Feeling Jaded About The Olympic Green

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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 13, 2008


If China gets the Olympics again in 100 years, when the population of the country is 10 billion, at least officials won't have to change the Olympic Green. This central heart of the Games, including the Bird's Nest, Water Cube, National Indoor Stadium, Fencing Hall and a central plaza as big as the National Mall, is so vast that it's at least five times bigger than necessary to hold the number of people who usually use it.

Walk the Green at every time of day -- morning, noon, afternoon, evening and night -- and it's always the same. Gorgeous, mammoth, colorful architecture, complete with every kind of light show and visual trick, dazzles you at first, especially after dark.

But eventually you realize that, except for a few hours surrounding the Opening Ceremonies at the Bird's Nest on Friday, there's nobody there. Or rather, there are thousands of people wandering around, but the space is so enormous, and with so few focal points of interest, there are perhaps a dozen people per 1,000 square yards.

Imagine, in a country of 1.3 billion people, you feel like you have the Olympics all to yourself. It's odd to see people posing 20 yards from friends with a camera, sure that nobody will walk into the frame and spoil the picture.

The main issue is that nobody is allowed inside the Green without a ticket to a specific event. The general public is excluded from getting even remotely close to any venue. In effect, this Olympics is a by-invitation-only affair. China has made it difficult to get visas. Many hotels nearly are empty. Attendance at Olympic events is so poor that BOCOG, the Beijing organizing committee, has summoned state-trained, yellow-shirted cheering squads to sit in the empty seats. Even with extra bodies, Michael Phelps won his third gold medal with the Water Cube about 10 percent empty.

Yet Chinese officials have no trouble attending. All day long, fleets of black Audi sedans arrive, sometimes driving quickly right down the center of the nearly deserted Green before whipping past saluting guards into private entrances. That secretive society of barely glimpsed party bosses certainly fits with Chinese urban mythology. Mao supposedly dug a network of secret tunnels under the city.

For normal people, the Green largely is inhospitable. Sit and ponder? Forget it. All seats are stone and backless. How about a grassy park with children playing or couples lounging on blankets? Dream on. They might make noise or throw a ball or leave a bit of litter. That would spoil the impeccable effect. And the Green's sole purpose is to impress you.

Form preceded function here. People were an afterthought. The wide, treeless central walkway retains heat and is so sweltering on summer days that it should be called the Olympic Wok. Except for numerous rudimentary food stands plastered with Coke signs, there's nothing to do and nothing to listen to except piped-in Asian Muzak. Even at noon the "lines" for food are, at most, one deep.

Identical saplings have been jammed into holes in the concrete but offer little shade and no beauty. In a land famous for flowers and topiary, the "Green" offers only monotonous, space-filling, knee-high scrubs. So you gawk at the architecture -- like the unfinished Seven Star Beijing Hotel that sweeps for three blocks in the shape of a dragon with a scoreboard-size TV in its head. Then you take a few pictures. And move on. You're not really wanted.

The only slight exception, and it's lovely, is the Green after sundown. Hundreds of graceful lampposts mimic fireworks as blue blinking lights run up their columns every two seconds, like flares ascending the poles. A modernist 50-story tower near the Bird's Nest constantly changes its color every few seconds. And a building behind the Water Cube uses its entire exterior wall for an Olympic-themed light show. One minute the whole wall has six-foot-wide blue bubbles rising, as if from a swimming exhaling. The next, the head of a 10-story equestrian horse appears.

Perhaps 200 children gathered on Monday night to see a water fountain display with the little gushers dancing in time to music. Maybe, when more events are held in the main 91,000-seat stadium starting Friday, crowd traffic will improve. But the Green already is surrounded on all sides by 10,000-seat capacity facilities in use every day.

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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