Friday, 29 August 2008

The Desertion

I have been so busy being a tourist that I'm not performing my prime function in life which is to keep an update of said blog.

Rapidly doing the things which must be done such as the Great Wall. This was a trip organised by the hostel where I'm staying.

The bus was scheduled to come at 7am and we left at about 7.30 and it was due to leave Mutianyu at midday and we left at 12.30pm.

I was scheduled to leave Leo's hostel on Tuesday but I am leaving as soon as this downpour is finished.

Too many little things are going wrong with the room so I figure it is best to get out while I can still recommend the place.

It has been a friendly little haunt but sadly I am too old to endure the compilation of little things.

This has made me wonder about my own stolidity and the like. But the upshot is that I've found a place which is around a courtyard and the rooms are, on the face of it, superior so with just over double the outlay I'm going to be getting a quadrupled aesthetic experience.

And so off I go to Courtyard 7. I like the sound of it, the Courtyard 7 it sounds like a team of superheroes.

Or perhaps the title of a kung fu movie.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Tourist III

There was more sightseeing since this is the nature of the game. Have got free travel on the subway - a legacy of the Olympic Games and this gives me free access to all the famous monuments. These sort of freebies have made me become a complete capitalist and I take the taxi places because they're cheap too and I get to see the upstairs rather than riding downstairs.

I suppose I could say I'm helping the flow of cash. Whatever. Saw an 18 metre high Buddha as given by the seventh Dalai Lama to an emperor back in the 18th century - a time when everyone was getting along.

It is quite spectacular. Carved from a single chunk of Tibetan white sandalwood. Took two years to build and three years to transport to Beijing.

There's steady work.

That was at the Lama Temple. After years of seeing the Peking Opera in London and Paris, I saw the Peking Opera in Beijing. It was loud and good and just what I needed as the new National Theatre was exceptionally disappointing.

I got there as it was just closing down the public viewing areas. And I didn't fancy going to watch Turandot there. So I ended up at the Chang An Theatre listening to people pull faces and do their Noh thang.

Off to the Wall tomorrow. That should be great.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Tourist II

Saw new sights and sounds today. Essentially since that is the idea of touring, I seem to be fulfilling the whole point.

Have moved from the Olympic venue - the Beijing Friendship Hotel - to a place which is a bit more of a budget thang.

It seems OK at the moment. It is a bit more limited in space but then it does not matter. I'm here to see things like Houhai Lake and the Temple of Heaven.

Both of which I have taken in. Not to overcome by the taxi drivers. As far as collective commentary goes, it's an edgy thing getting a taxi. Even when they stop it's not always certain that they will take you.

One tried to charge 150 yuan for a journey - even though there is a meter in the car.

I know I look like a tourist but I didn't arrive yesterday.

Monday, 25 August 2008

The Tourist

I've escaped from the hotel - venue - hotel vortex and I've become a tourist.

Forbidden City and the Silk Market have been taken in along with some hutongs - the narrow lanes that used to characterise the city.

Actually parts of the Forbidden City resembled a glorified hutong. Have also been introduced to a restaurant and bar. These after the two and a bit weeks of enclosure are a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

The Medals

Who gets my gold silver and bronze?

This is the crucial issue emerging from the 29th Olympiad.

There could be many categories but for the reasons of space and because I don’t want to bore, I’ll only highlight a few.

In the men it’s a close call between Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.

But the gold medal for me goes to Bolt who in his two individual races broke the 100 and 200 metres world records;

After easing up towards the end of the 100 metres he was asked why he didn’t go flat out preferring to start hailing the crowd.

The gist was since I had the world record .......breaking that wasn’t as important as winning the race.

And he was as true as his word in the 200 metres. He got the fastest time because it was an event that was dear to his heart.

Two golds, unseen in 24 years at the Olympics, and the first Jamaican man to triumph in those events.

His runs lifted the stadium.and the second week of the games.

He was also good for the post race comments he inspired. The whole thing about what did you do before your run for glory.

Slept till 11am, watched TV, had some nuggets, slept, woke up, had some nuggets, came to the track.

Even his opponents added to the legend. Richard Thompson, who was second in the 100 metres, confirmed the nuggets story to a disbelieving press conference, adding that during the race he was still pumping away while he could see Bolt ahead of him easing up.

Thompson was munificent enough to admit no one could have beaten the Jamaican.

And the American, Shawn Crawford, after the 200 metres just said Bolt was a bad, bad man. And, of course, by this he meant outstanding.

Phelps gets the silver because he’s already got 14 gold medals and I like to be contrary.

He comes behind Bolt for me because he’s not as overtly charismatic. Bolt is a showman, a crowd pleaser. True, there’s more room for it on the track. Phelps is a brilliant racer and as greatest Olympian of all time at 23, he lit up the first week. He’s on a mission to make swimming more popular so his journey is a work in progress.

If there were a category for team player the American swimmer Jason Lezak would win gold. But as there isn’t, he gets my overall bronze for somehow being a better performer in a group than individually.

Lezak has been the bedrock of American freestyle relays since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, helping them to secure silver and bronze in Sydney and Athens.

Here in Beijing when he got into the water for the final leg of the 4x100 freestyle he was behind the Frenchman Alain Bernard, who beats him all the time one on one.

Lezak went past Bernard in the final centimetres to win the gold for the United States, thereby coining the term used among all the swimmers as “the relay”.

Performing for the collective is a concept that would find favour anywhere in the world.

As for the women, gold goes to the British athlete Tasha Danvers who had a horrible season of achilles and hamstring injuries and then was found to have a low white blood cell count which hampered her training.

She came third in the 400 metres hurdles and was so elated to be up there. Moreover she was able to epitomise the attitudes of a fighter. “You never ever, ever give up,” she told me. “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, or the thin lady or size 12lady or whatever sings.”

The Russian pole vaulter Elena Isinbaeva gets silver for responding to taunts from her American rival Jennifer Stuczynski in the best possible way by beating her in the Olympic final.

In the run up to the games, it was reported that the American was going to "kick some Russian butt". And Isinbaeva not only relegated her into second place but stayed around for a solo crowd pleasing performance to set a world record on her third and final attempt - long after all the other pole vault competitors had gone home. That’s top level butt kicking.

Vengeance, as the saying goes, is a dish best served in front of 90,000 people.

And bronze goes to Stephanie Rice, the glamour girl of Australian swimming. She prettied up my bleary eyed mornings at the swimming pool. Moreover she was brilliant and poised in her press conferences and also stuck around to chat afterwards. She certainly has grounds to be a prima donna, she’s good looking and very good in the water.

But she’s a down-to-earth siren and she went home with three gold medals from three events. Almost Phelpsian

I didn’t attempt to get her phone number.

But then I give myself a gold medal for being intelligent enough not to ask

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The Lure

First it was the swimmer Ryan Lochte waxing lyrical about his penchant for hamburgers, then Usain Bolt took over with his nuggets fuelled sprint world records.

The overt suggestions finally got to me and I succumbed to the lure of the corporation.

But rather than a fast food outlet, I opted for another trip to look at the shiny watches. There was an ulterior motive this time.

As I’ve walked past the Omega pavilion these two weeks, their first floor terrace balcony has been crying out to me to come and lounge.

But it’s not an open to the hoi polloi. You need an invitation.

The Belgian spinter Kim Gevaert, the Russian polevaulter Yelena Isinbayeva and the American speedster Tyson Gay were all I needed as the passport to gratification.

They were there as guests of Omega and they were talking about their time in Beijing. While they were showing off their pictures of their moments in the city to an adoring public, I was wandering around the mezzanine level, looking down on the well-buffed watch cases and athletes.

Of the trio, Isinbayeva wins the gold medal for imaginative pictures. But that’s not a surprise because she is a keen photographer in her spare time when she’s not breaking pole vaulting world records.

Once the champions had been taken into a special room, I thought I’d make the most of the comfy seats.
Most of them were taken but I spotted a spare one opposite a couple. I asked if I could sit down and they said yes.

Just after I’d sunk into the leather cushion, the woman asked if I was from Switzerland as I was wearing a watch based on the Swiss Railway clocks.

And we got chatting. We spoke about the games and they told me a bit about their life in Beijing as opposed to Switzerland and so on.

Forget fast food restaurants, this was more my speed.

While we talked, attentive staff brought drinks and appealing snacks and - this was the best bit – waited for you to finish before asking if they could take it away.

Urs and Steffi looked as if they were installing themselves for the evening. The lounge lizard in me was jealous but there was the small matter of going to cover the evening’s athletics at the Bird’s Nest.

As I was leaving, Tyson Gay was without the earlier phalanx of corporate PRs around him. With Bolt like speed I enjoined him in conversation.

“It’s been the best experience I’ve ever had in my life,” he told me of his Beijing sojourn. “I really enjoyed it.”

Gay has been a bit part player in these Olympics, the antithesis of the Usain Bolt success story.

The American was supposed to be one of the protagonists but he never made it through to the finals of the 100 metres and a bungled baton change in the 4x100 metres relay semi-final robbed him of the chance for redemption there.

But it’s just part of a process.

“Even though I’m going home with no gold medals,being around all my friends and family, having support through the bad times has been amazing,” he added

“The hardware is good but no one can take this moment away from you.”

Casting his eyes around the lounge, he added: “It’s just been great being around all these people, you see I don’t have any gold medals or nothing but I’m still getting a lot of love and attention and it means a lot to me.”

Time well spent then.

Friday, 22 August 2008

The Sexing-Up

I have wondered many things since the Olympics started. Things such as: What’s Beijing like? And why is beach volley ball an Olympic sport?

But I’ve never mused on why table tennis should be made sexier.

Maybe it’s because I don’t play the sport. But clearly the bigwigs of the International Table Tennis Federation have been exercising their minds on this issue.

And the ITTF’s vice-president, Claude Bergeret, has come out and said the girls should be urged to wear skirts and more alluring shirts.

“Not the shirts that are made for men,” he advised. “But ones with more curves.”

Ooh la la.

Ana Ivanovic, the women’s world number one, is a Slavonic rhapsody of a looker. The Serb could more or less wear anything on the court and look dynamite.

Over in the men’s the top player Rafael Nadal sports a sleeveless shirt that accentuates his Uberhombre upper torso.

At the French Open you can just hear the women in the stands swooning as the Spanaird packs off a pheromone-filled forehand past the latest hapless sap on the other side of the net.

And not to mention the clenched fist: “vamos” following an important point. Indeed Nadal screams sex.

Not so China’s Wang Liqin, a top table tennis player he may be but he’s not going to leave the girls gaga.

No robust musculature on this one. He’s simply a wiry lad with regular features who plays a good game. True, just like his lawn tennis counterparts, there are plenty of clenched fists after crucial points but the game’s not built around expansiveness.

And as we all know, no matter what the therapists say, size does matter when it comes to sex in sport.

Table tennis is a compact, intense game. And its appeal lies in the fact that ordinary, even diminutive physiques seem to be able to excel.

It doesn’t appear to be the case in tennis. The players there are, for the most part, bigger;

Nevertheless some of the table tennis fillies feel it’s time to project lubricity. Japan’s Ai Fukuhara opted for a “skort” – a tight skirt with cycling shorts underneath - for her last 16 match against China’s Zhang Yining who faced off against her opponent in black shorts and a shirt which was emblazoned with a yellow dragon on the front.

That doesn’t seem to me to ooze sex appeal, it's perhaps better suited to dazzling the adversary into errors.

Have to say during the quarter final match between Liquin and the Croatian Tan Ruiwu on Friday afternoon at the Peking University Stadium, the crowd seemed to be getting into it.

They were shouting between and during points and Tan had to put his finger to his lips.

The spectators responded by lowering the decibels but it didn’t make much difference, Tan lost the second game 11-7 which prompted another barrage of flag waving and screaming.

During the pause before the third game, the crowds continued to brandish their flags and chant in unison to a derivative of the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby.

It might not be sexy but they seemed to be having fun.

And we can never have enough of that.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Olympian II

Praise the Lord for he hath cast upon us a Lightning Bolt to save our firmament.

Yea, for the second time in four days one man has electrified the Olympic Games. Cue one Usain Bolt.

The godsend celebrates his 22nd birthday on Thursday as the undisputed head honcho of world sprinting. His scattered foes can do no more than pay tribute.

Shawn Crawford, the 200 metres defending champion, said he went up to him after the race and informed him that he was a bad (in the colloquial sense of outstanding) man.

“I told him: ‘You the man. I told him he was a bad, bad man.”

Jive and high fives aside, what we’d just witnessed in the stadium was pretty good (in the conventional sense of word).

Bolt had become the first man in 24 years to complete the 100 and 200 metres sprint double at the Olympic Games.

He’d also beaten a world record set 12 years ago by Michael Johnson at the Atlanta games.

The American Carl Lewis was the last lad to achieve the 100 and 200 metres feat. Bolt becomes the ninth man in history to do so, joining legends such as Jesse Owens.

But with all the hullabaloo, Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee has added a word of caution.

Bolt must be a bit more respectful towards his peers both in his pre and post race actions, says Rogge. Less of the pre-sprint dancing and more of the post stroll handshakes.

There seems to be a standard question from journalists covering the Olympics for a publication that we’ll call Sports Psychology Today.

“Who is Michael Phelps?” cropped up a couple of times as the American swam his way into glory during the pool party he was having.

Sure enough after trouncing his rivals for the second time in an Olympic final, we got: “Who is Usain Bolt?”

Bolt responded: “Did you see me before the race? That’s me.”

Well the message coming from Rogge is: it might be you but it’s not Olympian.

Bolt says it gets the crowd going. And he’s got a case because the intensity and atmosphere in the stadium after his two victories have been spectacular.

His wins have also underlined the demise of the United States as the dominant track power.

Jamaican women took the first three positions in the 100 metres sprint. Unprecedented that.

The American men only claimed silver and bronze in the 200 metres after two disqualifications. Crawford and Walter Dix being the beneficiaries of Wallace Spearmon and Churanda Martina’s misfortunes.

Martina lost his place after the Americans appealed Spearmon’s removal. The US delegation accepted that Spearmon had strayed from his lane. But the tapes also showed the silver medallist Martina doing the same.

And the appeal jury agreed.

Needless to say,this has not gone down well in the Dutch West Indies who were busily celebrating their first Olympic track medal.

And from having just the bronze. The United States had engineered silver and bronze.

Omayra Leeflang, the minister of sports, of the Dutch West Indies says the Americans aren’t being very Olympian about the race. But this is all about medals. China’s dominance in the table is proof of that. Lots of mileage here in the fact that they’ve eclipsed their tally in Athens four years ago.

There was a furore about having the swimming finals in the morning, apparently to satisfy the cravings of US TV networks.

The swimmers weren’t happy but they all turned up and world record after world record fell.

I’m not entirely sure whether the women’s beach volley ball was programmed for the early morning to assuage the voracious demands of US TV networks.

Even though the American pair of Kerri Walsh and Misty-May Treanor hadn’t been beaten for 107 matches, let’s say – because I’m a philanthropic kind of chap – no, the timing had nothing to do with the networks.

But let’s also state that the gold medal match was played in the driving rain (rather than the traditional sunshine associated with the sport) with the Chinese and American players in skimpy bikini and sun cap combos.

It looked ridiculous. Barely Olympian.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Choice

An invitation turned up on my desk sometime last week for an evening with Olympians on Wednesday night organised by the International Sports Press Association. Would I contact the following email for further details.

Contact was indeed established and I was told that the American swimmers Michael Phelps, Nathalie Coughlin and Katie Hoff would be at the China Club.

Better still the legends Alex Popov and Ian Thorpe would also be there.

A shoal of talent indeed. Only snag was that they were going to be at the same time as one Usain Bolt would be trying to write himself into legend in final of the men’s 200 metres

Just my luck a chance to go to one of the swishest venues in town and I have to watch people running around a track.

Redemption is mine though because there’s another rendez-vous with titans of yore on Thursday afternoon. The hurdler Edwin Moses, the sprinter Cathy Freeman and the decathlete Daley Thompson.

This might be more feasible as the association is laying on transport from the press centres to the venue, the Casa Italia.

This is a concept aimed at promulgating all things Italian. Mamma mia. Just what I’ve come from Europe for.

But as the saying goes when in Beijing….drive a Ferrari.

There’s been an absence of ostentation within the hotel – venue- hotel vortex. If there are high ranking officials from national Olympic committees cruising around in smart cars then I haven’t noticed them.

That might be due to the fact that I’m either watching the action or writing about it in an underground ice box.

One luxury brand that has been quite salient is Omega. The firm has a temporary pavilion which I’ve been passing regularly en route to the various venues.

It became even more prominent for me just after Michael Phelps’s victory in the 100 metres butterfly final when the Serbian swimming delegation contested the split of a split second victory over their swimmer Milorad Cavic.

After the delegation had a look at the tapes of the race they could see it was all fine. Their man had got silver and Phelps had won gold.

Doubting the veracity of the official timekeepers is quite rare and it all came about because the cameras which are shown to the crowds aren’t the one’s used for timekeeping.

The crowd’s cameras suggested that Cavic had touched first. But Omega has got high speed cameras. This is a system that links four high speed video recording cameras and allows judges to have real time views of the images captured by the cameras even while they’re recording.

It’s possible to see the action recorded by all four cameras at once or to select any of them individually for a full screen view.

That’s all very well and good and we rightly hail an association with the Olympic movement that goes back to 1932.

But what about watches on your wrist rather than the ones in the water?

Well they’re quite spectacular. Quite a range is on show at the pavilion including the Omega Speedmaster Professional.

This comes with the tag of the first and only watch worn on the moon.

And then there’s the Beijing Olympic Collection Minus 88 Days Double Eagle which hasn’t been worn on Mars.

It’s limited to 288 pieces and can be snapped up for 219,800 yuan.

The dials within the face are in the figure eight which as we all know is the lucky number in China because the word for eight sounds like the word for prosperity.

Phelps has come away from Beijing with eight gold medals but that’s got nothing to do with luck. It’s down to timing

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The Slip

Of all the stories I read before I travelled to Beijing, I can't remember one touching on the Chinese sense of humour. They were usually about lack of freedom, shady political practices and economic hegemony.

But anything about what makes people chortle? Nichts.

A sense of humour does exist. For example: the army of volunteers who have been helping us around the Olympic sites have been instructed to smile at every opportunity possible.

I also need look no further than the manufacturers of the scones available in the press centre cafes. Well the makers must be having a laugh on the poor saps who buy the scone to find that it crumbles into a thousand pieces when it’s cut or bitten.

And whoever decided to dream up cheerleaders for entertainment must be laughing all the way to somewhere.

I spotted a few on Monday night at the Natonal Stadium in the mixed zone - the area where the athletes come and chew over their performances with the media. I noticed them because they were carrying green frills rather than clunky camera combos.

On Tuesday morning I went to see the reigning Olympic champions Germany take on New Zealand in the men's hockey.

There waas an edge about the final Group A match as both sides needed to win to go into the last four.

Germany scored two early goals and went into the half-time break nursing that advantage. As the players walked off the pitch, blaring music went on and spectators started moving towards the refreshment booths. So far so usual.

And then on came 12 young women in red bikini tops and red skirts. They formed two ranks of six either side of the half way line and snapped to attention.

Silence. Then on came a sort of pumped up Bollywood tectonic. The troupe shook the necessary areas of their bodies as they were intertwined and waved their tambourines and frills.

They must be volunteers, I thought, because they’re smiling.

But I would imagine cheerleaders are supposed to look joyous.

The girls gambolled awhile and in truth it was the most flair I’d seen for a good 20 minutes as a technically efficient German side ground down their opponents.

Sadly the cheerleaders finished their routine just I was starting to fully appreciate their artistic interpretations.

Shortly after the last of the tambourines jingled off, the water fountains came on to spray the pitch.

Sigmund Freud would have chuckled at that one.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Disappointment

Just after the American swimmer Ryan Lochte had won gold in the 200 metres backstroke, he was asked about his eating habits. He mentioned pizzas and products from an American fast food chain. I thought McLochte was alone. Far from it.

Just after destroying the field to set a new world record in the 100 metres on Saturday night, Usain Bolt was asked what kind of day he’d had.

“I never had breakfast,” he said. “Actually I woke up at 11am, sat around watched some TV..then I had lunch....some nuggets…and then I pretty much went back to my room.....slept again for three more hours and then, went back and got some more nuggets and then I came to the track.”

On such a regime McBolt registered a time of 9.69 seconds to become the first Jamaican winner of the title.

These kind of statements should come with the kind of warnings that used to precede TV episodes of Batman: “Don’t try this at home, kids.”

Bolt qualifed for the second round of the 200 metres today just before China went into national mourning over the non-qualification of the golden boy Liu Xiang.

The 25 year old Olympic and world champion in the 110 metres high hurdles pulled up with a gammy ankle during heat six. This is bad news as he was the big hope for a Chinese gold medal at the stadium.

He’s a good looking boy and his face has been plastered everywhere. There was a hastily convened press conference to discuss why the king had left the building.

I’m surprised that there hasn’t been an emergency cabinet meeting. I’d personally impose martial law.

But then I am known to overreact.

I’ve been looking at some of the news agency wires and they’re quoting fans of the man saying the Olympics are over for me.

I personally have seen few signs of self-immolation.

Only yesterday I was musing on how the exploits of Bolt and the American swimmer Michael Phelps had helped the Olympics to emerge from the negative cloud surrounding the prelude to the games.

In essence Liu’s departure won’t diminish it from a sporting point of view as gargantuan feats have already been achieved.

Liu was only mentioned in the same breath as the world record holder Dayron Robles because the so called “Shanghai Express” was the defending champion. Injuries have kept Liu out of action for much of the season.

The saying goes that class is permanent while form is temporary but we all know that excellence nevertheless needs to muscle its way to the top. Eventually it will out.
Since huge marketing campaigns have been launched around Liu, there must be a squadron of executives now flying by the seat of their pants.

He, along with the basketball player Yao Ming, was one of the human product placements of these Olympics.

Liu’s main coach, Sun Haiping, twice broke down in tears during the press conference. While I don’t think he’s going to be taken away and consigned to the salt mines, the outburst underlines the immense pressure that both had been living with.

There was a sense in the press conference that the true extent of the injury had been hidden from the Chinese people. If that’s the case, then that’s just stupid. Injuries are as inevitable to athletes as defeats and victories.

Terrence Trammell, the American contender for the 110 metres high hurdles, pulled up in heat five. Even though he was wearing sunglasses, you could see the pain in his eyes as he beat his fist.

It’s bad luck. It happens and you just have to recover and conquer anew.

We’re on the cusp of a perception here. If the crowds now don’t turn up to the events because their one true hero is defunct, then the Shangri-la promoted since the opening ceremony nine days ago will be exposed as a sustained deception.

Chinese athletes have so far garnered 35 golds – already three more than at Athens four years ago. With seven days of competition still left they’re on target to head the medals table

But if they collect all the golds, silvers and bronzes available from this point and the masses still consider the event not to be a success because their champion has gone, then the International Olympic Committee executives who decided to place the Olympic product here will be shown up to be as lame as Liu.

To cite a phrase from an Australian swimmer, we’re in a moment.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

The Legends

What a whirlwind. I’m not sure if it can be classified as 24 hours that changed the world but it was certainly a period of time in which the games emerged from the shadow of their location.

If the event is ultimately deemed a success then two men should be given the keys to Beijing.

On land and in the water Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps respectively have probably injected these Olympics into the consciousness of a generation.

I grew up in Britain watching sports on TV and especially the Olympics with the commentary of David Coleman. And in these moments of competitive drama on the track, it’s his voice that I often hear.

It wasn’t simply the 100 metres. He had to say something like: “The race to determine the fastest man on the planet.”

Give or take the hyperbole, he made it compelling stuff.

Well, taking a leaf out of Coleman’s high octane descriptions, Bolt didn’t win Saturday night’s 100 metres race, he destroyed the field.

Or as I think I said when I was commentating on it: “There was space.”

That’s the thing that I remember. Bolt had time to look around. He was that far ahead.

It wasn’t quite in the league of waving to special fans in the crowd - that would have been disrespectful - but he could have done.

Richard Thompson, the silver medallist, from Trinidad, put it succinctly.

“I felt as if I was with Usain up to 50 metres and then just felt him pulling away after that. I felt I was in a comfortable second position. I just tried to stay relaxed and I felt myself pulling away from the rest of the field and I could see him slowing down and I’m still pumping to the line…

“He’s a phenomenal athlete and I don’t think there’s any way anyone would have beaten him with a run like that.”

In his quest for eight golds Phelps has given us the knife-edge of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. And, as in the best of all the Master of Suspense’s stories, there have been twists and turns.

Phelps had already been anointed the greatest Olympian of all time after collecting his fourth gold medal here – and 10th overall - when he won the 200 metres butterfly.

That put him ahead of the golden gang of nine which included the the Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi, the American athlete Carl Lewis and the Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina.

Next up was would he equal the seven gold medal haul of the American swimmer Mark Spitz from the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

He did that on Saturday with the fingertip win in the 100 metres butterfly. On Sunday? Would he surpass Spitz and be hailed as lord of all games?

Oddly enough for this he had to rely on others. But the medley relay team of Aaron Peirsol for the backstroke, Brendan Hansen for the breaststroke and Jason Lezak for the freestyle combined to realise the dream.

Five on his own – three with others.

Quite a few of the swimming medallists have been asked to comment on Phelps. And to a man and woman they’ve all essentially said: “Wow.”

They talk about his focus, his consistency and his work ethic.

Grant Hackett, the Australian swimmer who narrowly failed on Sunday to win a third successive Olympic 1500 metres title said: “The level of achievement that he’s done here is phenomenal. In my opinion we’ll never ever see it again. I just don’t think that can be emulated or beaten.

“In this day and age when the sport is so competitive and so close...I said I thought he could win six or seven..... with a little bit of luck.....get eight. And I think in that 100 metres butterfly the way he got on that wall in such a close race everything lined up for him perfectly. He’s done a wonderful job.

“He’s an incredible racer and good on him for what he’s achieved. He’s a nice guy and a good bloke and over the past few years I’ve never seen him change - which is nice.”

Endorsements don’t come bigger than that.

Hackett should know. He said he needed five hours a week of physiotherapy and massage to make sure he can do the kilometres of training needed to be competitive.

At 28 with a couple of Olympic golds and now one silver, no one is really going to tell him he can’t go the distance. But he did sound as if the end was nigh.

And his explanation gave a tiny insight into the lives these athletes lead. But there’s also something at play which goes beyond the everyday discipline of weights and circuit training.

One of the American network camera men who I’ve been chatting to as we’ve been following the agony and joy of the swimmers quipped that Phelps should name his first born son Jason.

It’s not that the other members of the relay teams have done poorly, far from it, it’s just that Lezak has been titanic.

Veteran swimming correspondents spoke of Lezak’s swim last Monday in the freestyle relay as one of the most incredible they’d witnessed.

Lezak jumped into the pool a body length behind Alain Bernard – the second fastest man over 100 metres – and a swimmer who routinely betters him.

Lezak caught him and beat him.

The US team was elemental in its celebrations. Over the next few days every US swimmer would spoke of Lezak’s anchor leg in a race that simply became “the relay”.

Phelps himself has habitually said: “I’ve been speechless since Monday....” And we all know what he is referring to.

Four days after the relay, Bernard won gold in the 100 metres freestyle coming in ahead of the Australian world record holder Eamon Sullivan and Lezak. It was Lezak’s first individual medal in three Olympic games.

Even Bernard talked about how the relay made him reassess and refocus.

On Sunday in the medley relay Lezak plunged into the water with a lead of 0.81 seconds on Sullivan.

Afer the race Lezak said that before he went in he told himself that if he could catch a man that usually beats him then Sullivan, who also usually beats him, could rein him in.

He added: “Obviously I wanted to take it out hard and hold on as strong as I could.”

Lezak touched first with 0.70 of a second to spare.

So are legends spawned.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Cleaners

Much of the pre-Games focus on China was the relative lack of freedom, dodgy international initiatives and monolithic political systems. But still we came.

Much was hyped about the prominent policing that would make all us visitors feel safe. Well I haven’t been attacked yet. But then again I haven’t been anywhere outside the vortex of hotel – venues – hotel.

Nothing as far as I can recall was highlighted about something altogether far more insidious – visible cleaning.

It’s a tough and sustained crackdown on grime. It’s vicious.

At the hotel where I rest my head but for a few hours, the waitresses in the breakfast room patrol with diligence so they can administer tea or coffee.

I’ve experienced them terminate breakfast with extreme prejudice.

One morning, there was more or less half a piece of toast on my plate when I got up to go and get a bit more coffee. When I returned the plate had been cleared away. I turned my back for a second and it was gone.

Now whether that’s a metaphor for a wider political malaise, well I’ll leave that for another blog. Maybe one when I’m home.

However since it’s so dangerous to get up I stockpile all that I need.

The policy of termination is operational at the Water Cube.

After witnessing the most controversial morning of swimming since the games began, I went into the cluster of tables outside the commentary positions.

I was there to reflect on Michael Phelps’s acquisition of his seventh gold medal. He won the 100 metres butterfly in 50.58 seconds. The Serbian Milorad Cavic was clocked in at 50.59.

But pictures shown in the pool made it look like the Serb had won.

The Serbs lodged an appeal against the result and an hour or so later Phelps was reconfirmed as the winner. Nothing wrong with the timekeeping harrumphed the blue jackets from FINA, international swimmings governing body.

There’s not much wrong with the Water Cube it’s a bit like an art gallery – lots of white – lots of yonic symbols. I was starting to chill out as I listened to the post swim interviews that I'd recorded. But the cool is destroyed by things like mops propped up against walls and cloths nestling on ledges. In one of the toilets a mop was stuffed into a urinal.

I just hope that’s not used to clean the floors.

As I started to break into the complimentary biscuits and coffee, the cleaner walked past me and cast a lingering look at this pocket of activity.

A few minutes later she returned, stopped and pushed an askew chair neatly under my table before continuing her passage.

She went past again. This time I followed her and she disappeared out of sight.

I sat there thinking what would be more subversive making a big mess or clearing up.

Well given that I have three children I realise I spend my entire waking life clearing up. So I brushed the crumbs into the cup and got up to make my move.

From out of nowhere the cleaner arrived.

I hope it was coincidence.

Friday, 15 August 2008

The Numbers

Only vehicles with licence plates ending in odd numbers were allowed on the road on Friday.

The Beijing authorities implemented this policy in July of banning cars on alternate days depending on their number plates. The scheme, which is scheduled to run until late September, is aimed at cutting congestion and reducing the fumes.

And it was an odd day. You could look up into the sky and it was blue. It wasn’t clear as there were a few clouds around.

But it was a familiar template. And it arrived courtesy of a massive downpour on Thursday. What I’ve found oppressive about Beijing so far has been the lack of height or perspective.

I’m used to looking up into the heavens and thinking with childlike innocence: wow that’s a long way up. I’ve become accustomed to peering into the distance even within the context of a cityscape.

When it’s grey and humid - as it has been for the most part since I arrived 10 days ago – it’s easy to feel leaden and oppressed.

I guess that’s how Michael Phelps’s opponents would regard themselves.

Normal service was resumed in the swimming pool where the 23 year old from Baltimore claimed gold medal number six. That’s 12 amassed since the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. This latest bauble came in the 200 metres individual medley. It was another world record.

Ryan Lochte, one of Phelps’s best buddies on the US team, won the 200 metres backstroke final and then had to get out of the pool and prepare for the medley final. He got a bronze in that so that was a marvellous feat for a man who, when asked about his diet during the games, gave a ringing endorsement to fast foods and one American burger chain in particular.

But while McLochte was adding another client to his portfolio of sponsors, one of the worst breaches of protocol was unfolding in the corner of the press conference room.

A bunch of German journalists who’d set up a press conference within the room before Lochte entered, were continuing to quiz their man.

And they didn’t seem to mind carrying on while Lochte and Aaron Peirsol were trying to talk about their 200 metres backstroke final.

The corps of volunteers who usually assure the smooth efficiency of the room were flummoxed.

They waited and hoped the miscreants would stop. Nothing of the sort.

Worse, they moved into a more central position and the din started to rise.

Eventually a reluctant volunteer began trying to shoo the pack out. They took their time.

Either their decorum had been frazzled by the gold medal success of Britta Steffen in the 100 metres freestyle final that morning or I was witnessing their usual modus operandi.

Very odd.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Corner

Oh yes I’ve settled in. Well and truly into my stride. It must be something to do with recovery from the jet lag. It might in fact have something to do with being better lagged.

I was finding it slightly odd that I was sniffing despite temperatures being between 88 and 92F. All the pre-games publicity about the environment made me think it might be something to do with air quality.

But I think it’s the air conditioning. I’m not used to it. Numbing humidity outside into the Ice Station Zebra that is the International Broadcast Centre.

For a press conference involving the soon to be anointed world number one tennis player Rafael Nadal and the rest of the Spain team, I went from the ice station out into the clammy madness and into the Main Press Centre which must also be microclimatically linked to the polar caps.

Not good.

To offset these extremes I’ve now started wearing a jacket inside the IBC.

It's bizarre that I need to think about extra layers in these sort of temperatures but ay, there’s the rub.

I feel cosier and that’s made me feel better or it’s perhaps overheating my self-belief.

While being given a cordial but functional tour of the Olympic Village Pin Centre, the pin ambassador was explaining to me the environmentally friendly properties of the centre.

She added: “China is a big country and so we’ve got to be aware of not making too much pollution.”

“Is that something your generation is more aware of? I inquired. “What, you’re 22? 23?....are those the kind of things you were told about during your school days…..?

“No I’m 19......”

“Oh I’m sorry, it’s just that your English is so good I thought you must be older...”

Even I knew the needle had exploded off the smarmometer. But I needed to oil myself out of a glaring error. But Chen Xi – all 19 years of her – guided me a tad more fervently around the centre outlining in far more detail the whizzer projects.

There’s one in which the athletes are given a T shirt emblazoned with: “I’m From Earth” because it has been made from five recycled plastic bottles.

Indeed as she was telling me, a Croatian athlete was measuring up for his free sample. He was XXL and actually looked like he was hewn from granite.

The drift is to hand the T shirts it out to the competitors so that when they wear it they will remember their time in Beijing and also highlight China’s increasing desire for environmental engagement. When I spoke to Ms Chen only 5,000 of the 11,000athletes staying in the Olympic Village had taken up the offer.

I suggested that any leftovers should be handed out to the journalists. “That’s always a great way to get the message across,” I added.

“That’s a good idea. I will say it to my manager.”


Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The Olympian

Just one day after taking my hat off to the Australian swimmer Hayden Stoeckel for overcoming his fear of pain and talking to journalists, it seems appropriate to glory, laud and honour Michael Phelps. The one time youngster with attention deficit disorder has metamorphosed into a concentrated champion.

Number four and five came on Wednesday. Not talking about buses here but Phelps’s gold medals tally.

Sitting in the commentary positions I was looking down on the chap in lane four of the 200 metres butterfly final and was thinking he’s not mashing up the opposition in the way that he usually does.

The 23 year old from Baltimore won nevertheless in a world record time of 1:52.03. It was the third world record we’d seen that morning.

The first was set in the first semi-final of the 100 metres freestyle by the Frenchman Alain Bernard. He’d seen his mark eclipsed by the Australian glamour boy Eamon Holmes on Monday in the 4x100m freestyle relay final.

And then to top it all…Bernard was passed in the final centimetres by the American Jason Lezak who claimed gold. Ouch. Stripped and fleeced.

So Bernard’s fist pumping on Wednesday after posting 47.20 seconds was a way of marking out his terrain.

So when Holmes lined up for the second semi-final? Me? I ducked to avoid the wave of testosterone.

Holmes has suspended his much publicised relationship with fellow Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice to concentrate on his aquatic actions.

The beau dived in and 47.05 seconds later he’d taken back the world record. Cue some ripper, good on yer mate fist pumping.

When Bernard and Holmes rejoin the beefcake stakes on Thursday morning, I’m taking a bucket along so I can later bottle the pheromones from that splash of cultures.

Consequently Phelps’s fourth gold of the games and his rise to the pinnacle of a hallowed elite was all the more impressive and graceful.

I’m sure Phelps is good for a few gallons of adrenalin and he acquired number four, it would seem, against the odds.

Athletes, as we realise all too well, are machines. Once they start their journey “into the moment” (Rice’s phrase), anything which is not preordained can unleash the most fearsome meltdowns.

Jessica Schipper had a suit malfunction just before the final of the 100 metres butterfly final on Monday. Her Australian teammate, Libby Trickett, helped to calm her down.

Trickett who won the gold spoke of Schipper’s resilience to return from the netherlands of disaster and swim into third place.

“We’ve all been there,” bemoaned Trickett.

Phelps revealed on Wednesday that his goggles were full of water during the final stages of the butterfly final. “I couldn’t see, he said. “I was trying to make out the ‘T’ on the bottom to try and judge my turn and my finish but I was more or less just trying to count strokes because I know how many strokes I take per fifty and I was hoping to be dead on so I could hit the walls perfectly.”

Ah perfection. That old chestnut.

Phelps added. “I was able to get my hand on the wall first and it was a best time but I think I was just disappointed because I know I can go faster than that.”

It was a world record.

Now that’s top posturing.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Salute

Since I'm amid all these Olympian values, it seems only apt to hail wondrous achievement much in the same way that the antennae are tuned to detect bunkum.

For this reason on Tuesday I unreservedly take my hat off to the affable Australian swimmer Hayden Stoeckel.

The self-avowedly shy country boy from Berri, South Australia, won the 100 metres backstroke bronze medal on the most salient sporting stage behind the legend that is Aaron Peirsol and his fellow American Matt Grevers.

Stoeckel who trains in Adelaide, the main town in South Australia, came in to face the media and instantly declared that he didn’t like facing the media. So much so that he’d even underperformed in races to avoid the glare of limelight.

He’s been given some training, he said, which had helped him conquer his trepidation about being up close and personal with the wolves.

But truth be told, it was an adoring pack that he encountered after his efforts in the pool. Mind you at 6ft 5ins tall, I’d dare anyone to try and rile the lad.

Questions were more biographical about his parents and what he did for hobbies.

“I just like to watch footie and hang out with me mates,” he replied. It seemed perfectly normal and healthy for someone who’d turned 24 two days into the games.

He also revealed that he’d given up swimming eight years ago but was persuaded to get back into the pool by his parents.

More recently there’s been work with a psychologist to help him accept that suffering is good for his art.

On Monday Stoeckel had become a contender for the 100 metres backstroke after setting the fastest time in the semi finals in a new Olympic record of 52.97 seconds.

His coaches in the Australian camp quickly calmed him down by telling him that he still had a final to race.

They did a good job.

By contrast another Australian, Leisel Jones, was so comfortable with the cameras and the questions on Tuesday that you could have mistaken her for a meejah darling.

But then again she has been told since her mid teens that she is the anointed one in the breastroke. She was selected for the Australian team at 14 and at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 won silver.

When she set a world record in the 200m breaststroke in the run up to the Athens games for years later, she was expected to take the gold. But it didn’t work out like that.

She came third in the 100 metres and second in the 200 metres.

Now at the ripe old age of 22. She was voluble as she outlined her odyssey from the despair and defeat in Greece to the glory and gold in China.

The message essentially was that there was more to her life than swimming.

What I find fascinating about being in Beijing is hearing these tales of the intangible. The driven one becomes a tougher competitor by gaining a wider outlook and the taciturn one explodes through embracing focus.

“You’ve got to hurt to succeed,” said Stoeckel. “I never liked pain. As soon as I hit that pain barrier I’d back off. And I’ve just learned now that you’ve got to push it.

“ If you hurt in training you’re not going to hurt in a race. You do 32 100s and it’s just hurts and hurts and you come out and do 100 metres and you think I can do 32 of these.

“Then you come out here and do 100m and swim awesome and not hurt and it’s just an amazing feeling.”

Will you get recognised when you go back to Berri? slurped one of the wolves. “Oh yes because it’s not very big. I might even get noticed in Adelaide…”

A shy lad looked worried for an instant.

But with his height and what he’s done, people aren’t likely to take chunks out of him.

Monday, 11 August 2008

The Shocked and Stunned

Well you could have knocked me down with a feather.

Just when I thought that it might have been a bit harsh to set up a “squirmometer’’, confirmation has come that is so very much needed.

Maybe it has something to do with all that water going into their heads but the swimmers are providing streams of unconsciousness.

After the 41 year old American Dara Torres provided us with: “Age is only a number,” and “the water doesn’t know how old you are when you hit it”, the British swimmer Rebecca Adlington came up with a swift combination of phrases one of which I believed had been consigned to the list of no-nos.

When I saw that the 19 year old was from Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, my mind went back to my time on the Nottingham Evening Post in the mid 1980s.

Her very presence at the Olympics would have been a big story. The fact that she’s won gold will be bugled, I’m sure, across the front of the paper.

And rightly so for - to rework the stock phrase of Mick Channon, an English former footballer who was for a while a TV pundit - the girl done well.

But it’s on that score that she came up well short.

Asked how she felt about being the first British woman since 1960 to win gold in the pool, Adlington said: “It’s absolutely amazing. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m over the moon.”

The last phrase would have been familiar to Channon and his ilk from the 1970s.

It was a flourish that we used to hear virtually every Saturday night on BBC TV’s Match of the Day. And it made the progression from the mouths of footballers into the vernacular to suggest transcendant elation.

Conversely the set expression to epitomise rank injustice or abject misery became “sick as a parrot”.

Some inventive players tried to introduce some flair into the post-match analysis game with “mad as a dog” and some even tried “chuffed” to describe the joy of victory.

But while that sort of eloquence was welcome, they never made the journey into the public mind.

A couple of years ago, the Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard – dubbed one of the more articulate of his generation because he passed some exams at school - used the word “gutted” after a narrow loss.

I thought I detected a wry smile on his mouth but maybe that was the bitter taste of defeat.

Perhaps Lampard, who is deemed to be media savvy, was using it with a tad of post-modern irony.

Don’t think that’s the case for young Adlington. Her press conference responses suggested that she isn’t used to the attention.

But not even interviews with the Nottingham Evening Post will have prepared her for what she is going to start experiencing from now.

She’s a gold medallist in her first Olmpic games at the age of 19.

The only thing now is that the pressure will probably mount up on her to defend her title on home soil in Britain in four years time.

It’s all set up for a brilliant story on that angle. But my abiding memory will be of her and compatriot Jo Jackson - who got a bronze - just smiling and hugging each other for a good minute in the pool like two kids.

It was natural and sincere.

They’d got a result.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Rains

It had to happen. The rain that was predicted for Friday night’s opening ceremony extravaganza came to us on Sunday. And so rather than being grey and hot it is wet and grey.

I’m not yet sure which I prefer. But since it was damp I thought why not go and watch the swimming.

I would have probably done this even it had been the usual clammy humidity outside.

Off I squelched to the National Aquatics Centre which is also known as the Water Cube. This is one of the big buildings of these games. Designed by the Chinese State Construction International Company, Australia PTW Architects and ARUP Australia, it houses some 17,000 people.

And there was indeed a cacophony as the American Michael Phelps broke his own world record to take the 4x100m individual medley. It was the first of what he hopes will be a trawl of eight golds.

There was more screaming as Park Tae-Hwan won South Korea’s first Olympic swimming gold in the 400m freestyle.

And you can imagine the frenzy as the Chinese duo Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia retained their Olympic title in the synchronised three metre springboard diving.

A few days into the competitions and the hosts are racking up the gold medals. And who’d begrudge them that after laying on such a tremendous show.

What are also mounting are the clichés. Before we get anywhere near the track and field, there have been indignities uttered to the point where I've been forced to establish a measure.

So as the thermometer of competition rises, a “squirmometer” will monitor any post event triteness.

It’s not that the comments are untrue or offensive, they just make you wriggle in your set and raise your eyebrow a bit.

Perhaps it’s because the statements emerge in the hinterland of victory.

The Australian Stephanie Rice who took the gold medal in the 4x100 individual medley in a world record time seemed quite deft as she deflected questions about her relationship with the Australian swimmer Eamon Sullivan.

But then she talked about being “in the moment” in the pool.

OK. But Ugh.

The American swimmer Dara Torres anchored her team to silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay. She is 41 and many of the swimmers in Sunday’s race weren’t even born when she was competing in her first Olympics back in Los Angeles in 1984.

But her aquatic longevity – this is her fifth Olympics - hasn’t salvaged her from the ravages of the cliché. “Age is only a number,” she intoned.

True, she’s won 10 Olympic medals. But ugh.

“When we are in the water, it doesn’t matter because the water doesn’t really know how old you are when you hit the water.”

Eau dear.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Aftershock

With the opening ceremony for the games declared a success, those connected with it can rightly shine in the glory.

Zhang Yimou, the artistic director of the four hour extravaganza, said his workload was 100 times that of making a film.

And he's been doing epics of late.

He mused: “The films are personal works, the success of which matters only to the director. But directing the Olympic Games is totally different. It determines whether the Games get off to a successful start or not.”

So no pressure there then.

Yao Ming, who plays his basketball in the NBA with the Houston Rockets, seems to be revelling in his role as a giant among his compatriots. Well he is 7ft 2ins tall and he’s at ease with his role as a sponsor friendly conduit between China and the United States.

The two countries will play on Sunday. China are the underdogs so they have nothing to lose conceded Yao. “It won’t be easy but it will be an honour and a precious memory, one that will last a lifetime,” he added.

The 27 year old is at the centre of a team that’s not expected to do well.

The people who have it tough are the one’s who’ve been built up for this Olympic moment.

The 110 metres high hurdles champion Liu Xiang has cover boy good looks and the weight of a nation on his shoulders as he tries to leap over those obstacles.

His path to retaining his Olympic crown has been slightly eased because the Cuban, Dayron Robles, grabbed his world record in June.

No such leavening of the burden for the markswoman Du Li. She won gold in Athens four years ago in the 10m air rifle coming in ahead of the Russian Lioubov Galkina and the Czech Katerina Kurkova.

But on Saturday morning Du well and truly cracked. She slumped to overall fifth and fled the shooting range in tears without talking to the waiting pack.

When she’d stopped blubbing she revealed that the pressure of defending her title on home soil and of winning the first gold medal of the games had been too much. Much too much.

Kurkova – now Emmons - who won Saturday's event, told the vultures of the Chinese press: “You swarmed around her even in her training. I can’t bear that if I’m in that situation, so I can feel what Du must have felt.”

That will be the gold medal then.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The Opening Ceremony

It started at eight and I wasn't late. How could I be late. I’d come to Beijing for this very date. The Olympics started big time at eight in the evening on the eighth.

This hour was chosen because eight is the luckiest number for the superstitiously minded basically because the the number eight sounds like the word for prosperity.

Sounds good to me. Four by contrast is the unluckiest number because it sounds like the Chinese word for death.

And do you know what…I’m in building four at the hotel complex.

Despite all the lucky numbers going for it, nothing about the opening ceremony was left to chance.

The cast of thousands who participated in the four hour extravaganza had been preparing for months. Five thousand years of Chinese culture were projected to us during the show.

The artistic director behind it all was Zhang Yimou and he’s no Johnny-cum-lately.

He’s the man who infused art house opacity with translucence. What does that mean?

I'm not entirely sure but it seems to sum up his output such as Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern and the Story of Qiu Ju.

They were heavy with symbolism. I mean weighty. I remember watching Raise the Red Lantern when I lived in south London. I went to see it at one of the many art house cinemas that used to inhabit the city in the late 1980s.

The screen was sufficiently large so you could appreciate the symbolic moments.

The film was building to a crescendo of catastrophe and when some red dye spilt onto a white linen sheet, you just knew woe was a-coming.

That 58 year old Yimou had his hands on the wheels of our drive into wonderland was reassuring.

It turned out to be a visual feast. But then there was too much at stake for it to be left to something like luck.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Village

Roger Federer, the tennis world number one is enjoying his last few days as the planet’s best player in and around the Olympic Village.

The Swiss has ruled the roost for the past four and a half years. But on August 18 the Spaniard Rafael Nadal will supplant him.

Federer is in Beijing because he’s after Olympic Gold. He’s won lots of other major titles and he’s keen to triumph here.

For that reason he’s not staying in the village because he gets mobbed by the other athletes and it’s not the best way to steel yourself for the approaching duels.

Victory could revivify his season. Federer who’s 27 on Friday has been given the birthday present of carrying Switzerland’s flag at the opening ceremony on Friday night.

It’s the only significant honour he’s got his hands on of late. Beaten for the third year running by Nadal in the French Open final, Nadal then vanquished him in the Wimbledon final last month.

Federer has been abject in his appearances since that defeat on the lawns of south-west London while the Spaniard has been impressive going on to win another title in Toronto.

While the two titans of tennis prepare to take chunks out of each other yet again, other athletes are relaxing in the village before the white heat of competition begins on Saturday.

Calling it a village is misleading though. The word evokes images of quaint country lanes and chummy people chatting as lambs gently bleat in yonder pastures.

This village houses some 15,000 athletes from the 205 national Olympic associations worldwide. Olympic Babel would be more appropriate.

And it’s certainly not a village in the modern British sense of the word because there are shops open and they’re flourishing.

Myriad languages may be circulating but they can all communicate when it comes to buying.

And why not? For the general store (open 9am – 11pm) offers athletes the chance to take care of life’s little banalities before their battles for supremacy begin.

They can stock up on those cutesy gifts for friends and family back home in Kazakhstan or Mauritania.

After all who could resist a set of commemorative Beijing Olympic pins for 999 yuan (about 100 euros)?

If that’s a bit out of the price range then a simple mug for 28 yuan?

That’s so much more within my remit that I nearly bought one. I didn’t as I’d probably have tried to have a cup of tea in it at the traditional Chinese tea house just along from the general store.

I stood outside and perused a notice outlining the available brews – oolong, green tea, black tea and jasmine. So I peered in. A smiling woman – oh OK let’s call her a tealady – came out and engaged me in conversation.

She told me that there’d be a performance - oh OK let’s call it a teadance – a bit later in the afternoon.

She advised the 4pm show as that was the best time for tea.

“That’s when the British usually have a cup,” I beamed.

Moreover it’s the time when I usually have a cup. I used to get a brew called tarry souchong from the tea section at Harrods, it was a smoky number and it was excellent, problem was I found I was getting less and less time to savour it.

It’s not something for when you’re harried and that’s how I appear to be having tea at the moment.

I’m pretty sure the Chinese approach to tea is more rites driven than my present bag in a mug thrust into my mug. Theirs is a commodity I can buy into.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Cusp

Regular followers of the parislondonreturn might recall that I'm not the best of flyers.

I'm still not exactly sure when this antipathy started but I'm savvy enought to realise that one has to fly to go to places like – say China.

Though if I’d left Paris two weeks ago and used an array of trains and boats I might have arrived in Beijing at right about now.

That didn’t happen. And for a moment the journey here to Beijing from Paris was on the verge of not happening.

I turned up suitably early at Charles de Gaulle airport’s Terminal 1. And I waited with about half a dozen others in line. Eventually the China Airways ground staff appeared and nonchalantly opened up the aisles that we’d feed into.

Suitably basted with our Pavlovian cues, we shuffled into expectant order.

They then went away. I felt spurned. But not quite as rejected as the bulging suitcase that was in the queue.

Odd I thought, when did that turn up? More importantly why was no one with it?

Two passing airport executives clearly had the same reservations. They stopped, scanned and furrowed their brows. When I caught their frown I said: “I’ve just noticed that too. I saw a man with it.”

They waited a few minutes and eventually called airport security. A good five minutes had passed during which time the queue for checking onto CA 934 to Beijing had started moving.

But it wasn’t proceeding fast enough for me to get out of the way of a potential bomb.

I was just yards away.

What to do? Couldn’t exactly leave my bags and flee to the other side of the building. To run off while pushing my trolley would be terribly undignified, slow and defeat the purpose of trying to escape.

So I stayed and fretted. The suits talked into their phones and eventually a man returned. The suits became animated, the man gesticulated but didn’t exactly convey remorse.

How can you leave your bags unattended in this day and age? My initial concern would be someone stealing my dazzling range of desirable apparel. But in the wider context we live in an age of bombs.

But I’m being so yesteryear. These days people remain with their explosives. They are the devices.

And they’re known to prey on buses, underground trains, markets and bazaars.

Not just airports.

Well that takes care of my fear of flying. Now to tackle the plain fear of living.