Living with the Legacy: Reflections on the Beijing Olympics Four Years On

Lead Photo Courtesy of Matt Owen

14 April, 2012:

I am standing outside the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing doing something previously not attempted — I am staring directly at the sun.

Normally, this isn’t an advisable activity, but given the smog, it proves no trouble at all to gaze upon the face of our life-giving star. As with the aftermath of the famous eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 that blasted about 20 million tons of sulphur into the atmosphere creating brilliant sunsets around the world for years afterwards, pollution does have an upside.

Above the Olympic precinct (designed, incidentally, by the son of Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s favourite architect) the toxic-orange orb slowly falls into the rising gloom of night. The previously barren and near-soundless sweep of pavement that extends Beijing’s north-south axis beyond the old city walls comes alive as locals appear for their evening stroll.

“That Usain Bolt may be pretty quick, but how good is his horse handling and swordsmanship?”

In the multi-coloured haze they amble happily about, posing for pictures like tourists in their home town. Even those who never made it to any actual Olympic events seemingly content to simply bask in the reflected glory of their nation and how it comported itself on the world stage and on the top step of medal podiums four years before.

The Chinese Wasted Not a Moment

Not everywhere is bustling though. Next to the striking Bird’s Nest and iconic Water Cube looms a black and glass indoor arena where the gymnastics were held, surrounded by temporary fencing and coated with the grey dust of Beijing’s perpetual construction. A massive construction project addressing a temporary need. These themes repeat. Outside, a small stall sells 2008 merchandise at discounted prices.

Disdaining Olympic kitsch in favour of communist kitsch, I purchase a set of pins made to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Chairman Mao standing in Tiananmen Square in and proclaiming the birth of the People’s Republic of China on the first of October, 1949. “Tiananmen” of course being a word that was verboten during the Olympics, along with anything even vaguely redolent of 1989.

Beijing’s excellent metro system is a more positive Olympic legacy. While the first tunnels were excavated during the Mao era, there were still only two lines in existence when the Games were awarded in 2001. However the Chinese wasted not a moment, and when the first drumbeat of the opening ceremony sounded at 8 seconds past 8:08 in the evening on 08/08/08, there were also eight subway lines operating. By the time I arrived another seven had been opened and a trip costs just two Yuan (about 35 cents).

“Non fromage”

Feeling peckish, I detour to a traditional hutong I know in order to enjoy some spicy meat skewers and a large beer for just 13 Yuan in front of a restaurant that features a massive portrait of Mao himself, benevolently smiling down at families slurping noodles and clinking glasses.

Back at my hotel I wander into the bar and order a Tsingtao beer. A young man approaches and we fall into the usual patter of the lone tourist after finding a fellow traveller on the road. Nicolas is young, French and in China after a lengthy swing through what used to be known as French Indochina, today Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

I had just returned from North Korea with a companion who went straight from the train from Pyongyang to the airport that morning. Nicolas suggests a game of pool. Nicholas accepts. More beer is consumed. Neither of us are particularly skilful with the cue, but winning is never the point with social games.

Nicolas comments that he finds the locals difficult to understand. Between his and their heavily, yet differently, accented English clear communication is nearly impossible. He also rues with Gallic moroseness the lack of any French language signage and the near total absence of cheese from the Chinese diet. “Non fromage” say I, using up a not-insignificant fraction of the French words I know. “Non fromage” he dolefully agrees, and goes on to describe how easy it was to get around Vietnam speaking mainly French and how good the food and coffee were there.

I considered making a point about how that’s the price you pay for your French colonialist ancestors being not quite as successful at conquest and colonisation as my English colonialist ancestors, but thought better of it and shouted the next round.

The Door was Marked “Important Place”

This conversation reminded me of the fact that inside the Bird’s Nest stadium during that over-planned, over-protected and over-exposed mystical, nationalist, sporting fortnight in 2008, plenty of French had been spoken. Of course this was not something called for by the denizens of Beijing, but rather a legacy of the modern Olympic movement, the near sole creation of an aristocratic Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was insistent that his native tongue be paramount.

Coubertin’s other noteworthy achievements include winning an Olympic gold medal himself in 1912, for literature no less (medals were also awarded that year for architecture, music, painting and sculpture), as well as devising a sport that remains part of the Games to this day: modern pentathlon. This combination of running, swimming, show-jumping, fencing a shooting was carefully constructed to test all the essential skills required of a late 19th Century cavalry officer. That Usain Bolt may be pretty quick, but how good is his horse handling and swordsmanship?

Eventually my namesake from Lyon and I finish our drinks and bid one another farewell. As I drift upstairs I take time to photograph some classic Chinglish found on a noticeboard. “Take material object as the standard”; these odd words are slapped across a picture of coffee and cake. Further along the corridor a door is simply marked “Important Place”.

Reflecting on the myriad problems and amusements our species’ myriad languages engender, I fall asleep.