Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Olympic odyssey, part 1

Where oh where do I begin recounting my Olympic experience? Our 5 days in Beijing went by in a blur, and I'm not just talking about the infamous smog that hangs over the Chinese capital. I returned to Manila with aching arm and leg muscles, scratches on my knee, the beginnings of a bad cold, and a clogged ear... but I'm not complaining. This was one of the most memorable trips of my life, and it was worth all the aggravation we suffered beforehand, during and afterwards. Beijing definitely gave us our money's worth, and then some.

August 7: Star-studded flight

We shared our flight to Beijing with none other than PAL head honcho Lucio "Kapitan" Tan himself, who was bringing an entourage of 90+ with him to Beijing (free airfare, free hotel accommodations, but no Olympic tickets). My parents knew so many people on the plane that the exchange of greetings and small talk practically didn't stop throughout the 5-hour flight. I found myself seated beside Orly Mercado, future ambassador to China, who was very pleasant and made my day by assuming I was still a student. =D Other famous names on the passenger manifest: Lucio Co, Gregorio Honasan, Kim Atienza, Anthony Suntay, and even Ruffa Gutierrez.

Touristy afternoon

After checking into the Wangfujing Grand Hotel, we had a late lunch, then headed to the National Grand Theater, more popularly known as "The Egg", for some photo ops. After that we proceeded to my favorite mall in Beijing, the Orient Plaza, for some shopping and coffee. We ran into some more acquaintances from Manila, including my mom's old ob-gyn, the woman who delivered me and my sibs (I always regard her with a certain sense of indebtedness for that, haha). For dinner we met up with Bens and his friends from Beida (short for Beijing Da Xue, or Peking University), and it was reassuring to see how well my baby brother has adjusted to life in China, scruffy hair and all. He gave us a big heavy bag of stuff to bring home to Manila, and we made plans for him to stay at our hotel the following night after the opening ceremony.

Day 2: 08-08-08

We spent the morning shopping for Olympics souvenirs, then grabbed a quick lunch before making our way to the Olympic Green. We took the subway from the station nearest our hotel, and after 2 transfers, arrived at the station for the Olympic line only to find that we had to wait for almost 2 hours before they'd open the security checkpoints and let anyone on the train. There we stood sweating it out in the summer humidity, huddled under tents and umbrellas, drinking up the bottled water we wouldn't be able to bring past security anyway. Finally, the gates opened, and we had our tickets scanned, our faces photographed, our bags x-rayed, and our bodies patted down before we were allowed to board the subway to the Olympic Green. On the train there was already an air of giddy anticipation among our fellow passengers, and it was nice being part of that collective excitement.

The first sight to greet us upon emerging from the subway was the row of elaborate showrooms constructed by all the Olympics sponsors: Kodak, Coke, Samsung, Lenovo, Omega, etc. Behind them stood the Fencing Hall of the National Convention Center and the National Indoor Stadium. Farther down the street was the National Aquatics Center, dubbed "The Water Cube", and across it was "The Bird's Nest", the National Stadium. Walking towards the Nest, we passed the NBC studio at the foot of the Ling Long Pagoda, a triangular tower sporting the Olympic rings and which I'd later learn houses the International Broadcast Center.

The Bird's Nest

When we got to the Nest, we had to split up because our parents' seats were in the second tier while ours were in the nosebleed section up on third.
Bens and I made the high ascent to our seats, already depleted and dehydrated from the heat. Our section was almost directly across the VIP box where the princes, presidents, and prime ministers would later be seated, which meant we'd be looking at the backs of the performers later, but at least we had an excellent central aerial view. Each seat had a goodie bag placed on it, and we eagerly opened ours to root through the loot. Mercifully, there was a bottle of water in there, along with a disposable plastic poncho in case of rain. There was also a small flag of China, a scarf printed with the red cloud design used on this year's Olympic torch, a blue flashlight, a replica of the Olympic torch with blinking lights that flash different Olympic images, a traditional Chinese toy drum with one of the Olympic mascots printed on it, and a set of 5 rubber baller IDs/wristbands in the Olympic colors.

The pre-show entertainment commenced around 6:00PM, featuring dance troupes from the different provinces of China, including Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang and Tibet. Bens and I snacked on popcorn and ice cream (he also had a hot dog roll and a tub of yogurt) while watching, and took turns using the glittery ninang pamaypay I had brought along. Hanks had also lent me a small battery-operated fan in the shape of a fat penguin, but it couldn't do much against the horrific humidity. Bens popped out for a few minutes to meet Ma, who had run to the McDonald's near the subway station to buy burgers that would serve as our dinner for the night. She'd later complain that she had a hard time getting to McDo because security had unnecessarily cordoned off a lot of the walkways. More on exasperating Chinese rigidity by and by.

The seats around us filled up, mostly with foreigners wearing their country's colors: a row of Dutch in orange, 2 families of Britons bedecked with the Union Jack, a couple of formally attired Irish, a bunch of outlandish Germans in Chinese costumes, a crowd of Brazilians in yellow, a group of rowdy Russians in red and white, and a father and son duo from Jamaica in yellow and green. Seated in front of us was a married Filipino couple from the US, and beside us, another father and son pair, from Manila. The son was a Xavier boy based in Singapore, and he chatted with fellow Xavierian Bens during lulls. As more people packed the stadium, the warmer it got, and the Bird's Nest was transformed into a veritable sauna.
By the end of the evening I would feel like I had sweated away at least 3 pounds.

Jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, spellbinding

At exactly 8:00PM, the opening ceremony kicked off with a literal bang, and for the next hour or so, my jaw hung open in amazement as
I witnessed firsthand what was arguably the most spectacular opening in Olympic history. My brother, who is not one to be easily impressed, kept exclaiming, "What! That's ridiculous!" as each segment of the program rolled out, showcasing the beauty and grandeur of China's rich history and culture, as well as demonstrating the discipline, dedication and artistry of the 100,000-strong Chinese performers. I've admired and respected director Zhang Yimou since seeing his marvelous movie Hero, but that night at the Nest his genius was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. From start to finish, the opening ceremony was simply stunning: the 2008 LED-lit Fou drums that led the countdown to 8:00PM, the raising of the illuminated Olympic rings, the gorgeous giant calligraphy scroll, the perfectly synchronized "movable type" printing blocks manually operated by 800+ people, the 800+ performers reciting from Confucius' Analects, the rising dragon pillars, the Chinese opera portion, the human-formed Bird's Nest and Dove of Peace, the 2008 taiqi masters and their awesome routine, the acrobats walking around a huge globe which turned into a red lantern on top of which Chinese singer Liu Huan and Broadway superstar Sarah Brightman sang a duet, the 2008 umbrellas opening to reveal 2008 smiling faces, and the climactic lighting of the Olympic flame by Chinese gymnastics legend Li Ning, who was hoisted on cables above the Bird's Nest and "ran" around the rim against a video montage backdrop of other people who had participated in the torch relay.

And of course there was no shortage of fireworks (this was China, after all). Those of us inside the Nest couldn't really see the fireworks display overhead, but they flashed video footage on the big screens. By now I know that the firework "footprints" leading from Tiananmen Square all the way to the Bird's Nest were actually computer-generated, but at the time, seeing it play out on the big screens, it floored me. It's a shame it wasn't real, but in my opinion it doesn't take away from the glorious success of the opening ceremonies as a whole. As the media would herald it the morning after, it was a truly sensational coming-out party for China, and I'm glad I was there taking part in the celebration.

The festive mood was sustained even during the time-consuming and usually tedious parade of athletes. If I had been watching on TV at home, that would be the point where I'd go to the bathroom or raid the fridge. But being there live, and because we were seated among many different nationalities, I wasn't bored at all. Every time a country was announced, there would be applause, and the toy drums from our goodie bags would be used to salute the entrance of the contingent. When the time came for the Philippine delegation to enter the stadium, our small group of 6 Filipinos (Bens and I, the 2 Fil-Ams and the father and son tandem) rose and cheered. Elsewhere in the Nest, other Filipinos were cheering as well, but we were no match for the roars that greeted big countries like the US, Russia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, and host nation China. International sports stars like Switzerland's flag-bearer Roger Federer, his rival Rafael Nadal, and NBA players Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki also received ovations when they were captured on camera, their close-ups flashed on the jumbotrons.

Beginning's end

The egress from the Bird's Nest was doomed to be a logistical nightmare, but the organizers attempted to regulate the flow of foot traffic by having Jackie Chan, Karen Mok and other Hong Kong singers perform 3 song numbers after the ceremony proper, in an effort to discourage people from leaving the stadium all at once. Bens and I stayed to the very end, and it was quick enough exiting the Nest, but after we had rejoined the parental units, we found that there was still a massive mob headed for the subway station. It took us a good half hour before we finally boarded a train to take us back to the city center. Our folks, who had attended the 2000 Olympics, contrasted Beijing's ill-coordinated system with Sydney's uber-efficient one, and their final verdict was that although they enjoyed and appreciated Beijing's opening ceremonies more, they had an easier and more comfortable time in Sydney. Overly paranoid and strict security measures of the Beijing organizers were
implemented at the expense of the convenience of spectators, and while I understood their concern for safety, it was still a buzzkill.

By the time we reached our hotel (stopping by another McDonald's along the way to grab another batch of takeout burgers), it was already past 3:00AM, and we were all famished and exhausted. With 4 of us sharing one bathroom, it was 5:00AM before any of us got some sleep. But I was on a high anyway, because I had just seen the greatest show on Earth.
I remember turning to Bens at one point during the opening ceremony and saying, "London must be shitting in their pants right now!" The organizers of the 2012 Olympics now face the Herculean task of reaching the bar set astronomically high by Beijing. Good luck, chaps.

August 9: a break on day 3

We woke up in time for lunch at the nearby Crowne Plaza, then did some more shopping in the Wangfujing area. Bens bought a cool Nike wushu (that's kungfu to the uninitiated) shirt made of Drifit material, adding to his previous purchase of a Team USA Kobe Bryant basketball jersey (his idea of investment dressing). I focused on buying souvenirs for family friends who had made bilin, and friends of mine like John, who's the biggest Olympics nut I know.

We met a family friend for coffee at the lobby of the Grand Hyatt, then it was off to dinner at the best Peking duck place in Beijing, Da Dong Kao Ya Dian (Da Dong Peking Duck Restaurant). We dined with Pa's former coach from his years with the Philippine national table tennis team, a very typical blustery and borderline bastos China man named Wang, plus a friend of Pa's from the Philippine Olympic Committee who had helped us get tickets to the opening ceremony and book a hotel room. Coach Wang gave us 4 tickets for the next day's tennis events, and I was totally psyched because next to seeing the US basketball team in action, watching either Federer or Nadal play was what I wanted most. And since tickets for the US-China basketball match on August 10 were impossible to get (and criminally priced), I settled for the chance to see Roge or Rafa in person.

*to be continued in a separate post*


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