There's a disturbing feeling to all that glitters, shines in these Games
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BEIJING -- The scandal involving the opening ceremony brought to the surface a few nagging feelings I've had since arriving for the Olympics.
Maybe it's not surprising that China would fake some of the fireworks with pre-taped and computer images, or that the little girl in the pretty red dress was lip-synching "Ode to the Motherland" because another little girl with a good voice was deemed not cute enough.
It already was clear that this city had gone to great lengths to put on a smile and a shine for the world to see during these Games.
But the more I see and hear, the more I get the uneasy feeling that so much here smacks of something not quite natural.
There's a precision to everything that seems foreign to many of us and an obsession with image that is taken to ridiculous extremes. There are millions of Felix Ungars running around this city.
At the Water Cube swimming venue, where many athletes are in and out of the water in quick succession, volunteers have an almost military-like routine when, in unison, they march out onto the deck, stop and turn at a chair behind each swimming lane, set down an empty bin, pick up one with a swimmer's shoes and warmups, turn back and march out.
I'm sure it's meant to look impressive and organized, and maybe I'm being too critical, but, well, ugh.
The Chinese sure have put a lot of thought into ways to make us shift our focus from the issues of human rights and environmental problems.
Roads around Olympic facilities are hosed down in the wee hours every day. When it rains, puddles are shoveled or scooped away. Once, four or five people were squatting around an area of a street as if someone had lost a contact. No, they were just concerned about a stubborn spot of something. Indoors, workers with mops and brooms swoop in to whisk away the tiniest specks of debris.
It's as if the hand of a control freak guides everyone here, which I guess is the way the Chinese government's influence appears to those of us from the West. The most uneasy aspect is that the citizens seem to obey so willingly.
There must be enormous pressure to conform and succeed, all in the name of national pride. You can only imagine the weight on the Chinese athletes' shoulders.
After China won the men's team gold medal in gymnastics, coach Huang Yubin was reminded by a Chinese reporter that he had once said he would kill himself if the team fell short of winning. Yubin smiled and pointed out that now he wouldn't have to. It was supposed to be humorous, I guess. I found it a bit disturbing.
If the Chinese would fake elements of the opening ceremony, would they also try to rig the Olympics? I've heard no such conspiracy theories. They are winning the gold-medal tally and near the top in overall medals, but that was expected given their talent pool and athletic performances leading up to the Games.
They say China spent $40 billion on this coming-out party dressed up as the Olympics. I wouldn't be surprised if the figure were much higher.
There is no way an American city could come close to the preparation and upgrades Beijing performed leading up to the Olympics.
The acres upon acres of landscaping are lush, cheery and orderly. Trees and flowers line the streets, surround buildings and decorate all manner of indoor spaces. The choice of plants leans heavily toward annuals -- including, of all things, lots of poinsettias -- and fast-growing trees, nothing that indicates things have been around long.
Then there are the roads. The Chinese must have resurfaced thousands of miles of them. Beijing has similar weather to Pittsburgh, and yet there are no potholes here. It's so smooth that it's easy to stand on crowded shuttle buses without fear of falling. In taxis away from primary Olympic routes, the roads are just as flawless.
Despite the modern feel to Beijing, if you look closely, you can still see signs that the "new China" has some catching up to do in certain areas, such as safety.
I've seen children riding in someone's lap in the front seat of a car, not strapped in. And workers piled into the backs of trucks. Pedestrians and cyclists have what seems to be a dangerous relationship at times with motor vehicles.
When the Olympics are over, the people here surely will benefit from all the improvements, although someone joked the other day that the well-kept media and athlete villages probably will be slum apartments in five years. It might be interesting to come back in five years to see.
First Published August 14, 2008 12:00 am