OPINION

NOTES FROM BEIJING

My friend Alan, an NBC commentator warned me years ago when I was working for Athens 2004: The day after the Games it all ends. And it doesn’t end slowly or gracefully. From hundreds of frantic phone calls and a torrent of e-mails 24/7, the day after the closing ceremony the number of media requests plummets to zero. After what seems an insane period when the organizers desperately try to weather a media hurricane, comes absolute silence. I have experienced it both in Athens and then at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. The calmness is akin to the day after the storm. One last task remains for the media: a final overview. First of all, to the question «how was Beijing?» the honest answer is «I haven’t really been there.» Obviously I flew to the Chinese capital and stayed there for three weeks. But like most of the people that worked during the Games, besides the obligatory one-day visit to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, I spent my time rushing between my hotel, the Main Press Center, and the venues within the main Olympic «bubble,» the so-called Olympic Green. Living in such a tightly-sealed environment feels almost the same whether you are in Beijing, in Athens or even in Turin. My overall observation is that for all the bad press that the International Olympic Committee leadership occasionally receives for its decisions, Beijing as the venue for the 29th Olympics was a brilliant choice. As IOC President Jacques Rogge said at the closing ceremony, the world learned about China and China learned about the world and all involved will never be the same. Even those who justifiably raised objections on the basis of the issue of human rights and the situation in Tibet and Darfur should not doubt that their agendas would never have come under the strong spotlight of the world media if it had not been for the Games. In that sense, I truly believe that the Games in Beijing will prove to be a «force for good.» I also believe there will be consensus among the media that, in terms of organization, these Games were impeccable. The venues ranged from superb to spectacular, the volunteers were smiling and using their best English and the journalists were provided with all the means necessary to do their job. Granted, getting somewhere by taxi was often a hair-raising experience. Still, somehow the drivers managed to swerve and avoid other drivers, buses, pedestrians and bicycles. In the end, everyone reached their destination. If you visit Beijing you will appreciate that this is no small feat at all. From a purely sporting viewpoint, the Beijing Games were a tremendous success. First of all we had Michael Phelps’s eight gold medals and seven world records, and Usain Bolt’s three world records, ensuring that we will be referring to the summer of 2008 for years, perhaps decades, to come. On the downside, the weather was a serious negative. You may say that’s because I am from Greece, but cloud, fog – or smog – and rain for at least two out of three weeks is not what I call summer. Although the Chinese authorities cannot be held responsible for the poor weather, unpleasant confrontations inside the Main Press Center regarding their less-than-forthcoming attitude in answering questions left a bitter aftertaste. As a professional in this business who looks back with some fondness at other organizers of Olympic Games, and without ever wishing to justify anything less than the complete truth, I still think we need to place the events in some context. China is a country of 1.2 billion people that is going through a transition of monumental proportions, in terms of both speed and magnitude. Mark Leonard is executive director of the European Council of Foreign Relations. His thoughtful book «What China Thinks» guided me in my understanding of the country. As he explains, in the last 30 years China has brought 300 million people from agricultural backwardness into modernity. In doing so, it tried to avoid the pitfalls that followed the collapse of the former Soviet Union, where political reform was attempted before economic liberalization. And while nothing will ever take the place of the democratic principles of freedom of expression and openness, I suggest that we get off our high horses in the West before passing judgement on the truths or lies of the Chinese government. Speaking for my country, I would suggest that this government’s spokesperson is hardly considered by the Greek press to be the ultimate source of truth. And this is in a fully fledged, democratic and open society. Another complaint about the Beijing Games was shared by many: In their attempt to provide safe and secure Games the authorities sucked out the joyous spontaneity that usually surrounds such an event. There were no public spaces where the Chinese people could gather and celebrate together with their visitors. Outside the venues, only banners served as a reminder that the Games were on. The local population seemed largely disengaged, kept at arm’s length, and I suspect that it came as a result of a conscious decision on the part of the authorities rather than any expression of some cultural difference. Inside the venues though, one memory will remain with me: At around 11 p.m. the magnificent National Olympic Stadium would empty and the spectators, mostly Chinese, would flood the surrounding area. Thousands of them would carry small digital cameras and pose for one another in front of the venues, making the victory sign with their fingers. It didn’t appear to me that they were the members of some elite. It was mostly average, middle-class people – whatever that means in China – genuinely proud and happy that their country’s coming-out party for the world had been successful. And rightfully so. Stratos Safioleas was the international media manager for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.