Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Beijing Report: 08-09-08

The first thing you notice when you enter Beijing is the startling number of large, clean, empty streets. It's as though your grandmother bought several hundred miles of beautiful sofa, and then proceeded to cover it in plastic and glare at you when you had any ideas about sitting down. The second thing you notice is the smog that hangs over these streets like an unfortunate brown-green comforter that she knitted herself, even though her hands are in terrific pain and her grandson never seems to call, and that she's just waiting for you to fail to adore. And so I won't. I have loftier ambitions. I'm here for the 2008 Olympic Games; and fuck her sofa anyway.

I am staying at the Hotel Kunlun on the Tian' Anmen; a seven hundred room tower of glass, angles, and discipline, that should give me easy access to all of the most important events. After checking in I am assigned a militant dwarf named Chan who will, apparently, guide me through the labyrinth that is modern urban China. Chan has what I can only describe as a French accent when he speaks English, all throat and phlegm and anger, and an insatiable hunger for opium that might prove useful should things go badly.

He also has a bright red Volvo 240 wagon that we pile into as we head off for the Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium and the cruel world of Olympic Badminton. The gigantic steel gym is awash in indirect light and smells faintly of sweat and mango. Malaysia's best hope for its first ever Olympic gold medal, world No.2 badminton player Lee Chong Wei, is eyeballing me from the moment I enter the gym. Her orange and brown sweat suit is severe and uncompromising. Unwashed children massage her thighs and ply her with Chicklets gum. Her racket rests softly beside her chair.

The Chinese have long abandoned the practice of public cat burning, but you wouldn't know it from the ugly demeanor of the audience in the gym tonight. Uniformed men with megaphones march trough the aisles shouting the most horrible, I'm assured by Chan, sexual epithets at any passerby who doesn't visibly appreciate the rigors of the game. The lights grow dim and, amidst the angry shouting, two androgynous multi-colored badmintoners are wheeled out onto the pit. An elderly woman of indeterminate race shatters a crystal pumpkin and the game begins.

What appears to be series of feline shrieks is followed by the tossing of the shuttlecock and an audible groan from the audience. Chinese rock music careens throughout the gym and Chan is noticeably shaken. After seventy-two minutes of flashing lights and epileptic frenzy, the girl/boy in orange is carted from the arena and a national anthem of some kind is blasted through the PA system. Muscular Korean women weep uncontrollably.

Chan grabs me by the arm and hurries me into his, still idling, Volvo. "There are so many events," he implores me. And from the manic look in his eyes, I see that he is speaking from his heart. Well, I'll be here two weeks. The key, as it almost always is, is adequate pacing. On the way back to the hotel, I compose myself and prepare for tomorrow and the giddy heights of equestrian dressage.

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