Thursday, August 28, 2008

Not so much FUN

I was only mildly annoyed by "Beijing Boyce's" first "The Olympics are going to be such fun!" piece last month. Since then he has parlayed this attitude into a lifestyle, a career, becoming a kind of Da Shan of the bar-blog world - grinning ecstatically and spreading his "fun" gospel to anyone who will listen. This I am finding really irritating! I suppose I should just stop reading him. (Hm, yes, that would be easy enough.)

Mr Boyce seems to have had a whale of a time this past couple of weeks. Because he appears to have had no 'day job' to distract him and was able to go Olympic 24/7. Because he was able to get plenty of tickets to events. Because he was able to rub shoulders with a number of athletes/celebrities (but only by hanging out in the sort of nightclubs I wouldn't be caught dead in, even if Lolo Jones herself invited me). Because he's become a kind of D-list celeb himself for the fortnight, courted by several overseas reporters for a 'Beijing is FUN' quote.

I don't at all begrudge Mr Boyce his moment in the sun. I'm glad that he had fun. I've never suggested that it was going to be impossible to have any fun during the Olympics in Beijing. Heck, I even managed to have a little myself, here and there. But it's all a matter of perspective. I'm definitely of the school that says: "Hey, that glass was at least three-quarters empty."

I am quite confident that London in 2012 will be way more fun (even though I dislike London, and consider it one of the least 'fun' cities in the world). I am absolutely sure that Barcelona and Sydney were way more fun. I suspect that even Athens (which suffered many of the same problems of over-zealous "security", disappointing visitor figures, and local apathy) was quite a bit more fun.

In fact, I'd be willing to bet that the Beijing Olympics were way more fun to experience in just about any major European city - and probably in many other places in Asia, Africa, and the Americas too. Just about anywhere would have been more fun than here.

Amongst the reasons why the Beijing Olympics were not much fun:

1) A large number of my foreign friends had been driven out of the country by the ridiculous visa restrictions introduced this year.

2) A large number of Chinese - including most of the regular staff at several of my favourite small neighbourhood restaurants - have been driven out of the city because they couldn't get the requisite hukou (residence permit).

3) A large number of people - both Chinese and foreign - just got so fed up of all the hype and hassle surrounding the event that they chose to quit Beijing voluntarily for the month of August.

4) Aside from athletes and journalists etc., the number of foreign visitors was tiny - perhaps only one tenth of what you'd expect in a typical August. There just weren't any big crowds anywhere.

5) The local Chinese were pretty apathetic about the event on the whole. Football and basketball enjoy a big following amongst the young. A few other sports - like badminton and table tennis - have traditionally been very popular here. Most of the other competitions produced boredom and incomprehension in the domestic audience. I base my observations on what I found people watching outdoors, when shopkeepers had set a television on the sidewalk for passers-by to gather round (the most fun way to experience these Olympics, in my opinion): opening and closing ceremonies, yes; basketball, yes; football, table tennis, badminton, pretty popular; volleyball, (surprisingly?) not so much; everything else, just about no interest at all (not even in the diving and gymnastics, in which China did well; certainly not in the swimming and athletics, in which it did not).

6) Chinese street life - for me, the single greatest charm of this country - was largely suppressed. Bars and restaurants across the whole city were prevented from putting tables and chairs out on the sidewalks as they usually do. Street food vendors were banished. It's become next-to-impossible to buy a jian bing (a kind of sweet/spicy pancake with an egg and crispy waffle filling), for heaven's sake!

7) The live music scene was suppressed, subdued. The feared complete shutdown of live music venues did not happen (though outdoor music events have been outlawed for pretty much the whole year!), but they've suffered so much disruption and intimidation recently that the programmes they put forth this month were extremely pared down - hardly any gigs of note. And one of my favourite spots, Ritan Park's Stone Boat Bar, has been prevented from staging concerts all summer.

8) Apart from the occasional knot of people watching something on a TV outside a restaurant or xiaomaibu, there's really been very little open-air enjoyment of this Olympics. The handful of big outdoor screens set up around the city rarely attracted much of a crowd, and I gather they stopped operating some of them during the daytime because of the lack of interest (I wandered through the new Sanlitun mall complex, The Village, one evening when China's women were playing volleyball - and found only a couple of dozen people watching the big screen there, and very half-heartedly at that). During the last Football World Cup, every bar in the city bought additional TVs, some got fancy projectors, and many set them up outside; almost every game drew large numbers of fans to watch. That just didn't happen this summer - whether because bar owners didn't think it was worth their while, or because the police discouraged or forbade it. (I don't know how the worldwide TV viewing figures compare, but here in China I'm quite sure that the Olympics is nothing like so big a deal as the World Cup.)

9) The authorities repeatedly soured the atmosphere with a string of petty (and not so petty) repressions and PR disasters: fibbing and faking elements of the Opening Ceremony (I thought this was pretty trivial actually; but the culpability lay not so much in the original decisions as in the subsequent PR handling of the stories); reneging on promises of completely liberalised Internet access; attempting to 'cover up' or downplay stories about the murderous assault on American tourists in the Drum Tower and the crippling of one of the dancers in an Opening Ceremony rehearsal; haranguing (and occasional roughing up) of reporters and photographers who tried to report things other than the sport; the arresting of people foolhardy enough to apply for 'protest permits' (including a couple of grannies sentenced to 're-education through labour'); and the attempt to stonewall through the gymnastics age-faking scandal.

10) Boyce cites a handful of bars and nightclubs where good times were to be had during the Olympics. This rather overlooks the fact that 98% of the other venues in the city were pretty much DEAD this past month. And even at Boyce's award winners, I suspect the "fun" often had not that much to do with the Olympics; places like these would probably have enjoyed some bigger nights, higher times in any regular August.

No, all in all, these Olympics were a big disappointment. We've all spent the last 7 years hoping for, looking forward to THE BIGGEST PARTY IN HISTORY - and it just didn't happen.

I have elaborated a little further on this theme over on Froogville too.


Froog said...

I was reminded just yesterday that London in 1996 - during the European Football Championships hosted in the UK that summer - was way more fun than Beijing was this month. Watching the Football World Cup while I was in Australia (and Fiji) in 1994 was also way more fun than Beijing this month. I can't think of many major international sporting festivals that have been more of a damp squib than this Olympics.

The British Cowboy said...

How much of that, though, is because the Olympics is pants. Football tournaments are fun because it is a good sport.

Froog said...

And football provides a more unified focus. There's just too much going on in the Olympics.

The gymnastics is very photogenic (but worrying in the freakishness required of its competitors, particularly the teenaged girls), but difficult to take seriously as a sport because of the subjectivity and obscurity of its scoring system.

Swimming is a proper sport, but not great televisual entertainment.

Everything else is just a tiresome distraction. Team sports and sports that rely on apparatus (like shooting) have no place in the original Olympic concept. And combat sports don't seem to fit well with the "peaceful" focus of the modern 'Olympic spirit'.

For me, it's all about the athletics. The athletics I like. Very few Chinese gave a toss about watching the athletics, even before Liu Xiang dropped out.

I was talking here about the atmosphere out on the streets. The Olympics are a BIG event, and even if you're not that excited about them yourself, you'd expect that there would be plenty of people around who were quite excited about them, and that this would generate a vibrant party atmosphere.

Not here.

a drinking companion said...

Somewhat controversially I have been telling people that I think that football should be dropped from the Olympics. After all if you asked a Brazilian "Would you rather win the World Cup or the Olympics?" we all know what he and any player for that matter would say.

It costs loads to put on the Olympics and the football money could go towards putting on sports that don't get a look in other HUGE competitions the way footie does. To me the Olympics is about show casing the best of sports particularly the ones that get little coverage usually.

For example bring back the tug of war (with the water in the middle of course). I recon the ancient Greeks would have gone a bundle on that.

Froog said...

Agreed, football shouldn't be in there.

It gets particularly silly when they create all these elaborate rules to try to differentiate the Olympic competition from the regular professional sport - and they're different for every sport.

Tennis should not be included, because I think it is too thoroughly "professionalised". (It looks as though most of the tennis stars don't give a toss about it anyway.)

Basketball should not be included, for much the same reason.

Actually, for simplicity and consistency, I would simply drop all the team sports; the Olympics is supposed to be about individual excellence. I have a bit of a soft spot for volleyball and hockey, but.... if you have these, why not also rugby and lacrosse?

I like tug-of-war too, but it is a team sport.

I'd also drop table tennis - just to piss the Chinese off, and cut their medal count back a bit.

And badminton. Again, for the sake of consistency, maybe we could just say no bat/racket sports. How can they have badminton and not squash, which is much better game??