Friday, August 15, 2008

Olympics Opening Night

Well, it's nearly a week on - I have been rather busy (and rather ill) this week, so, apologies - but here's a quick rundown on The Big Night here in Beijing last week.

I anticipated traffic chaos around town, and am somewhat phobic of large crowds, so I didn't feel like heading across town to any of the major sports bars or big open-air gathering places. In fact, I was barely recovered from an horrendous cold that had laid me up for most of the week (this week, it was diarrhoea - I am not a well boy!), so it took some effort to summon up the willpower to leave the apartment at all.

However, my favourite local spot Room 101 is only a 25-minute stagger away, so I thought I'd look in there to see if there'd be much of a crowd. It's a good job I got there early: by 7pm or so, there was a HUGE crowd (I've never seen the place so packed, even for the infamous Jack Daniel's promotion night or the Sichuan Earthquake Relief Concert). They'd actually been taking reservations for the upstairs area! And downstairs, the view of the TV screen was soon largely obscured by the arrival of the promotions team from Omega (just getting pissed on a rare night off; not there to give away free watches, alas)..... although once they'd got settled, they considerately kept their heads down.

I never really got a chance to talk to any of the people upstairs (most of whom seemed to have been foreigners), but I rather suspect that most of them were similarly connected to the Games in some way. I discovered that the Aussie couple beside me at the bar downstairs were local residents, like me. Most of the rest of the crowd that night were Chinese. Regular tourists - as opposed to family and friends of competitors and coaches, former athletes, major sponsors and their guests, members of the press, and professionals in the fields of security, PR and other Olympics-related industries - are just about non-existent.

Nevertheless, the opening night was a very special event. Everyone - Chinese and foreign - wanted to watch it live somewhere; most people, in a bar. I very much doubt if any of the actual competitions - even Liu Xiang's much-anticipated final - or the closing ceremony will draw anything like such a high turn-out. I imagine dear old 101 has been pretty much dead again since. I'll probably toddle along there in a few hours to get reports.

The boisterous throng unfortunately overwhelmed the modest capacity of the air-conditioning on this especially humid night, and it was actually rather cooler outside in the street. I eventually persuaded the boss we might all be better off with the doors left open (provided he didn't think that was going to risk causing any bother with the cops or the neighbourhood busybodies; we needn't have worried - they were all glued to their television sets from 8pm to midnight). In fact, I ducked outside a few times to watch on the sidewalk; the xiaomaibu next door had put its television out on the front step and quite a large gaggle of onlookers, Chinese neighbours and just a few passing foreigners, had formed to watch it, spilling into and soon completely blocking the bike lane (again, you might have thought the police would object to this subversive and unlicensed 'public entertainment' and the potential disruption of traffic it was causing - but they were nowhere to be seen).

And when Li Ning had finally done his lighting-the-Flame thing, the boys from Mr Mojo (who had by this time been patiently waiting on the stage for half an hour or more) launched into a kick-ass set of decidedly 60s-ish blues-rock. My kind of thing!

After my recent indisposition, and after 6 or 7 hours in a sweatbox atmosphere, I was thoroughly exhausted and ready to call it a night before the lads came back on stage for Part Deux; but a couple of my lady friends had just turned up, joining from another (more refined??) venue, and I didn't like to abandon them - particularly as there were no cabs at all to take them home. (I have often observed that Beijing is extremely well-served in the number of its cabs, but..... the whole of Beijing was out that night, and a whoppingly high percentage of them were trying to get home again by cab between 12am and 1am. Heck, there were 80,000 people trying to get away from the Bird's Nest alone [Hmm, did they actually keep the subway running late that night? If they didn't, the scenes around the Stadium exits must have been horrendous!]; that could probably tie up nearly half the city's cab fleet for that hour.)

Eventually, however, I did leave them to their fate. Alas, instead of doing the smart thing and going straight home, I succumbed to a bout of remorse about having neglected my real favourite drinking den, The Pool Bar, all night (and indeed, all week), and found myself - almost automatically - turning right instead of left as I walked out of the front door. I don't think I stayed at the PB very long; just 'the one'; or so; but it was after 3am when I finally got home (and we were only just starting to see vacant cabs reappear on the streets).

It was a fine night to be out and about in Beijing; some good craic, as our Irish friends say. (I know of at least 3 people who chose to stay home all night and blog about it instead. Quite mystifying!!!!)

I'm glad I was here for that. So far, though, the rest of the Games have been a bit of a damp squib in terms of the sense of occasion; the city is pleasantly relaxed and cheerful, but very, very quiet. Perhaps things will pick up this weekend, now that the athletics are under way.

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