I feel a bit sorry for top athletes these days. From where I’m sitting, it seems that the records have pretty much all been set and any new breakthroughs are mere technicalities. Is a hundredth of a second or a smidgeon of a millimetre really enough to justify spending half a lifetime being exhorted to go faster by coaches who didn’t quite make it themselves?
As you may have surmised, I subscribe to the Run Only When Chased school of sports thought. So it’s a strong testament to the power of the Olympic fever that’s gripping Beijing that I popped along to the Bird’s Nest on Sunday to check if the twigs are all in place and assess the form of some of China’s track and field athletes.
The form looked pretty good to me. Unusually long-legged men in shiny shorts leapt over very high poles, exceedingly muscular women in modest bikinis ran very fast indeed and sporty looking types of both sexes threw pointy sticks surprisingly long distances. And when the spears had been yanked out of the turf, they were slotted into specially designed remote control cars and whizzed back to their owner. I bet the position of Chief Grown-ups’ Toy Operator was hotly contested -- by men only.
Unusually (I’m told) for a sporting event, for many spectators the athletes were really just decoration. Apart from the day when Chinese golden boy and world champion Liu Xiang raced to hurdling victory, that is. The spanking new National Stadium was the real star of the China Athletics Open.
From an overpass a few hundred metres away, it looks a bit like, ah, umm, yes it’s true, a massive bird’s nest. The overpass has become a favourite spot for photographers and signs have gone up requesting people not to linger too long gawping at the view. It’s hard not to though. You never know when a stadium-sized bird might swoop by.
A bit closer up, past the ticket checkers, bag scanners and swarms of orange-shirted volunteers, it comes as a relief to remember that the stadium wasn’t actually made by a giant winged creature. That would make us the worms.
Inside, one can’t help feeling overwhelmed. Beer is just 5 yuan! That’s only about one Kiwi dollar. Nothing warms the cockles of a captive market’s collective heart more than seeing an opportunity for price gouging nobly spurned. Soft drinks go for the same price as at the cheaper convenience stores around town and there are plenty of water fountains where you can turn the dust coating your mouth into mud for free.
The air has been rather grimy in Beijing lately, with unseasonably late dust storms making life a misery for cyclists and cleaners over the past week. But the haze will surely have lifted by August, giving a clear view across to events on the other side of the field. I didn’t catch New Zealand Paralympic representative Jessica Hamill winning the shot putting on Sunday, but hopefully that wasn’t the last time the NZ flag flutter will triumphantly in the artificial breeze.
Thankfully, I heard no reports of Jessica or any of her fellow competitors behaving in the stubborn and controlling manner that the Beijing Olympic volunteers are on guard against. No further comment on that bit of advice. Except I am shocked by Dawn Fraser’s claim that she saw disabled athletes being deliberately spat at in China in the mid-1990s. I prefer to think they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens. I was once inadvertently gobbed on by a minibus driver on the way back from the Great Wall. He leaned out the window but not quite far enough and his spittle was blown back into my face as I too leaned out for some fresh air. He was most apologetic and I have never left home without wet wipes since.
Anyway, things have changed a lot here in a decade, and now public hoickers are liable for a 50 yuan fine. I have yet to see this law being enforced, but according to a fascinating report in China Daily, “Spitting cases fell from 4.9 percent to 2.5 percent,” from 2005-2007. Or perhaps habitual hawkers just got wise to the anti-spitting squad and waited until they were out of range first.
Where was I… Oh yes. The National Stadium is fabulous, the athletes were amazing and my physique is a disgrace to humanity. I’m off out for a brisk walk. Now, where did I put that face mask, I wonder ...