Monday, Aug. 18, at Noon ET
Olympics: The Scene from Beijing
Monday, August 18, 2008; 12:00 PM
From his perch high atop the Hotel Tibet, Dan Steinberg of the
A transcript follows.
washingtonpost.com: Dan is running a few minutes late and will join us shortly.
Dan Steinberg: Hey everyone sorry for the delay, I'm still out at Beijing's soccer venue and without wireless I was having some connectivity issues. Seems to be working now, but we'll see.
Anyhow, bring on your questions. If they're about smog, media cafeteria food or yak cheese, we should be all set. If they're about sports, I'll make stuff up.
Bristol, UK: This was posted on the BBC Web site:
" Why is it that all USA-based news sources continually show their team at the top of the medal table? Are they really such an insecure nation as to have to cheat at everything? 'If the drugs don't work, we'll fix the table' -- maybe that's their motto. Can Sue B ask Michael (Johnson, part of the BBC's team at Beijing) for a comment."
I'd love a comment from you guys? In fact if Michael Phelps hadn't won 8 golds, we Brits would be above you in the medal table?
Dan Steinberg: This has been an interesting issue, especially with China and the U.S., the two nations at the top, both choosing the version that suits them. My impression is that the U.S. media has always used total medals, and that's it's probably not a nefarious plot since the U.S. could just as easily dominate in gold and slack off in bronze some year.
I think it's probably easier to make an argument for using gold only, since there's no protocol for counting fourth or fifths, and nearly every major storyline focuses on the winner, not the runner-up.
On the other hand, the U.S. media didn't decide that the IOC should hand out prizes and play the national anthems for the top three finishers. That seems to be a pretty well established routine.
I also don't see where it matters all that much. I think people are more likely to exult in individual success (USA basketball, Phelps, the women's gymnasts) than they are to compare total medals vs. Norway and Armenia.
New York: What did you think about Usain Bolt pulling up and celebrating before finishing his race? It seemed like a tremendous lack of sportsmanship.
Dan Steinberg: I think it's hard to be unsportsmanlike in a 10-second race. Not too many people ever have the chance to pull up and celebrate while running against the seven other fastest people in the world. That he could shows how incredible an achievement it was, and I thought his celebration reflected that.
It also made for fun watching, which I think counts for something. His competitors seemed in awe rather than insulted, from what I've read.
Arcola, Va.: In Torino you had "Pashion Lives Here" banners -- anything similar in Beijing, perhaps "Pashion Obeys Here -- 1 Child Only Please"?
Dan Steinberg: "One World One Dream." They're everywhere. In Turin the signs were all a light blue/dark blue theme, and here they're orange and red, but the background patterning is actually similar. In fact, from the media standpoint, I didn't expect it would be as similar as it is: the way the buses work, the way the venues are set up, the way the media center is organized. It's actually a little disappointing; I can see how if you did six or seven of these everything would eventually blend together, since you spend much more time in venues than you do in the actual host country.
Bethesda, Md.: Hey Dan,
Regarding the running out of condoms. Do you think the athletes are getting busy in the village or is it a case of athletes hoarding up on condoms to take home. I thought sex wasn't good for you before competition.
Dan Steinberg: Well, there are lots of athletes who are finished competing. But are still in the village.
The number of condoms seems fairly outlandish, and it's easy to imagine guys grabbing handfuls and handing them out to their friends. I've been too shy to actually ask any athlete just how much "merry" making is involved, but I've seen some other interviews where athletes said if you put that many young, strong, good looking people from around the world in one tightly confined place for three weeks....well, you know.
Norra Begravningsplatsen, Sweden: Have you heard from Jarkko yet? He's gotta be really happy about your coverage of the Swedish women's handball team. I smell a T-shirt...
Dan Steinberg: This is a reference to the Wizards blog the Wizznutzz, which has a Scandinavian fetish.
And no, I haven't. Although I have heard from a few Swedes (or at least people representing themselves as Swedes) in my comments section, who said the Swedish handball community was happy that I met the Ahlms. (The parents of Sweden's best handball player......long story.)
Washington, D.C.: Thanks for live blogging the women's soccer match today. I can't stream anything at work, so you were my life line! Glad to see our offense is picking up. We will need it against Brazil. How do you think we will do against Brazil in the finals?
Dan Steinberg: Well, four hours ago I would have said, say, 3-1 Brazil. Now, I might change it to, say, 3-2.
It's hard to say. A certain co-worker of mine (fine, it was my boss) blamed several of those goals today on the Japanese keeper being shamefully out of position, but there was lots of pressure regardless and the first two goals were legit.
But I don't have any trouble predicting that this should be entertaining as heck, based on the attacking attitudes both teams bring to the table. I wasn't joking when I was hinting that this was the most exciting thing I've seen at the Olympics. Maybe it's because I actually understand what I'm watching, but this was a really great environment with some pretty interesting soccer.
The China-USA men's basketball game was obviously electric, but there was never even a suggestion that China could say within double digits.
Chicago: Dan, great job as always. Thanks for doing this.
Are these Olympics too big for their own good? Granted Turin was the Winter Olympics, but you seemed to have had a much better time covering that smaller, more spontaneous, more joyful experience than this behemoth. Are you having fun because of the Olympics or in spite of it? Thanks.
Dan Steinberg: Yeah, it's a much different deal here. For one thing, there are far, far more events, and far more media too, I'd guess, although I don't have numbers.
For another, Beijing itself is just massive, both in size and population. Ask anyone who's lived or visited here, and that's one of the first things they'll say. It's impossible to wrap your head around the city in three weeks, which makes the whole thing feel a lot more out of control, at least to me.
And then there are the political elements. All that stuff has died down since the first few days: the smog talk, the Cheek visa issue, the Internet censoring, etc. People have been too busy covering sports, although there are obviosly still great reports coming from a lot of foreign staffers over here. But even when you're writing about sports, or yak cheese, it's impossible to forget some of the larger issues at play.
To me, it's been dramatically less fun than Turin was. But, not to be a sap, I also wasn't a parent during Turin, and I miss my wife and daughter an awful lot, which plays a part.
Fairfax, Va.: Is Usain Bolt the Agent Zero of the Beijing Olympics?
Dan Steinberg: Jeez, I wouldn't have said Agent Zero. Maybe more like T.O., which I don't mean as a bad thing. I haven't gotten the impression that Bolt is off his rocker the way Gil is.
Although one similarity might be that Usain refused to talk to the media today, as Gil so often has.
Here's a question for you: If Bolt blasts the 200 record into smithereens, blowing away the field again, who's the bigger star of the games, he or Phelps? Phelps would have more, but Bolt's would be in higher-profile events.
Laurel, Md.: What is the most "unusual" food you have seen in Bejing? Do you see the Secret Police around the hotel, venues, etc?
Dan Steinberg: It's hard to top the silkworms and penises and snakes and scorpions on sticks, although I got the impression that those were all pure gimmicks for the crazy Western tourists. As I mentioned before, when some Irish dude I met was chowing down on scorpion, some Chinese family stood around him, gawking and making "wow that's gross" faces.
Restaurants certainly offer many more organs than at typical American places. And more feet.
We see uniformed security everywhere. I haven't seen anyone that screamed Secret Service, though.
Massillon, Ohio: With all of the reports that ALL tickets to the Olympics were sold out and that people were rioting to get them, why are there so many empty seats?
Dan Steinberg: Amy Shipley and Maureen Fan wrote a great story about this last week; maybe our host Paul can find it.
There are several explanations: companies buying bundles of tickets but not using them all, foreigners encountering visa issues, etc. The thing is, I don't exactly mind going to a judo gym that's only two thirds full. I mean, that's fine. The part that rubs you the wrong way is the reports of Chinese people dying to get into events and not being able to, and then staring at all those expanses of emptiness.
Beijing Is All Dressed Up, But No One Is Going (Post, Aug. 13)
Overland Park, Kan.: Why haven't you pulled one of the mascots into the Heineken House yet? Tell them it's for... cultural research. Yeah, that's it.
In a similar vein, one of the mascots for Vancouver is Quatchi. Yes, a sasquatch. You must demand access to those Games just for the photograph potential.
Dan Steinberg: I saw yet another style of Fuwa mascot today; a cloth body but more short and squat than any I've seen. Added to the robot ones from the airport, I can think of at least six styles of these mascots that I've seen. And they're everywhere in the city; on T-shirts, car stickers, banners, all kinds of souvenir stuff, cell phone holders, etc.
It's definitely not just for Westerners, either.
I'm feeling down on the Vancouver idea. I think I'm running out of things to say about the Olympics.
I-270, Exit 1: Thanks for blogging from the U.S. Women's semi-final soccer game. Any interesting post-match quotes?
Dan Steinberg: Sure.
And no, not really. Aside from Pia doing her usual act and singing "The Times they are a-changin" during the post-match press conference.
Every presser in China has dual English-Chinese translators, and when the young man translating her words started with the Chinese version, he failed to sing. I asked why he didn't sing the first few words, but he didn't answer.
They said what you'd expect: about how they're not living in the shadow of the '96 team, about how they don't have any particular grudge against Brazil, about how they feed off the pressure and weren't down after the loss to Norway.
I didn't hear Hope Solo, because I had to run back to the media room to start this chat, but she's obviously the big focus now: back in China, facing Brazil.
Capitol Hill: Did you stay up late to follow your fantasy draft yesterday?
Dan Steinberg: For the first time since I believe 1994, I will not be drafting a fantasy football team this year. I just gave up. Maybe it'll be a one-year retirement, or maybe I'm just done with it.
But if anyone has openings in their Danish Handball Fantasy League, lemme know.
Goshen, Va.: Hey Dan -- love reading your blog! So have you ever tracked down Dan Prud'homme? What's the real story here?
Dan Steinberg: Ack, I need to e-mail him. He got in touch with me and invited me to have lunch, but I hate to make commitments because I never plan anything more than a few hours in advance, and you never know when something crazy will crop up. I will definitely try to get in touch with him before I go.
If you read the unedited thing he wrote, originally for the Shanghai Daily, about hurting his foot in Beijing and getting help from some volunteers, it seemed a lot less weird.
I should also say that the volunteers here are pretty amazing. Sometimes to the point of annoyance; they won't let you carry your own bags, or put anything down for 5 minutes, open a door yourself. I'm sitting outside typing this chat, because I get better reception on my air card, and a woman just came out and tried to convince me it'd be nicer to sit inside.
And not to be cynical, but it's so hard to tell if this is genuine or mandated, too. The first few times I went through the metal detectors I marveled at how nice everyone was, but soon enough I realized that they all say the exact same thing to you every time. Please turn around, sir. Thank you for your cooperation sir. Etc.
Doesn't make it less nice, necessarily, and I understand everyone is speaking our language and doing the best they can with it, but some of the overwhelming niceness from the volunteers seems weird after a while.
Mystery sport: I was at the emergency room yesterday (husband put a chisel through his hand resulting in 11 stitches but all is well) and all of us trapped there were watching an Olympic sport on TV none of us (including the medical staff) could identify. It was two women's teams playing what looked like a blend of soccer and basketball. The ball was tossed from hand to hand and was bounced, but the goal looked like a soccer goal. Any thoughts?
Dan Steinberg: Team handball.
Is this a put-on? I keep writing about team handball. It's one of the few true foreign sports for us here. (Though I'm guessing NBC doesn't show too much badminton. It's on all the time here. It's amazing.)
Dupont: How big a deal is Liu Xiang dropping out.
I follow track a lot, and not suprised at all since he's been injured all year, but is this the stunner that is just everywhere or just one more story.
Is/was he the national hero that the US press has made him out to be?
Dan Steinberg: I've been focused on soccer for much of the past six hours, so I haven't read much of what the U.S. press has been saying, but yeah, this is a big, big deal here. Our crew who was at the stadium when it happened (and we happened to have at least three folks over there) said the oddest hush came over the crowd; like, 'Huh? What's going on?'
People who follow track closely knew of his injuries; the Guardian, I believe, actually mentioned something just yesterday. But there are banners with his picture all over this town, and he was their best chance for a high-profile gold at the highest-profile venue. I would liken it to someone like Shawn Johnson having to drop out of the Games if they were in the U.S. Note quite Michael Phelps level, but close.
London, U.K.: Personally, I like the idea of ordering the medal tables according to the method Michael Donaldson devised that shows New Zealand and Australia at the top of the rankings, based on points assigned to medals and the size of the country's population. He notes, though, that the Country of Michael Phelps would be at the very top, based on 8 gold medals and a population of 1.
And I think it's a little ridiculous, the number of people I've heard saying that if it weren't for Phelps we'd be ahead of the U.S. in the rankings. (In any case, that's no longer true, as the BBC Web site shows that the U.S. have 22 gold and we have 12 gold.) It's very easy to cherry-pick athletes or sports to figure out a way to come out on top. If it weren't for cycling, for example, we'd be well behind.
Dan Steinberg: Now that clearly makes some sense. My editor told me that Armenia, I believe, is first in per-capita medals, but that's without weighting.
Anyhow, maybe I'm unique, but I always thought the medal table was fun to look at but never cared that much about who was on top, at least not since the Cold War. I also don't think fans need to cheer exclusively for athletes from their countries; baseball fans are allowed to have favorite teams in the other league, and think about how many Cowboys fans are in D.C. The nationalism of the Olympics always weirds me out a little bit.
Falls Church, Va.: Dan, I know you're a vegetarian, but would you be tempted to try the stewed meerkat?
Dan Steinberg: I haven't been tempted by any of the meat here.
As I've often said, the only meat type things that tempt me back home are the truly cheap and nasty ones; the BK Chicken sandwich, Ben's Chili, stuff like that. Pork lung and goat testicle soup just don't make the list.
I hope everyone saw the best menu item of the Olympics, from a place our hoops guy Michael Lee ate at near the basketball gymnasium:
Fish Smells Like Pork. Hard to beat that one.
Fairfax, Va.: Have you seen any former Olympians hanging out at the Games? Mary Lou Retton, Janet Evans, Dominique Dawes, Ian Thorpe? Some are back as correspondents to cover the games, but what do the others do?
Dan Steinberg: Last night I saw Carl Lewis at a party. Keri Strug was supposed to come, but she didn't make it. Oh, and Julia Mancuso, the Alpine skier, was also there. And I was at an event with swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg the other day. (Sorry if I botched that name.)
I think a few come for the experience, but most have some sort of corporate or sponsor connection, or, like you note, are working in media. Julie Foudy, for example, was at tonight's soccer game for NBC.
I think this is probably the time when they can all relive their celebrity, to some extent. I know as a reporter, I'm thrilled to interview a Carl Lewis in Beijing, but if he was swinging through D.C. and offering media availability I'm not even sure I would go.
Arlington, Va.: Are there too many events/sports in the Olympics? And I am not just talking about softball and baseball. Some have raised the issue that Phelps could win more medals than anyone because so many are available in swimming. There can only be one men's field hockey gold medal. You have all of those shooting events each with its own medals. There are gymnastics medals for team, all-around, and each apparatus iteslf. Tons of rowing events. Apparently trampoline is an Olympic "sport" now. What's next, skateboarding? BMX? Should all of the judged events be eliminated? Look at all the boxing controversies. Am I asking too many questions?
Dan Steinberg: Well, BMX IS an olympic sport this year, if you haven't heard.
I don't know, I have a hard time finding the part that's wrong or bad about having more sports.
But I'm COMPLETELY with you on swimming. I have no trouble at all saying that Michael Phelps just completed the most amazing swimming performance in Olympics history. I pause, though, when people say it was the best performance of any kind in Olympics history, because how can you possibly compare anyone on a team sport, or in track, or in boxing or wrestling to Phelps? Sure, the demands on his time were immense, but those other athletes simply do not have the chance to win that many medals. It's impossible. It could only be a swimmer, unless I'm missing something.
That makes me considerably less willing to say that Phelps did anything other than put forth the best swimming performance ever.
Alexandria, Va.: I think these Olympics are showing that Hope Solo was right, and Greg Ryan was wrong. Solo showed guts in calling out Ryan; if the players had looked in the mirror they would have realized Solo got hosed.
Dan Steinberg: Well, you should have plenty of stories to read in the next two days that explore this topic.
I think some people would question Solo's timing and vocalness, even if they don't necessarily argue with the gist of her argument. She clearly became a massive distraction at a time that the U.S., or any team, didn't really need that.
I also think PLENTY of fans thought Solo was right (on the merits) and Ryan wrong as soon as he made that decision. In fact, I'd guess that was the consensus. It was just how everything went down that was troubling.
Kingstowne, Va.: Hopefully someday NBC will take a national poll to determine what coverage we want to see, and then, actually provide it. Sample questions would include
Here is a list of all the Olympic sports. Which would you like to see shown?
Do you prefer live coverage, whatever time of day it happens so you can really get into it, or tape-delay so you that you can watch what you already heard the results of?
Do you prefer coverage of just the sports the U.S. is a contender in, or a variety?
I'm sure there are more that NBC could think of if it really wanted to provide the coverage the people watching wanted.
Dan Steinberg: I'm gonna be the rare person to defend NBC now, because I also work in a ratings based business. I get my traffic e-mailed to me every day, and I don't think there's any question that if I did nothing but hoops and gymnastics and swimming and track I'd do better than spreading things out with judo and fencing and weightlifting.
And it's even the same thing with Americans; in theory, we can all say that we'd rather see a mix of nations, but in practice, the water cooler talk is almost always U.S. based, with exceptions like Bolt. You can make the cause and effect argument--we talk about the Americans because we're force fed the Americans--but I think, all things being equal, those would always tend to be the biggest stories.
I'm not saying I necessarily like that, but I would guess NBC has a grasp on what they're doing, coverage wise.
The live coverage thing, though, I don't get, not in 2008.
Medal opportunities: Well, a male gymnast could win 7 golds - vault, floor, pommels, high bar, parallel bars, rings, and all-around. Oh, 8 - team.
Dan Steinberg: I was trying to figure out that very thing as I typed.
So fine, maybe a gymnast could. But the larger point remains. You could also probably argue that someone like Messi is better than more people than someone like Phelps, since so many millions more people have tried to play competitive football than to swim competitively.
Bethesda, Md.: Do you think DC is trying to pretend that Michael Phelps is our hometown hero? Just because he is from Baltimore (which is close but definitely not the same thing)?
Dan Steinberg: I'm not there so I can't say, but I would guess that Washington Post readers have a higher than average interest in Phelps, because of proximity. I know I do. Sort of illogical, but my grandparents live in Baltimore, my sister used to live in Towson, I've been hearing about him for years, etc.
My interest in the Ravens is a lot, lot, lot less than my interest in the Redskins, but it's more than my interest in the Texans, that's for sure. And plenty of people work in D.C. but live in Anne Arundel or Frederick counties, which often feel like they're more tied to Baltimore than D.C.
Fredonia, N.Y.: Reading your posts, it sounds like you're off on your own quite a bit. Do you ever get lonely, especially in a foreign country like China?
Dan Steinberg: Well, I hope this one isn't from my parents, but I'll close with a Fredonia question.
Yeah, I'm definitely on my own a lot, but I'm also in our office a few hours every day, and there are always familiar faces there. Plus, sportswriters all know other sportswriters, and so there are dozens of people here I've worked with or covered stuff with or just met in the past. I've also met a few GW grad students who are in China studying, and we've hung out a couple times.
So I can't say I've ever really been lonely, no. But my biggest regret, which gets bigger every day, is that I don't feel I've done anything to get to know this city, let alone this country. Being in the Olympic bubble is so isolating in that way; every venue feels the same, and it doesn't feel like China. I really wish I had taken advantage of the first few days here just to walk as much as possible and go into as many places as possible. Because once everything starts, you don't want to leave the metal detectors too many times, because it takes forever to get back inside.
Washington, D.C.: Just wondering -- Do other countries chant their name the way our folks chant "U!S!A! ... U!S!A!" at events ... and also, do you get any sense of anti-US feelings there, because of the war or because we have so many athletes, or is it really One World as long as the Olympics last? Thanks!
Dan Steinberg: Okay okay, one more, because I like this one.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, DEFINITELY. The Swedish fans chanted "Sverige" (I think) over and over and over again during the Swedish women's handball game with Brazil, and the (much smaller) Brazilian fans answered with something similar. It was all funny and touching to me, but then I realized I had just been asking a colleague, "Who goes to a USA basketball game and chants 'USA!' " That's a bit different, because USA basketball is so dominant, but still, I think "USA" sounds different to some of our jaded ears than the names of these other countries.
If anything, the U.S. fans here stand out for their restraint; they're nothing like the Dutch or the Aussies in terms of home-country enthusiasm.
I wouldn't say it's at all One World nirvana, but I haven't personally sensed much anti-USA feelings at all. From my very superficial viewpoint, there was actually more of that in Italy. Like I wrote, this crowd at today's women's soccer game was massively behind the U.S., although that was likely more about the fact that they were facing Japan.
Dan Steinberg: Ok folks, that's all for me....it's 1:12 am and I have some blogging to do, and maybe some bad media food to eat.
I know we're having Oly chats here all week, so those of you with sport-specific questions (gymnastics and swimming) will be able to grill our real experts (Liz Clarke and Barry Svrluga). Thanks for stopping by, and remember: always eat your yak cheese with a nice dry Bordeaux.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.