China Journal #8

by August 14, 2008

by Nick Rotunno

Hey SLAMonline, what’s new? Thanks again to everybody who commented on my last post, which you can read right here. I really appreciate the kind words, plus they let me know that some folks are enjoying my journals. Always a great boost!

Anyway, as you know, the Olympics are now in full swing. I watched the Opening Ceremony in a crowded pizza joint not far from campus. It was hot as hell and the TV was blurry, but we held on through that interminable parade until the torch was finally lit. I was impressed with the whole extravaganza; China really knows how to put on a show. Now the torch burns brightly over the tangled web of the Bird’s Nest, a welcome sight after a month and a half in this sultry city.

Beijing is filled with athletes from countries around the globe. They walk in the streets wearing team colors, ride huge shuttle buses to venues, and even party in local bars. A few of my friends had a blast with members of the Algerian swim team the other night. The swimmers were all out in Sanlitun, a local district that sparkles with nightclubs and is a very popular destination for young people in Beijing.

Apparently, the Algerians know how to party.

As for my Olympic experience, I’ve been having a blast covering tennis. The venue is packed with fans and the matches are very exciting. I’ve interviewed several prominent players, including the Russian Nikolay Davydenko (the #4 player in the world), Lindsay Davenport of the U.S. (who’s really a sweetheart), and soon-to-be #1 women’s player in the world, the beautiful Jelena Jankovich from Serbia. Plus, I’ve watched almost every Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal match – tennis at such a high level it’s almost mind-boggling. One of the coolest moments happened two days ago, when I was hurrying through an underground hallway of the tennis venue and stumbled upon Federer and his entourage. The tall Swiss had just won a match and was walking the other way, sweaty and victorious. I watched him pass, slow confident strides, the swagger of a man who knows he’s the best player in the world. He was surrounded by trainers clad in red-and-white, talking softly with his girlfriend. I stared at Federer until he disappeared, drooled for a few seconds, then rushed back to the ONS office to do my job.

Not far from the tennis courts is the archery venue, which I visited a couple days ago. While tennis can get raucous at times, especially during a big match, it’s generally a refined sport. Fans are silent while the ball is in play, behaving with respect and courtesy. Archery, however, is a party. Every day the grandstands are jammed with fans, flags waving, throaty cheers that sporadically erupt and echo towards the tennis courts. There’s always upbeat music blaring from speakers, and the whole venue is one colorful mass of loud festivities. The day we stopped by, the Koreans had taken over the place. They carried enormous flags and fired air horns, chanting with gusto, supporting their archer. It was pageantry, it was vigor, and as arrows zipped towards their targets and fans roared for every hit, Olympic spirit ran amok. At the archery venue, of all places.

Another spot with a true Olympic feel is the Athlete’s Village. I drive past in a cab every day, so I’ve seen the progression of the Village leading up to the Games. At first, the Village was little more than drab high-rises grouped together in a melancholy cluster. There were a few decorations, mostly at the main gates, but altogether the place was rather nondescript. But then the athletes began to arrive, more every day. They hung their country’s colors, turning the gray buildings into works of art, and now the Village is bursting with energy. Flags from Puerto Rico, Italy, Brazil, Greece; huge Iranian flags that billow from balconies, five-story banners that cascade down the walls. It’s a beautiful sight, and if you stare at the Village for a few moments you can grasp the global magnitude of the Games – every corner of the world represented; every nation proud to be in Beijing.

I watched the USA-China game at a place called Tun Bar, in the Sanlitun district. We watched a big-screen TV with a group of pro-China fans behind us. Naturally we trash talked a little bit, especially when the US built up a big lead, but we weren’t too bad. It was a fun place to watch a game: cheap drinks and comfortable seats, nice big tables and an above-average television. Surprisingly the bar was not very full, even though the game was a huge deal around here. I guess it was just the first round.

Unfortunately I couldn’t catch the Angola game, because it wasn’t on TV (go figure). But I was happy to see Team USA win both games easily, looking impressive along the way. The boys played stifling defense and ran all night, throwing down some highlight-reel stuff. LeBron has been filthy; I’d say my favorite moment of the US-China game was that tomahawk alley-oop he slammed on a fast break. Our three-point shooting has been less than spectacular, particularly against China, but hopefully that will improve. I think this team has really gelled over the past few months, and now that the chemistry has come together things are going to be sick. That much talent working in unison is a scary, scary team.

Tonight will be the biggest test thus far. China and Angola both had a modicum of talent, but Greece is a different story. I caught some of the Greece-Germany game yesterday in the ONS office. Dirk was stymied, the victim of suffocating defense, and the Greeks looked very good with the ball. They ran some sneaky plays, shot very well, and have a lot of talent at all positions. They’re also well-coached and know how to play the international game to perfection. We’ll see how it goes tonight. I’m not predicting a US loss; I’m just saying it won’t be as easy as the last two games.

Oh, and before I let you go I wanted to mention the result of our rematch with Missouri. It was an interesting contest, played in several parts due to the presence of our Chinese basketball brethren, who wouldn’t let us keep a court for ourselves. We played a bizarre tournament format involving several four-on-four games; it began with a game against the Chinese that we won, setting up a contest with Mizzou. We played to five and beat them, but then we had to play another Chinese team because of this stupid tournament thing. It was all very strange and probably sounds confusing, but the short story is we beat Missouri in a half-court game. Redemption was ours, and I feel vindicated.

Take it easy guys, and go USA!