and one woman complained in Cantonese while walking away from the shirt section, “There aren’t any sizes left!” Later on the Metro and armed with several shopping bags, U.S. gymnast Alicia Sacramone’s parents and brother took out a calculator to see how much RMB (renminbi or yuan, the Chinese currency) they had spent.

The Metro: When Time Out published its first-ever Beijing guide in June 2007, the Metro map had four subway lines. Since then, several more have been completed, with additional lines on the way. The Olympic Green is serviced by line No. 8, and during the Games it is only open to those with a ticket to an event there. Even better, the entire Metro system is free for anyone with an event ticket for that day. Security is tight, with metal detector conveyer belts and police guards at every station. Glass doors separate passengers from the platform and the rail, and the trains are clean, spacious, modern (with flat-screen TVs showing live action from the Games) and efficient.

The Olympic Green: During the day, it can be difficult to spot the buildings amidst the smog, gray skies and haze. But close up the venues are nothing but spectacular, in particular the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest. They appear to be close together on paper, but in reality they sit on a flat, massive 2,800-acre space. Sports contested here include gymnastics, fencing, athletes, swimming and diving. With no bus shuttles to escort fans to venues, spectators are forced to walk the grounds and soak in the various sponsor exhibits, the Superstore, the stadiums and yes, two McDonald’s restaurants. A Tennessee native studying at Beijing’s Tsinghua University said that these Golden Arches were a little bit different than the rest of Beijing – a bit more Westernized. For one, they had mustard packets (Chinese mustard is too spicy for most palettes). Second of all, they served…apple pie.

And, of course, the cheers: Much has been made of the choreographed “Let’s Go!” Olympic cheer and the cheerleaders at events like volleyball. The opening-round boxing matches had three oddities of their own: “ring girls” wearing knee-length qi pao with knee-high white boots (I suppose that was as risqué as they could get); the animated Fuwa on a screen encouraging everyone to do the “Mexican Wave;” and an entire section of “Cheering From Beijing Workers” wearing yellow t-shirts and clapping matching Thundersticks in unison.

Video: Opening-round boxing, 2008 Olympic Games

“Cheering From Beijing Workers,” Fuwa encouraging fans to do the “Mexican Wave” and part of Demetrius Andrade’s bout.
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan