Experiencing the Olympics first-hand

2008-08-25 00:00

A family group of 11 has just returned from the

Beijing Olympics where

we supported my son Cameron and his C2 kayaking partner Cyprian Ngidi, as well as the other South Africans who were competing. For nine nights we hired a house close to the Shunyi Canoeing and Rowing Olympic Park some 30 kilometres northeast of Beijing.

From the time we landed we were conscious of the care and thought that had gone into en-suring a warm welcome and a smooth passage throughout

Beijing and the Olympic venues. We encountered the first of the thousands of friendly, well-trained volunteers in their uniform of blue Adidas shirts and the identity card hanging on their chests. They flooded Beijing and what a relief it was sometimes to see that blue shirt in a strange part of the city.

There were also security people in light brown and powder blue shirts who were actually police. They let the volunteers do their work but they were there to ensure that security remained tight. Along the roads there were older people sitting, and one gathers from the shirts and armbands that they were on “community watch” and probably Communist Party members. The Chinese didn’t want a Munich Olympics disaster and one felt completely safe.

We sensed the pulse of society because we used bicycles to reach the canoeing venue and to buy our supplies in the nearby town. The Chinese were unbelievably friendly and helpful and one needed that in the supermarkets and shops where we were bewildered by being un-able to read what was available.

The China that was on display was modern, clean, glittering and efficient. Anything unsightly was behind a wall or a screen or behind the millions of recently planted trees and shrubs. Half the volume of cars were banned from the roads on alternate days, factories and power stations closed down and building construction stopped. Trucks were allowed into Beijing only between midnight and 6 am.

If one didn’t co-operate with the authorities’ instructions, your fate was not a pleasant one. For two-and-half millennia this has been the style of the Chinese government. So, although visitors were stroked by a velvet glove, one had a discomfiting awareness of the iron fist within.

These were not simply the Olympics but the Beijing Olympics. I don’t believe that there can be another Olympic Games on this scale nor with the architectural and engineering innovation represented by the

stadia, the new air terminal and other new buildings in Beijing, including improved roads and a modern, air-conditioned underground railway. Their collaboration with the best architects and engineers from around the world demonstrated their commitment to international standards. The Chinese were determined to impress the world and not to lose face doing it but the Games also exposed China and its people to a wider world.

At the events, seeing the crowd control, the huge TV screens, the organisation of the athletes, the medal ceremonies and the keenness of the crowds, the majority of whom were

Chinese, was a pleasure.

A Chinese athlete is well rewarded for achieving gold — a cash payment of $1 million, a flat and a life-long exemption from tax. The winner of a silver medal gets nothing. In contrast to most other countries, the

Chinese ignore the total medal tally but fixate on the gold medal tally. When the Chinese heard that a member of our family was an Olympic athlete, we were regarded as heroes.

The Chinese have done the world proud in demonstrating excellence at its best in every way in how they hosted the 2008 Olympics. The privilege of being there was one of the most memorable and joyful experiences of my lifetime.

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