The lighter side of the Games

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Saturday, August 16, 2008

As well as the serious side (politics, nationalism, etc), there is also a lighter side the Games:

South Africans, it seems, have short memories. Steve Waugh and John Eales, who broke many a Protea and Springbok heart during their distinguished sporting careers, were engaged in conversation by a talkative Saffer while attending the basketball this week. Over the ensuing minutes, the barking Bok waxed lyrical about his country's dominance in cricket and rugby to the smirking Australian athlete liaison officers. "He had no idea who we were," Waugh told the AOC's Aspire magazine. "So we told him Ealsey was a wrestler and I was a table tennis player."

The Spanish team has swung into damage control mode after photos emerged of members of their Olympic team making slit-eye gestures. The images, taken prior to the Olympics for a sponsor, prompted a wave of criticism against the Spaniards, whose record on race relations is tattered at best. Spanish athletes responded apathetically when initially confronted on the issue, but after a pull-through from team officials have adopted a more apologetic tone in recent days. "We didn't mean to hurt anyone," said basketballer Jose Calderon, a guard with the Toronto Raptors in the NBA. "We apologise to Asian people if they were offended. Spain is one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world. Maybe some people in Spain come through like that but in England or the US they have the same problem. We don't feel we did something bad. It's wrong to interpret it as racist."

More drama. Indian shooter Abhinav Bindra yesterday accused an unnamed assailant for deliberately tampering with his sights before the 10 metre air rifle event. Despite the drama, Bindra went onto win the gold. The culprit, presumably, is maintaining a perimeter of 11 or more metres from the Indian shooter. Meanwhile, the AOC is doing its best to debunk the single gunman theory. Journalists have been told to assemble for press conferences outside the athlete's village on the "grassy knoll". Shooters, included.

Australian double sculler Scott Brennan did his bit for trans-Tasman relations by revealing his New Zealand rival, Rob Waddell, was a personal hero. But the Sydney gold medallist was having none of it. "He can go on thinking that if he likes," Waddell said. Meanwhile, family and friends of Brennan and David Crawshay Australian duo have printed up t-shirts in expectation of a medal-winning performance on Saturday. The shirts carry both their names, with an image of two oar-toting cavemen.

An ominous sign for Australia's track cycling team. Reliable sources have informed the Sydney Morning Herald that the entire British track cycling team clocked personal bests at their pre-Olympic camp. That's the same British team that won an astonishing nine gold medals at this year's world championships in Manchester, leaving the Australians and France reeling.

Few have managed to give Michael Phelps a hurry-up over the past week, save for the Water Cube's officious media officer. The official, who has irritated swimming scribes since the start of the meet with his bellicose instructions of "You wait!", "One more minute!" and, everyone's favourite, "No more questions!", apparently lost patience with Phelps while answering a question. The record-breaking American swimmer was attempting to share with the media a meaningful text message from the 500 he has received in recent days, only for the official to bellow "One minute!" before he had located it.

Diplomacy has never been President Bush's strong suit, but even by his standards, this was astonishing. The Herald has been reiably informed that the leader of the free world decamped the Olympic opening ceremony mid-way through the entry of the Chinese team. The president has since remained in Beijing to cheer on the likes of Michael Phelps and the US Basketball team.

The American network NBC is clearly a big deal - as evidenced by successful lobbying to have the swimming finals raced in the morning to coincide with their prime time - and now it is clear how big. More than 3,000 NBC employees have descended on Beijing to assist in the coverage of the Games. So big, in fact, is their operation, that Starbucks have set up a NBC-only stall in the International Broadcast Centre, offering free coffee and pastries to employees.

BOCOG officials have left little to chance at these Games - even erecting a tent for athletes to purge themselves of emotion before presenting themselves before the world. The "Kiss-Cry" tent at the Shunyi regatta centre has been erected at the end of the course for competitors to celebrate/commiserate after they alight their boat.

How much is China's first gold medal worth? According to one recent report, weightlifter Chen Xiexia, who won China's first gold medal in Beijing, will receive as much as 10 million yuan (NZ$2m) for the feat. The 25-year-old lifter isn't counting on that, the Oriental Sports Daily reported, but income from a variety of sources is sure to make her China's next millionaire. The General Administration of Sport of China (GASC) will award each Chinese gold medallist 250,000 yuan. But that's just the beginning. Awards from athletes' home provinces and other sources are likely to be much more lucrative. The Fok Ying Tung Foundation, launched by a Hong Kong entrepreneur and philanthropist, has awarded every Chinese gold medallist since 1984 one kilogram of gold and US$80,000. Also, Chinese athletes who earn cash rewards or other prizes as a result of success at the Olympic Games will be exempt from individual income tax. All told, the total for a gold medal is expected to be at least 1.5 million yuan.

Kath Grainger, Britain's most successful Olympic oarswoman, has adopted drastic methods to keep her quad crewmates on their toes, according to a report in British tabloid the Daily Mail, by reading aloud passages from Don't Rock the Boat, a book recounting how Australian rower Sally Robbins lay down exhausted halfway through the eights final in Athens four years ago and so cost her team an Olympic medal. That Grainger is studying homicide as part of a doctorate in forensic science is unlikely to have escaped her colleagues either.

American middleweight boxer Demetrius Andrade looks a little like basketball's Kobe Bryant. A shorter, skinnier, less muscular version.... OK, he looks nothing like Kobe. But try telling that to the Chinese, who mobbed Andrade when he left his seat at the boxing venue earlier this week and stepped onto the concourse. Instantly a crowd of several hundred people gathered, pointing, taking pictures or just simply gawking. The crowd eventually backed up the tunnel and into the arena before a squadron of security people, some with flashing lights and warning claxons, formed a protective semi-circle around him. "It's happened a couple of times before," Andrade said with a laugh.

As with previous Olympic pin madness has also conquered Beijing. Even turning their star collectors into celebrities for the incrowd. Sitting in a restaurant outside the Olympic Village, Janet Grissom, a doctor from Salt Lake City in the US, was surrounded by a crowd of a size normally reserved for international stars. Grissom said she began collecting pins when she was a volunteer at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. She now has more than 10,000, she said.

Uzbek gymnast Luiza Galiulina was in such a rush for Beijing, having been called up as a reserve, the 16-year-old didn't have time to get any official kit and brought with her just an old training leotard. But Paul Ziert, the American publisher of International Gymnast magazine heard of her plight and took four leotards with him to Beijing. "It will make Luiza even happier because she's a wonderful girl who loves beautiful clothes," Galiulina's coach, Svetlana Kuznetsova, said.

Shanghai is well on the way to turning most of its rooftops green. The Shanghai landscaping administration bureau said this week that so far more than 95,000 sq m of rooftops have been covered in grass and shrubs, very close to the annual target of 100,000 sq m. The city will spend 5 million yuan ($710,000) this year on the campaign. "It is so refreshing to look at the green rooftop of the shopping mall from my apartment window, than other gray buildings," Xiao Chen, a resident, said.

The smiling faces of the young workers staffing the Games venues have become a feature of the Beijing Olympics. Many are sleeping on makeshift beds at the venues after working long hours and catching a little extra sleep in the afternoons between morning and evening sessions. But, at least one venue, they have had to forgo their afternoon naps. They've been dispatched en masse to a nearby hotel for showers.

Dutch television scored a coup on Monday night by using co-commentator Inge de Bruijn to secure an exclusive interview with superstar Michael Phelps. The former Dutch Olympic champion is an old friend of the American and managed to grab him in the media mixed zone while dozens of other television crews watched with envy. Unfortunately, during the two-minute interview, De Bruijn was talking so much that Phelps barely got a word in.

Not every athlete is delighted with a medal. North Korean weightlifter O Jong-ae had to be persuaded to attend a mandatory press conference for medal winners on Monday after being pipped for gold and silver at the last minute in the 58kg class. "I was very sad and disappointed with my score. That's why I did not want to attend the press conference," she said. She might also have been wonder what she would say to capricious leader Kim Jong Il when she got home.

Incredibly, India, a country of 1.1 billion people, won its first-ever individual gold medal at the Olympics this week when shooter Abhinav Bindra defeated defending champion Zhu Qinan of China in the 10m air rifle. Qinan was almost as disappointed as O, weeping on the podium when he collected his silver and sobbed uncontrollably at the press conference afterwards.

US President George W Bush has headed home describing the Olympics as "a very uplifting experience". His mother Barbara can expect some new nightware when his father, former president George H Bush, returns to their Houston home. At least we hope she can. Bush senior bought six silk nightgowns on a visit to the Silk Market on Monday.

For those hoping for a glorious Eric Moussambani comeback in Beijing, we have bad news. Eric the Eel is now Eric the Engineer, working for an oil and gas company in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. "He is working just like a normal person," said his brother, Roberto, when contacted by the Herald this week. "The swimming is still a happy memory for him." Eric might still make an appearance in Beijing, however. Roberto reports that his brother has gone overseas, and may well be on his way to China. "He went away, but he didn't tell us where is was going," Roberto said. Stay tuned.

Some folks are hard to impress. While the world gushed over Beijing's grand opening ceremony, Australian pole vaulter Steve Hooker was less than impressed. "I think most opening ceremonies, apart from the athletes walking in and the lighting of the cauldron, are a bit of a wank," Hooker said. "I love the lighting of the cauldron and the athletes walking in...but in the end it's a sporting event."

The women's hockey showdown between Australia and the world champion Netherlands team promises to be a heated affair. Hockeyroos coach Frank Murray accused two Dutch women of spying on his team at a trial game against New Zealand last week. The pair, who are believed to have connections to their national team, were expelled from the arena. "It's not good ethics - we would not have done it," Murray told Chinese Whispers. "They should not have been there."

New Zealand fans have been not been overwhelmed by an avalanche of medals in recent Olympics but before we all get too despondent spare a thought for the poor sports fan in Luxemburg. One journalist from the small principality is currently working at his fifth Olympic Games and has never had the pleasure to report a medal win. In fact, the last time Luxembourg won a medal was as far back as 1952 in Helsinki.

The people of Beijing are definitely getting into the spirit of things, and one baby born on the day of the opening ceremony will be reminded for life. Shi Yanmin and husband Shi's husband Wu Hongbin said he and his wife would name the baby Ao Yun, or "Olympic Games". The Olympic baby was born at 10.48am on the opening day. Several other women chose to have an elective caesarean to celebrate the important day. "I wanted to give birth on Aug 8 because it's a historic day," said a 38-year-old woman, surnamed Xie, at the Hunan Provincial Maternal and Children Health Hospital.

Fear of rain spoiling the opening ceremony proved unjustified as the big bonanza passed in a dry, stifling hot night with the only drops falling from the heads of the 91,000 spectators. In true Chinese style though, the organising committee had left nothing to chance and fired off over 1000 rain dispersal rockets on Friday evening to blow away rain clouds.

For those of you who love their numbers, here are a few from the opening ceremony. Nearly 180,000 bottles of water sold in the steaming hot stadium, 45,000 tonnes of steel was used for the construction, 14,000 performers put on the show, 9,000 of which were soldiers in the People's Liberation Army who all practised for 13 months. The paper scroll at the centre of the performance weighed 8,000kg while 10,000 couples got married around the country to celebrate the big day and 21,880 torch bearers were used until the flame finally reached the stadium.
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