Friday, August 15, 2008

My Olympic odyssey, part 2

August 10: the day things didn't go according to plan

We had 2 tickets for the morning's qualifying round of women's gymnastics, and our parents let me and Bens use them since they've already watched gymnastics before, at the Sydney Olympics. Bens would be coming from his dorm, so we agreed to just meet at the National Indoor Stadium. It was raining that morning so I took a cab from our hotel to the nearest subway station and made my way to the same security checkpoint before they let you board the train to the Olympic Green. After my bag came out from the x-ray machine, one of the security personnel stopped me and asked if I had any makeup inside. Puzzled, because 'cosmetics' wasn't on the list of contraband items, I answered in the affirmative, and he told me to bring it out. When I produced an eyeshadow palette, he asked me to open it, then said, "Try it."

I stared at him uncomprehendingly. "What?"

"Try it," he repeated, miming applying the makeup.

"There are 8 colors in here!" I protested.

"On your hand," he relented.

So I brushed all 8 colors on the back of my hand, and I thought that was the end of it, but then the guy asked if I had any liquids in my bag, and I took out my body spray, which he also asked me "try".

"You know, you weren't this thorough the day of the opening ceremony," I pointed out testily as I spritzed myself.

I got nothing but a sheepish look in response.

Then he spotted my hand sanitizer, which I also had to "try", and lastly, my lip gloss. When the security guy saw that I didn't drop dead on the spot from all the products I had tried on, I was finally released, and I bolted for the subway.

The ups and downs of gymnastics

Due to the hold-up, I was late getting to the National Indoor Stadium, and I seriously had to pee, so by the time I got to my seat (Bens had gotten there ahead of me) I had missed one rotation. China had already finished the balance beam and was proceeding to floor exercises. Also competing in the qualifying round that morning were Romania and 2 mixed groups (Venezuela, Spain, Canada, etc.). Because so many things were going on at the same time, my peripheral vision was exercised quite a bit, but for the most part I chose to concentrate on the Chinese gymnasts, who clearly outshone the rest. With the home crowd egging them on with chants of "jiayou!" ("go!"), the girls gave solid performances on the floor, did magnificently on the vault, and would have been flawless on the uneven bars if one of them hadn't slipped and lost her grip. Regardless of the error, the Chinese team finished with the highest score, and the appreciative audience rewarded them with a thunderous round of applause.

There has been talk that some of the members of the Chinese gymnastics team are younger than the 16-year-old minimum age set by the International Gymnastics Federation, and looking at their petite frames and guileless faces, I had my own doubts about their eligibility. But more than that, I felt sorry for them, for all the gymnasts, because they've lost the better part of their childhood training doggedly, and the pressure on them to win is tremendous-- even an adult would buckle under the strain, let alone a teenager. Whenever they fell from the balance beam, or landed awkwardly off the vault, I winced in sympathy. It's fun watching when they do well, but heart-breaking when they falter.

Gymnastics has always been one of my favorite Olympic events, so I was glad we managed to snag tix, and seeing China in action was a neat bonus. They would later go on to win the team gold over the US and Romania, and I'm glad their efforts paid off as they were recognized for being the world-class gymnasts they are, underaged or not.

Digicam distress

To my horror, my digicam chose that day to malfunction. All the shots I took would come out as a bright flash, except when I zoomed in twice. So for the remainder of our trip, I was forced to take photos using that setting. It was frustrating, especially when I wanted to zoom in closer on something far away, or take a wider shot of something close. My only consolation was that my camera didn't act up before the opening ceremony, because if I hadn't had the use of my zoom then, I would have totally wigged out.

QT with shoti

Our tickets for tennis weren't until 5:00PM, so after watching gymnastics, we had some time to kill. Bens took me to a mall in Wudaokou, the student-populated district near his university. He decided to get a haircut at his usual salon, a huuuge fancy Korean place that offers free drinks and Internet to its clientele. I took advantage of the free Internet, and checked my email and even got to chat with Hanks over YM for a short while.

My newly shorn brother and I had a very satisfying, leisurely lunch at Grandma's Kitchen inside the same mall. We shared fried mushrooms, a breakfast skillet and a Philly cheese-steak sandwich, washed down with thick yummy milkshakes. Then we got a call from the parental units, saying they were on their way to the Olympic Green. They were extremely early, but since none of us knew for sure where the Tennis Center was, they thought they'd go ahead and scout out the place. A second phone call informed us that we had to take a bus to the Tennis Center, since the Olympic subway line doesn't go all the way there. Pa also wasted a few call minutes bitching about how none of the BOCOG
(Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad)
volunteers around the Olympic Green seemed to know exactly where the Tennis Center was. I could tell he was on the brink of losing his temper, and I hoped for the volunteers' sake that they could be more helpful towards my irate father.

Mother Nature has her way

Bens and I managed to get on the right bus to the Tennis Center, but as soon as we stepped off, rain started to fall. Within seconds, it was a torrential downpour, and our umbrellas and hooded jackets couldn't do much to keep us dry. Our sneakers and socks were soaked, and by the time we reached the security checkpoint tents, we looked like a couple of basang sisiw. A call to our parents confirmed that they had also been caught in the rain, and were even more drenched than us. Since they were still in the vicinity of the National Indoor Stadium and they had gymnastics tickets on hand anyway, I urged them to just go watch gymnastics while we tried to see if there was even going to be any tennis played in such nasty weather.

After a few minutes of waiting inside the security tent, huddled with a jampacked throng of fellow wet spectators, a volunteer announced that the afternoon's tennis matches were canceled. A collective groan of disappointment rose from the disheveled, disgruntled mob. I was crestfallen, but I couldn't blame the weather on anyone. Plastic ponchos were distributed, and I put mine on over my bag, which was already very damp (including the contents!). When the rain eased up a bit, Bens and I made our way back to the bus depot, and we separated at the subway station, him to head back to his dorm, me to meet up with the 'rents for dinner.

The most watched game in the history of basketball

We returned to our hotel before 10:00PM to catch the much anticipated China-US basketball match on TV. We laid our wet clothes and shoes and umbrellas out to dry, then sat back and watched the "Redeem Team" demolish Yao Ming and crew. I had bet my mom RMB500 the US would win by at least 20 points, and I easily won that bet, as the final damage was a 31-point spread. China actually put up a decent fight in the first half, but the Americans were too tough for them and totally dominated the second half. It actually got a bit boring towards the end, and it made me feel better about not having gotten tickets to the game. I didn't want to pay an arm and a leg just to see the US take apart a hapless Chinese squad (and LeBron and company would have been tiny specks from the seats we might have gotten anyway).

But I still felt bummed that I had missed my opportunity to see some tennis stars in person.

August 11: the day things didn't go according to plan... in a good way

The morning of our 5th and final full day in Beijing brought with it a wonderful windfall. One of my dad's connections in the sports world, the president of China's Table Tennis Association, dropped by our hotel to say hello to Pa, and he gave us a bunch of tickets to several events... including 2 for tennis scheduled for 5:00PM that day! The rest were for days after our departure from Beijing, so Bens would be the sole lucky beneficiary. Since he would get to watch volleyball, fencing, table tennis, athletics AND swimming, and since Pa has watched more live Olympic events than any of us (he saw the original Dream Team play in Barcelona!), Ma and I happily took the tennis tickets.

Courtesy call to the Rey-na

Before we made our way to the Tennis Center, we went to visit a friend at his restaurant, the posh Courtyard, located outside the east gate of the Forbidden City. Rey Lim, one of my favorite people in the world, is the executive chef and part-owner of this fabulous fusion restaurant, frequented by celebrities and politicians from all over the globe. He told us that just the previous night, Princess Anne had dined there, as well as the Prince of Denmark. He also told us that he'll be featured on the Today Show on August 19 (his second time!), so he'd have to bring his kitchen equipment and staff all the way to the NBC studio at the Olympic Green. Rey's originally from Manila, but he's been based in Beijing for 13 years now. I first met him when I was studying in Beijing 6 years ago; a high school classmate of one of Ma's friends, Rey has a larger-than-life personality (think Will & Grace's Jack meets Mario Batalli), a wicked sense of humor (think Carson Kressley meets Gordon Ramsay), and an unabashed love for Beijing. He's been convincing me to move to Beijing ever since we met; for some reason he is particularly fond of me and keeps saying he sees "potential" in me. As much as I adore him though, I don't think I could ever call any place but Manila home.

We and Rey compared notes on the opening ceremony, and he told us how gratified he felt watching on TV. In the months leading to the Olympics, the residents of Beijing suffered many inconveniences and made many sacrifices because of the city's wide-scale preparations for the big event. Rey hated it as much as anyone, but after seeing the opening, he said it was worth all the aggravation. There was no mistaking the evident pride in his voice, a pride no doubt shared by billions of native and ethnic Chinese the world over. Beijing definitely made a strong statement with the opening ceremony, a declaration of its extraordinary might and prowess, in spite of some perceived shortcomings (CGI fireworks, lipsynched performances, and other flaws pinpointed by nitpickers and naysayers).


From the Courtyard, Ma and I took a cab to the Tennis Center, but the driver was forced to drop us off many blocks away because all the roads leading to the Center were blocked off to traffic. Peeved by the inconvenience, we walked a good distance to take a shuttle bus... only to have the bus driver deposit us at a point still pretty far away from the Tennis Center. It was almost 5:00PM, so we hurriedly made our way on foot to the security checkpoint tents, where a sizable crowd had amassed outside the gates. We squeezed into the sea of people
and waited for a few minutes in line, and even though everyone around me had tennis tickets in hand, I had a nagging feeling we were in the wrong line because it wasn't budging. I wormed my way out and asked a nearby volunteer where the line for tennis was, and confirming my hunch, he pointed me towards another line, which was already starting to move forward in an unruly manner. I sorely wanted to berate the volunteer for standing idly by without informing people where the correct line was, but time was a-wasting, and I shouted for my mom instead.

We elbowed our way into the surging tide of spectators, pushing past a big thorny bush (and because I was wearing a polo dress I sustained some scratches on my knee) and stepping across a muddy embankment (and because I was wearing open-toed shoes I got mud on my toes). When we got to the security checkpoint, I was afraid they'd make me "try" all my makeup products again, but instead the security guy who opened my bag trained his attention on the asado bun that was a takeout leftover from lunch. "No food allowed," he admonished, so I shoved the plastic container at him, snapping, "Take it then!" I think I scared him, because he let me go immediately.

Tennis buffet

Ma and I ran to Center Court, and in the nick of time, arrived to find that the scheduled match was Venus Williams going up against an unknown Swiss. As I snapped some photos of Venus warming up, Ma talked to an usher and learned that we could actually go court-hopping (the Tennis Center has a total of 10 courts) and watch any match we wanted. So we transferred to Court 1 to watch Great Britain's Andy Murray get upset by Taiwan's Lu Yen-Hsun. It was an unexpectedly thrilling match, with the predominantly Chinese spectators rallying behind Lu. When a man in the crowd yelled in Mandarin, "Go, Lu! This is our home court!", it elicited cheers from everyone who understood, and I was moved by the support shown to a player from a country that's long been at odds with mainland China.

Sometime during the Murray-Lu match, I snuck out to return to Center Court to snap some shots of Serbia's Novak Djokovic, then scurried back to Court 1. I didn't want to lose our vantage seats, because after Lu's stirring victory over Murray came a doubles match between Italy and Switzerland, and of course who
else comprised half of the Swiss team but Roger Federer. When he walked out onto the court, the audience went wild, and I had to restrain myself from jumping off the railing-- he was close enough for me to spit on him! Unfortunately, my uncooperative , defective digicam was already flashing the red "low battery" sign, so I had to budget the number of shots I could take of Roge, because we still had to go check out the doubles match between Sweden and Spain, where Rafael Nadal would be. In any case, we couldn't stay for either match, because we had a dinner appointment to make, and we were running late as it was. I had to be content with just a few minutes of warm-ups, and all throughout I couldn't tear my eyes away from Roge, he was so incredibly gorgeous. Even my mom couldn't help commenting that he looked much more handsome in person. She had to almost physically drag me away, and I reluctantly left Court 1 to head over to Court 2 to scope out Rafa.

However, when we got to Court 2, a women's singles match was still underway. We waited while China's Li Na defeated her Hungarian opponent, then muscled our way to the front of the spectators' area, jockeying for position to take photos of the new Wimbledon champ and impending World No. 1. When Nadal emerged, he got the same kind of rousing reception as Federer, and as I got a good look at him, I got confirmation that he is indeed muy caliente. Miraculously, my digicam hadn't died on me yet, and I managed to take a few photos of the sexy Spanish hunk before Ma and I had to dash.

Hard to leave (in more ways than one)

It was another monster headache trying to find transportation from the Tennis Center, and I couldn't blame my mom for continuously cursing the ineptitude of the Beijing Organizing Committee. They really didn't make it easy for spectators to get to and from and move within the Olympic Green. There was no way to hail a cab, the bus stops were not accessible, and there was only one subway station that wasn't even centrally located. If I weren't riding on a high from having just seen Federer and Nadal in person, I would have been in a far more foul mood as we gave up looking for a taxi and hauled our weary butts onto a jampacked bus. I suggested to Ma that we just get off at the first stop where there were unoccupied taxis in sight, and that plan worked. We were meeting some family friends from Manila for dinner, and we were very, very late, and it didn't help that our cab driver had a bit of trouble finding our destination.

When we got to the restaurant (Da Dong Peking Duck again!), everyone was already there, and they had started the first course without us. As I settled into my seat beside Bens, I realized that despite the long afternoon we'd had, I wasn't very hungry. I joked that "busog na ako" from Federer and Nadal. I didn't even feel any envy as I handed over the
volleyball, fencing, table tennis, athletics, and swimming tickets to Bens. I don't care how many gold medals he has, no way is Michael Phelps hotter than either Roge or Rafa.

Zaijian, Beijing, and xiexie

The next day, before we got on our 1:00PM flight back to Manila, we had enough time to shop for more Olympics souvenirs at the airport. It was both amusing and gratifying to see how the t-shirts, keychains and other memorabilia were selling like hotcakes, especially among foreigners. For all of the BOCOG's lapses in logistics, I had to hand it to them for putting together an undeniably successful opening ceremony, as well as getting the Games off to a good start. Never mind the surprising number of empty seats at some supposedly sold-out events-- the people who did show up all looked genuinely happy, including the foreigners who didn't seem to mind the sweltering conditions. Never mind the exaggeratedly strict security measures-- the overall atmosphere was peaceful and friendly. Never mind the sore lack of dining options around the Olympic Green-- man can live on McDonald's alone (for a few days). Never mind that volunteers couldn't give precise directions to venues-- getting lost was part of the adventure. Ok, maybe I can't forgive replacing the little girl
who sang "Ode to the Motherland" during the opening ceremony with a cuter kid who did a Milli Vanilli, but as even Rey would concede, Beijing is by no means perfect. However, with all that it's accomplished so far hosting the Olympics, give it a few more years, and it will surely find a way to impress the world all over again. Beijing, jiayou!


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