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13-08-08, 00:17
Feeling Jaded About The Olympic Green

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 13, 2008; E07


If China gets the Olympics again in 100 years, when the population of the country is 10 billion, at least officials won't have to change the Olympic Green. This central heart of the Games, including the Bird's Nest, Water Cube, National Indoor Stadium, Fencing Hall and a central plaza as big as the National Mall, is so vast that it's at least five times bigger than necessary to hold the number of people who usually use it.

Walk the Green at every time of day -- morning, noon, afternoon, evening and night -- and it's always the same. Gorgeous, mammoth, colorful architecture, complete with every kind of light show and visual trick, dazzles you at first, especially after dark.

But eventually you realize that, except for a few hours surrounding the Opening Ceremonies at the Bird's Nest on Friday, there's nobody there. Or rather, there are thousands of people wandering around, but the space is so enormous, and with so few focal points of interest, there are perhaps a dozen people per 1,000 square yards.

Imagine, in a country of 1.3 billion people, you feel like you have the Olympics all to yourself. It's odd to see people posing 20 yards from friends with a camera, sure that nobody will walk into the frame and spoil the picture.

The main issue is that nobody is allowed inside the Green without a ticket to a specific event. The general public is excluded from getting even remotely close to any venue. In effect, this Olympics is a by-invitation-only affair. China has made it difficult to get visas. Many hotels nearly are empty. Attendance at Olympic events is so poor that BOCOG, the Beijing organizing committee, concedes it is letting its volunteers switch from blue shirts to yellow shirts and sit in the empty seats. Even with extra bodies, Michael Phelps won his third gold medal with the Water Cube about 10 percent empty.

Yet Chinese officials have no trouble attending. All day long, fleets of black Audi sedans arrive, sometimes driving quickly right down the center of the nearly deserted Green before whipping past saluting guards into private entrances. That secretive society of barely glimpsed party bosses certainly fits with Chinese urban mythology. Mao supposedly dug a network of secret tunnels under the city.

For normal people, the Green largely is inhospitable. Sit and ponder? Forget it. All seats are stone and backless. How about a grassy park with children playing or couples lounging on blankets? Dream on. They might make noise or throw a ball or leave a bit of litter. That would spoil the impeccable effect. And the Green's sole purpose is to impress you.

Form preceded function here. People were an afterthought. The wide, treeless central walkway retains heat and is so sweltering on summer days that it should be called the Olympic Wok. Except for numerous rudimentary food stands plastered with Coke signs, there's nothing to do and nothing to listen to except piped-in Asian Muzak. Even at noon the "lines" for food are, at most, one deep.

Identical saplings have been jammed into holes in the concrete but offer little shade and no beauty. In a land famous for flowers and topiary, the "Green" offers only monotonous, space-filling, knee-high scrubs. So you gawk at the architecture -- like the unfinished Seven Star Beijing Hotel that sweeps for three blocks in the shape of a dragon with a scoreboard-size TV in its head. Then you take a few pictures. And move on. You're not really wanted.

The only slight exception, and it's lovely, is the Green after sundown. Hundreds of graceful lampposts mimic fireworks as blue blinking lights run up their columns every two seconds, like flares ascending the poles. A modernist 50-story tower near the Bird's Nest constantly changes its color every few seconds. And a building behind the Water Cube uses its entire exterior wall for an Olympic-themed light show. One minute the whole wall has six-foot-wide blue bubbles rising, as if from a swimming exhaling. The next, the head of a 10-story equestrian horse appears.

Perhaps 200 children gathered on Monday night to see a water fountain display with the little gushers dancing in time to music. Maybe, when more events are held in the main 91,000-seat stadium starting Friday, crowd traffic will improve. But the Green already is surrounded on all sides by 10,000-seat capacity facilities in use every day.

So far, sad to say, the much-heralded Green, which was given a stunning four-page foldout spread in Sports Illustrated, is a lifeless monument to itself. How can anything so big, expensive and, in its way, stunningly beautiful be so dysfunctional and hostile to the people who use it? Or is that a metaphor?

Worst of all, the Green is pure death to any hint of authentic Olympic spirit that might bloom here.

But then what do you expect when they hold the Olympics inside what amounts to a military compound. It takes a media bus 25 minutes to drive one mile from the Beijing Tibet Hotel to the media center. You could walk it in less. But with fenced-off streets, you can't get there from here. The bus follows a maze of indirect checkpoints and entirely circles the Green before finally penetrating it after passing the last set of guards standing at all-day attention.

This Olympics is a masterpiece of efficiency and punctuality for those with tickets, credentials or black Audis. But the undisguised hostility and distrust of anyone who hasn't been vetted, crossed-checked and X-rayed is palpable. At one the end of the Olympic Green is a forest. Except there's a sign in front that says, "The Olympic Forest Is Closed." Unless you have the right credential.

At my four previous Olympics, there has always been one gathering spot that captured the "Olympic experience," with people of many nations mingling, with warm-and-fuzzy feelings everywhere and Olympic pins being exchanged. Perhaps the day's medal winners are honored at an outdoor flag-raising ceremony. Barcelona's all-night parties along the main boulevard (Las Ramblas) were as authentic as the Olympic spirit can get. The park in Atlanta in '96 was enthusiastic and jammed before the bombing.

Even since 9/11 there have been two Winter Olympics that managed to maintain this traditional feeling, according to Post reporters who were in Salt Lake City and Turin, Italy. The '04 Games in Athens can't be evaluated. The Greeks never finished building the thing. Just a mess.

This weekend, when track and field in the Bird's Nest begins before swimming in the Water Cube has finished, should energize the Green. But what if it doesn't?

After the Opening Ceremonies, with fireworks that could be seen throughout much of Beijing, people fell asleep in public parks all over town after the last rocket glare died at muggy midnight. That felt like the Olympics.

Since then, with some sports at remote sites but most of the serious action adjacent to the Green, this Olympics has felt like a gigantic movie back lot with just enough well-frisked, seldom-smiling extras wandering around the place to fool the world into thinking it's the real thing.

The contests here, and the medal winners, are the real thing. But for those in attendance, there's a sense of facade. From afar, no city could look more like the home of a scintillating energized Games. Or, as you walk the empty Olympic Green, feel less like it up close.