Olympics: The Scene from Beijing

Dan Steinberg
D.C. Sports Bog
Tuesday, August 5, 2008 11:00 AM

From his perch high atop the Hotel Tibet, Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Bog/Beijing Sports Smog was online Tuesday, Aug. 5 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the scene as the city gears up for the 2008 Olympics and his plan for covering the games.

A transcript follows.


Dan Steinberg: Hey everyone, thanks for all the questions. We just got back from our "team dinner" at a restaurant near The Post's Beijing bureau. It's 11:00 pm; some of our staffers are trying to get some rest, and some are finishing up some work. And some are chatting. Let's have at it.


Reston, Va.: Have you Googled communism on Chinese Google yet?

washingtonpost.com: Frankly, I'm curious if this one will even get through to Dan...

Dan Steinberg: Ha. Let me address this Internet stuff up front: The Post's IT man, Chris White, was very smart and got us something known as a T1 line. I'm no IT guy, but what this means is we're tied into our Washington Post network, our Internet moves at warp speed and we have no filters on our work. So we can spend all day reading about Tibet, reality TV and the Nationals if we so choose.

It really is an incredible advantage for us--and many other news organizations as well--and we're all very grateful. Everything organizationally has been remarkably easy thus far, thanks to Chris and our other leader in preparation, Jill Grisco.


Alexandria, Va.: Wow. The Post is buying out people and cutting costs left and right. And they pay to send you to China to write about cheese. Can't imagine why newspapers are in such dire financial straits.

Dan Steinberg: Thanks for the support.

To address my role: The Post sent me here to attempt to give readers a frequently updated sense of what it feels like to be at the Games in Beijing. I have questions about whether it was worth it as well, and there's a sense that this may be one of our final all-out assaults on Olympic coverage, but the amount of money I'm spending would not pay for any of those bought-out salaries. Trust me, food here is cheap.


Burke, Va.: We keep seeing TV ads for the opening ceremony with footage that looks real (fireworks, etc.). Could you get in to a rehearsal or have you seen the possibly real rehearsal fireworks? Will you be in the stadium for the ceremony? I don't want to waste time looking for you in the crowd shots if you'll be watching from Hotel Tibet.

Dan Steinberg: We did see a good deal of some of the rehearsal fireworks on, I believe, Saturday night. (Tough to keep track.) They were pretty stupendous, if you're into fireworks.

As for the Ceremony, we think we get two credentials, and I'm not No. 1 or No. 2 on that list. I'm planning on going to a divey Irish pub in the German ex-pat section of town, just to see how they're treating things. And to drink Irish beer. Sorry to Alexandria below.


Rockville, Md.: Since most of the Post has been reporting about the smog you'd think it was not taboo but how much of a chance do you think that it will get mentioned by NBC during their broadcasts?

Dan Steinberg: We were debating this the other day, and several in our office thought NBC would whitewash the smog. But I'm told (and I didn't see this) that NBC actually showed overhead shots of the smog during halftime of Sunday's Colts-Skins game. Anyone see this?

Unless NBC is willing to edit all interviews with athletes and never show live shots of the sky, it would be hard to miss. On the other hand, at night all the lit-up venues look pretty snazzy and it's easy to kind of glance over the swirling mists of gunk.


Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Have you tried octopus tentacles on a stick yet? I saw them quite often at the street vendors shacks around town.

Dan Steinberg: Sadly, I'm a vegetarian, so no fried weirdness on sticks for me. I know NBC is preparing a piece on the food-on-sticks trend.

The restaurant we just visited offered, among other things, duck tongue and ink-fish egg soup. On the other hand, we in America offer Black Ice Slurpees.


Harrisburg, Pa.: What did you have for dinner tonight?

Dan Steinberg: Tonight was our team dinner, at a place called Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant. ("Since 1995") The featured courses were a spicy fish and Peking Duck; I went with some fried green beans, pickled cucumbers, and soft tofu with Chinese Cabbage.

Everyone I talk to from the States asks first about food; I've found everything to be tasty, non-upsetting and not all that unlike what I've eaten at home. But I'm knocking on everything in sight, because I really don't want to be stricken down.


Fredericksburg, Va: Haven't the Olympics Games mutated into a farce? Corporate sponsorship(sorry, partnership) doping scandals; excessive technology; transient patriotism. Modern Olympic athletes are nothing more than lab rats, exploiting science both legally and illegally, to gain "the edge." The ostensible goal is to get the gold, but it really is to get the endorsements. The panting media with its artificial presentations of "personal drama" tripping over themselves to create the story line.(to sell advertising). Infantile nationalism(USA leading with 12 Gold medals . . .) And now an Olympic games being held in a country with a horrible record of human rights in an environment so polluted athletes show up wearing masks! The grand and glorious Olympic games have evolved into a third- rate Super Bowl halftime show.

Dan Steinberg: Interesting that I just got two very different takes on the Olympics. Here's one. I find it convincing, if a bit enthusiastically argued.

And I've never, never, never understood why the U.S. media focuses so much on the U.S. athletes. I mean, it's because that's evidently what they can sell easiest, but I don't get the parochialism. It's not like rooting for the Redskins in Washington: most everyone is familiar with the Redskins. But since the majority of us aren't familiar with the majority of Olympians of any nationality, I'd think you could sell great stories from any country.

I don't want to be a cheerleader, but the only thing I'd say is that it's still kind of neat to see people from so many different places interacting in relative good spirits, from athletes to journalists to fans. Once I see athletes brawling or fans spitting in each others' faces, I might reconsider.


Rockville, Md.: Do you think Sally Jenkins' piece about how the Olympics are just about corporatism rings true? Or is it as I think it is, way over the top?

washingtonpost.com: Partners in Grime (Post, Aug. 5)

Dan Steinberg: And here's the other side of it, which was so well stated by Sally this morning. I think it's safe to say that Sally has been casting a skeptical eye on these Games for some time, and will continue to do so unless the facts on the ground radically change.

I think it's possible to simultaneously like several things about the Games, while still recognizing some of the major flaws. How's that for mealy-mouthed? In my one Olympic trip, I found that the further I got from anything that reeked of hype, the happier I was.


Tysons Corner, Va.: What's the equivalent of curling for summer Olympics? That is - the sport nobody watches under ordinary circumstances but every 4 years we can watch and enjoy until it disappears again.

Dan Steinberg: Well, I'm choosing team handball, but that won't be popular in the U.S., I don't think, since neither team qualified. (And don't quote me on that, but I'm 99 percent sure.)

I'm choosing it because it's fast-paced, it's a team sport which means (like curling) it will last for virtually the entire Games, it's blessedly hype-free (at least in the States), the best teams are from countries that have embraced English, and, most importantly, I can walk to the venue from my hotel.

That last one isn't really a joke. You can waste 20 percent of your day on buses, depending on what sport you're covering.


Boyds, Md.: The Olympics come along once in four years and is a world-wide celebration. Don't you think the Post should be using more ink to write about these amateur athletes than about the overpaid guys on the Redskins and NBA teams, when their two seasons won't even start until after the Olympics?

Dan Steinberg: Well, that's a tough one. I can tell you we have 13 Post employees here, more than we sent the much shorter distance to Canton for the Skins preseason opener and the induction of two of their most revered players into the Hall of Fame.

Honestly, if I controlled the purse strings, I wouldn't have 13 here. The Web doesn't pay our bills yet, but it's a quick and easy way to measure interest, and the Skins swamp everything else. Including, I'm guessing, the Olympics, but I sort of hope I'm proven wrong on that one.

The Olympics clearly can bring in the very casual sports fan to an extent that nothing else can, but even during these games sports-talk radio and barstool conversations will focus on the NFL more than, say, badminton and modern pentathlon.


Alexandria, Va.: Does the Post have reporters in Hong Kong to cover the equestrian events? Lots of local interest from the horse community here.

Dan Steinberg: Unfortunately not. Wish we could, but the expense is out of order with the interest.

"I wish I was in Hong Kong, I love equestrian," our chairwoman, Tracee Hamilton, just told me.


Cleveland Park: Inquiring minds want to know: who were the Australian swimmers you were walking around with?

Also, any chance for a "media-on-media" interview with Ian Thorpe? And if so, can you ask him how the jewelry line is going?

Dan Steinberg: I know Thorpe has been around, and an interview is possible.

I may have mis-typed: I was walking with two Australian swim COACHES this morning. I didn't get their names, but neither was the head coach.


Washington, DC (Home of the Brie, Land of the Knaves): What's your opinion of the air? Have you suffered any negative health effects? If so, as an out-of-shape 31-year-old, how do you think it'll affect the finely tuned (and mostly younger) athletes at the games?

Dan Steinberg: I have not suffered any negative health effects. None whatsoever. I walked around, in the sun, in the middle of the afternoon, for about two hours today. When I was finished, I looked sort of like a swimmer emerging from the pool, at least in wetness. But that was cured by AC and a drink of water.

But two hours of walking around in the sun isn't really the same as the best athletic competition in the world, so I'm going to have to trust the many athletes who have said this will absolutely be an issue.

Aside from being ugly, the only effect I've noticed from the smog is an occasional (very slight) dryness of the mouth. I'm guessing that's smoggish. Also, bear in mind this is only about day four for me.


Silver Spring, Md.: Have you seen any actual brutal police action that could only occur in a dictatorship or in Prince George's County, Md.?

Dan Steinberg: I have not. But again, it's been four days, and we're mostly secluded inside the security perimeter of the IOC's MediaLand, which includes several of the biggest venues.

I could wander out randomly into the city, but without speaking a word of Mandarin and without having a clear agenda, I'm not sure how valuable that would be for me or my readers. Monday morning, though, I wandered out randomly seeking the Redskins game on TV; I had an interesting time, even if it wasn't a hard news trip. I'll blog about that in a bit.

Our Beijing staff, including Ed Cody, Maureen Fan and Jill Drew, have and will continue to do a pretty amazing job chronicling some of the real news that's happening around these made-for-TV sporting contests.


Gustafsson: Which do you prefer, the Summer or Winter games, and why?

Dan Steinberg: A Caps fan!

It's hard to argue with the Summer Games's glut of events, both weird and traditional. Some of the winter stuff (hockey, curling, speed skating, ski jumping) is incredibly appealing to me, but at the Summer Games you could absolutely see something new and different every day, which wins the day in my book.

Although I'm definitely going to sweat more here than I did in Turin.


Washington, D.C: Have any of the USA players mentioned they wished Brendan Todd was on the roster instead of Dwight Howard?

Dan Steinberg: And here's a shot at the Wizards' center, Etan Haywood.

In an effort to continue promoting our coverage, I should say that our national NBA writer, Michael Lee, is here and will be doing a large amount of basketball reporting.

Have you seen the new Nike ad featuring Marvin Gaye's seminal national anthem and Team USA? Dwight Howard is the only Adidas guy on the team; you can see one corner of his noggin for maybe 0.45 seconds.


Overland Park, KS: Dan,

What kinds of cheese would you have brought over had you known about the "cheese mule" rule?

(And frankly, shame on the Beijing Cheese Society for not reading the Post and letting you know about their group before you flew in.)

Dan Steinberg: What's kind of sad is that I think I know every single poster here based on their hometown. Nice to get the Turin gang back together.

Sharon, who runs the Beijing Cheese Society, insists that her mules bring a diversity of milks, flavors, textures, etc. And you have to bring something that is sturdy enough to survive about 15 hours of transit, all told. She sometimes gets on the phone with her mules and tells them what to buy; that would probably be best. But I'd obviously have tried to bring American artisanal stuff, and I'm sure I would have stopped at Cowgirl Creamery downtown, since it's so convenient to my house and so artisanal.

I should say that I haven't been too much into cheese lately, and I definitely won't be writing all that much about cheese from China. Sorry.


Asheville, NC: I went to quite a few Team Handball matches at the '84 Olympics in L.A. This truly is a sport that could be dominated by the US, but our better athletes tend to play basketball, baseball and football. It is a great sport to watch - like combining water polo and basketball. In fact, the US team tried years ago to get Michael Jordan to try it out. He'd have been great.

Dan Steinberg: An endorsement.

I'm also personally hoping to see some of the volleyball, both indoor and beach, because I've been a fan of the game ever since I spent one fall covering high school volleyball for The Post. The U.S. men (indoor) had their press conference today; they seemed both likable and convinced that they were medal contenders.

And I've already been near the beach volleyball venue; it's an area very friendly to foreigners, and many folks have told me that's the best time at the Summer Olympics.


Dadryan in Arlington: Do you think you could talk to Logan Tom of U.S. women's volleyball fame? A picture would be nice too! Also still wondering if you may find your self at the Flying Saucer Velodrome to check out any of the Track Cycling! Taylor Phinney may not be the next Lance Armstrong, but he sure as heck is someone to be very excited about. Can you say fastest teenager on Earth? Thanks Dan!

P.S. -- Taylor is gonna blow doors so come correct.

Dan Steinberg: Ha, I actually met Taylor at the U.S. Olympic Summit in Chicago this April. He was a super nice kid, and sort of up my alley, with his custom-made sneaks and wry sense of humor. You could see a brief clip of him in yesterday's video about Olympic dreams.

As for Logan Tom, I think The Internet will probably service your photo needs.


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: I'd like to e-mail your "Frommage from the Far East" posting to a friend in Hong Kong, but after 5 minutes of trying I can't find a link. Please advise! thanks.

washingtonpost.com: I think you mean this? Introducing the Beijing Cheese Society

Dan Steinberg: Oh, thanks to Paul from Washingtonpost.com, here's the link to that item mentioned previously. One item from my blog will be excerpted in the paper each day, but those shorter versions with different headlines usually aren't available online. Kind of a strange system, but it keeps me in possession of all my online clicks.

The story was about a group of about 500 cheese fans who have banded together in Beijing to taste the good stuff about once a month.


Arlington, Va.: I'm having a very hard time deciding whether to "boycott" these Olympics or not. I hate what the Chinese do to dissenting voices. But I like sports. And I especially like sports that are not the "Big 3" American sports. So the Olympics is sort of the holy grail for that. I even printed out the 66 page TV schedule, but haven't brought myself to go thru it yet. In the end I know I will succumb and watch, but I will hate myself for it.

You may not have any insight into NBCs plan, but with so many channels and so much programming should I expect them to play the actually games pretty straight on all of the cable and internet programming and save the boring human interest pap for the primetime NBC network coverage?

Dan Steinberg: NBC is going to be providing way more coverage than ever before, both online and on its 73 cable partners. I think you'll find that the answers vary on this; I would guess that some of the cable programs will be fluff, and some will be less so. But there will also be lots and lots of online content, both words and moving pictures, on NBC's site and elsewhere. There is a vocal segment of Olympic fans who vocally don't want "boring human interest pap," and I think less fluffy coverage will be easier to find than in recent years.

As for the Boycott, I sympathize with your feelings, but it's hard to see how your keeping your TV off would make a big difference, since so many future hosts are already decided and since the China situation is pretty unique as a host city. You could be saying "I don't want NBC and its advertisers to profit," I guess, but I think there are probably other ways to make your point.

Still, some Olympic fans will absolutely stay away this year, whether because of the politics or the time difference.


Washington, DC: So how many American Olympic tourists have you met? Sports fans or family of athletes?

Dan Steinberg: Pure tourists? Zero. Literally.

I've met a bunch of people who are volunteering in various capacities, but I have yet to meet an American or any other foreigner here for pleasure strictly because of the Games.

One of our reporters knows which hotels the families of the U.S. swimmers are staying at, and I may try to swing by their lobbies some evening.


D.C.: Keep up the great work and your job! Which athlete has the most potential to become "America's Sweetheart?"

Dan Steinberg: Does "Sweetheart" connote female? Among journalists, there seems to be no doubt that Michael Phelps is No. 1 on the list of "Athletes We Must Cover." The women's gymnastics team is always a source for "Sweetheart" coverage, mostly because the athletes are usually about 5-1, if that. So, Shawn Johnson?

And back to swimming: don't forget Baltimore's Katie Hoff, who seems certain to collect some medal.


PB: The United and the Nats are just starting to play better and of course the Redskins are gearing up for the season, but the sports page is starting to get taken over by games no one cares about. Can you come back home now? Aren't the Olympics almost over yet?

Dan Steinberg:"The United." I love it. This fellow "PB" has been needling D.C. United fans by inserting the definite article for months now. It's a strange obsession of his/hers.

I wish I had reader interest surveys to back me up, but I think there's a definite audience for our Olympics coverage, it's just very different than our usual reader base. To draw conclusions based solely on the people who e-mail me, I can say for sure that my percentage of female readers goes way, way, way up during the Olympics.


Faifax, VA: I must start by saying that I was unnaturally excited to get your email yesterday about the return of the Olympic blog. Go you!

Second, I travel to China at least once a year for work so I am interested in your observations as a newcomer. The smog story, however, is greatly exaggerated. I have been there in bad smog and it is not like your eyes begin tearing upon stepping outside. The sky is greyish, and sometimes your throat hurts by the end of the day. I think the hype on this has people expecting mass collapses as if pepper spray was being released in clouds over the venues. That is not to say the finely tuned athletes will not notice, but c'mon.

Dan Steinberg: Great. Thanks. And yes, that's right, I e-mailed every reader whose address I saved from the Turin Games, begging them to come back and read again. I really have no shame.

And your feelings about smog would seem to agree with my very uneducated impressions. Athletes may notice a difference, and it's probably not great for your respiratory system, but yeah, maybe a (mild, mild) throat scratch has been all I've noticed.

My biggest three impressions thus far:

1) The buildings are immense, and extremely interesting architecturally, and these buildings are everywhere. (i.e. there's not just one downtown cluster)

2) The city is vast, and the traffic is awful.

3) In general, it's not horribly different from back home. Post soccer writer Steve Goff told me last week that I'd be surprised how familiar most things seem, and I'd say he was right.

But really, any of you who've spent any time at all in this country know more than I do. Being in this media bubble, not speaking Mandarin, not having read much at all in advance, I'm really a pretty poor source.


Takoma Park, Md.: Your hotel is really called the Hotel Tibet? Aren't there any lodgings not associated with occupation?

Dan Steinberg: There are hotels everywhere you look, especially in the vicinity of many of the venues and the media centers. Despite the name, our hotel has been great so far, especially the complimentary breakfast buffet. I don't mean to sound so pollyanna-ish, but after sharing a college dorm room for three weeks in Turin, this has been a very nice change.


Dan Steinberg: Oh, and, in theory, our hotel is supposed to be paying tribute to the Tibetan culture or something like that. I know, I know.


Chicago: What's better -- our Chinese food or their Chinese food?

What's their version of Chinese take out? Do they go out for American food?

Is American food in China even edible?

Are Americans who live in China kind of weird?

Dan Steinberg: Too many questions for me to answer at once, but I'll say I've been a tad surprised by their Chinese food. After decades of hearing "Chinese food in America isn't like 'real' Chinese food," so many of the flavors and combinations I've seen have been very, very familiar. That may be because of my vegetarianism, but still.

And if you're asking me, all things being equal, whether I'd rather eat Chinese food from Beijing or Gaithersburg, I guess I'll chose Beijing. The tofu and cabbage dish I had tonight was great.

Haven't eaten American food here, although I did see the Hard Rock Cafe the other day. Oh, and I stopped in at a German bakery, which was pretty good.

I have a bunch of friends (American) who live in China, and they're not particularly weird.


McLean, Va.:"Pickled cucumbers." Wouldn't those be...pickles? Anyway, was a huge fan of your curling coverage at the Torino games. Have you picked a second or third tier sport for these games to become the Post's resident expert in? Might I suggest handball?

Dan Steinberg: Well, in America, I guess, but you can pickle all sorts of things. I don't know why we choose cucumbers to bear the burden of representing all pickled vegetables.

And thanks for the suggestion that echoes my plans. That's cool. Even with the staff we have, so many will be consumed with swimming and track and gymnastics and boxing and basketball, so I hope to be able to do some water polo and table tennis and badminton and other of the marginally lesser known.


Reston, Va.: So will Bog and Blog posts essentially be tape delayed (or time shifted)?

It was much better getting live updates of Alpine buses attacking Wise in near real-time.

Dan Steinberg: Yeah, I'm choosing on my own to do this, because I don't quite see the point at posting items at 3 a.m. Washington time, nor do I feel like living a nocturnal life so I can provide live updates of quiet streets and empty restaurants.

The New York Times's excellent Olympics blog seems to be updated on closer to an all-hours schedule, if you're interested.


Norfolk, Va.: When you checked into the Hotel Tibet were you issued robes? I would have guess they would have been all set to shave your head but you had to go and be the ugly American and deprive them.

Dan Steinberg: I'm no expert on Tibet, but aside from some ornamental touches and the names and cuisines of some of the many restaurants, I couldn't tell you what makes our hotel inspired by Tibet.

Is the Mandarin Hotel in D.C. supposed to be inspired by China? I'm not joking; I honestly have no idea.


Rockville, Md.: (submitting early due to meeting) Thanks for taking my question. I've always been confused about athletes from other countries who emigrate to the U.S. to train, get their citizenship three weeks before the Olympics and then "represent America" by playing on our teams and wearing out uniforms. I can understand their coming here to train and then going onto the Olympics for their country of origin, but how come the Olympic committee allows them to represent a country to which they really have no tie? Why do we allow that? Do other countries do this?

Dan Steinberg: The most talked about case of country-swapping this year will definitely be Becky Hammon, the American guard who's suiting up for Russia.

I don't know, for some reason I don't have a huge problem with this. America has long been a jumble of nationalities; which of us are REALLY American? Sure, some country-swapping is of an extremely timely variety, but Washingtonians have no problem with dudes from Hawaii and California and Texas--or, for that matter, from Sweden and Russia-- representing their city in pro sports. I enjoy the competition a lot more than the nationalism.


Rockville, MD: And I thought Sally Jenkins lead was over the top, your Fredericksburg poster just took it to a new level.

How is this Olympics really different than in years past? You would think American consumers were used to sponsors by now they could tune it out. Plus who isn't excited about a new batch of commercials in expensive prime time spots that are sure to produce at least a few memorable ones?

The storylines aspect of the Games has existed forever and if you don't have it what are you going to root for?

There is so much compelling about these games to watch for, specifically the swimming and basketball, that it really is exciting.

I look forward with glee and trepidation to the much hyped and criticized mens basketball team that is actually acting somewhat humble publicly (though its hard to look humble while slamming down monstrous dunks) in an attempt to win back American prestige what is America's game.

Dan Steinberg: And here's the other side of that. Like I said, I think you can easily argue for both sides, but I think certainly the host country gives this Olympics a really different element from years past. Trust me, at Vancouver in 2010, very few people will be talking about Canadian political issues.

At least, I wouldn't think so.

But if you put the whole mess of "these Olympics are bad!" criticism in a little box in the back of your mind for a few hours, I think most sports fans would find something from these games to catch their interest for a few minutes.


Rockville, Md.: Have you checked out Beijing's one kosher restaurant? It's called Dini's, and according to reports, not only do they serve kugel and matzo ball soup, but the head rabbi's daughter answers questions about the Torah portion of the week every Friday night.

washingtonpost.com: Dini's Kosher Restaurant | Beijing, China

Dan Steinberg: I've heard about this. I haven't eaten at any place besides the media center's weirdly eclectic dining room, and an assortment of Chinese Chinese restaurants. I'm sure this place will attract a fair number of journalists this month.


Barno, Md: Do you get the sense that the Mens Basketball is no longer preoccupied with the "security concerns" that prevented so many of them from playing in the '04 games?

Dan Steinberg: Absolutely. The entire vibe around the men's basketball program has been overhauled. Of course, it's easy to say that based on the team's recent results. If they fail to win gold, hand-wringing will resume.

But it is hard to argue with the public comments of the team's stars thus far. They're also staying somewhere in Beijing, from what I understand, instead of on a cruise ship.


Washington, D.C.: Hey Dan-

If you're not going to use your provided journalism condoms, can you open one up, fill it with Beijing smog and bring it back for me?

Dan Steinberg: Let me finish up with this one. Yeah, we all received condoms. No, I haven't planned on doing anything with them. But if I were, this is a great idea. Thanks.

Seeing as how it's 12:22 am and I need to find a shuttle bus to my hotel, I'm gonna call it quits. Thanks for all the questions everyone. The chatting schedule will be on the early side for East Coasters, and on the obscene side for West Coasters, but we're gonna keep doing these all month, and many will feature our brilliant writers who know lots and lots about specific athletes and sports. And check back on my blog for a slightly different take, I guess.


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