BEIJING DISPATCH: Farewell from Beijing

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By Dr. Bob Elliott

What an exciting adventure we had in Beijing at the 2008 Olympic Games.  Days after we arrived, I agreed to provide dispatches on my experiences and impressions.  | MORE BEIJING DISPATCHES

My initial self-imposed task was to write about the community of Beijing and its’ people, with the Olympic Games as the background experience, but after the athletic competitions began I got caught up in the excitement of the athletic events, especially track and field.  At that point the community and the people remained important features in my experiences but the primary focus of the dispatches changed to the competitions.  

My wife and I had no expectations when we arrived, other than it was exciting to be visiting Asia for the first time and we had an opportunity to see a nation in rapid transition. We attended the Games with a “tourist” visa--not a “Journalist” visa, since a number of my photojournalist colleagues had been denied “Journalist” visas.  No reason was given for the denials. Consequently, many journalists gained entry into China with “Tourist” visas.

The experience of Beijing took on two faces--the people and the culture of Beijing and the athletic competitions. Our reflections are based on our personal experiences, a few comments from other fans, an occasional news media disclosure and brief comments from our four adult children who reported to us from stateside.  Access to media outlets (i.e., BBC, NY Times, etc.) that were likely to provide objective commentary was denied in our hotel.  Only one English-speaking TV station (CNN) provided any content on controversial events in the world but did not televise any competitions. All competitions (including the Opening and Closing ceremonies) that were broadcast were done so only on the CCTV Chinese-speaking stations.  Almost all of the CCTV content was limited to competitions in which the Chinese athletes were hoped to have a strong showing.

People and Culture.  From the beginning of our journey we experienced nothing but friendliness and graciousness from the volunteers that were everywhere in the city late into the evening.  Other citizens would occasionally greet us with a friendly smile and comment, “Welcome to Beijing.”  The only time we encountered “aggressiveness” was when we would wait in a line--it was “every man for himself” in lines for anything.   Size was not a factor as the smaller and obviously very agile elderly Chinese grandmothersplowed their way though anyone who was in front of them.  Generally, they were very successful in their effort.

Language was a major problem in the sprawling city. We were surprised to find that none of the taxi drivers we encountered spoke English. Seldom did we encounter staff at major tourist sites that spoke more than a couple of words of English in their efforts to sell food and trinkets. English was spoken fluently in major downtown Beijing hotels and by occasional “plain-clothes undercover” security personnel who were strategically placed around tourist sites to engage with the visitors.  In some cases they stood out, but often they merged into the background. At first we had the feeling we were constantly being monitored, but soon found ourselves lulled into a false sense of privacy.

Finally, we must make a brief comment about the air quality in Beijing, which was “fair” on a good day.  We were in our hotel for days before we looked out the window and discovered that there were mountains nearby!  The skies were often a dull shade of gray and you could not see the sun.  Reportedly, the Chinese system for rating air quality is quite different than the system we have in the U.S.  It is our understanding that some athletes chose not to compete in long-distance races because of the very poor air quality in Beijing.  My wife is still struggling with allergies triggered by the smog during our trip.

Athletic Events.  The 2008 Olympic Summer Games for Team USA ended on a positive note in he men’s marathon as Dathan Ritzenhein (Eugene), who experienced severe leg cramping just past the 30km mark, took 9th place (2:11.59) and Ryan Hall (Mammoth Lakes, Calif.) took 10th place (2:12:33) on the final day of competition.  Teammate Brian Sell (Rochester Hills, Mich.) finished in 22nd place 2:16.07.  This is the first time the U.S. has placed two athletes in the top 10 of the men’s marathon since the 1976 Olympics in Munich. The Gold Medal went to Samuel Kamau Wanjiru (Kenya) with an Olympic record performance of 2:06.32. Jaouad Gharib (Morocco) was second and Tsegay Kebede (Ethiopia) was third.  At the conclusion of the marathon Ritzenhein, 2008 Olympic Trials runner-up, stated, “I am pretty happy.  I thought I had a good shot at a medal…To be able to come here and finish ninth at the Olympics, it’s a big step for me.  Hopefully I can continue to climb the ladder.”

Although much has been written about the disappointing Olympic performance of the current U.S. track and field team, Team USA was the leader in the medal count in track and field at the conclusion of the 2008 Summer Games. The total medal count for the U.S. track and field team in Beijing equaled the number of medals won in Atlanta in 1996 and exceeded the 17 medals won in the Sydney Games.  The women’s team won nine medals.  This was the best performance by a U.S. women’s track and field team since 1992 when they won 10 medals, and was the third all-time best performance in history.

In the final analysis--it must be pointed out that these young adults were chosen to be on the U.S. team because of their outstanding athletic accomplishments.  Not all of their Olympic performances lived up to their expectations (or ours). However, elite athletes are their own harshest critics.  Instead of criticizing them for “under-performing”, let’s celebrate their victories and support the athletes who are dealing with disappointment over their performances.   These fantastic, dedicated and hard-working athletes will carry their Olympic experiences with them for the rest of their lives.  They will always be able to declare, “I AM AN OLYMPIAN!!!”

Disclosure by Dr. Bob: Shortly after my arrival in Beijing, I received a request to submit articles about my experiences at the Olympic Games. Throughout the month that my wife and I were in Beijing I have diligently written almost daily Dispatches.  After completing a draft of my first Dispatch, my wife, Dr. Twila Elliott, and I decided that my Dispatch would benefit from a co-writer and editor. While I consider myself a competent writer, my wife has added color and texture to the dispatches.  I tend to be a “technical writing” kind of guy—she adds much of the flair and has spent hours adding meaningful twists and correcting my grammatical errors. In a number of the Dispatches she spent more time re-writing and editing the content than I did writing the original articles (including this paragraph). We’ve had a great time writing the articles and we hope you have enjoyed hearing about our experiences. We’re already making plans to attend the 2012 Olympic Games, which will be held in London.

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