Tuesday 16 September 2008

Teaching a nation how to wave (part 2)

Ok, so it's been rather a long time since I ended Teaching a nation how to wave (part 1) with a "to be continued..." China already feels so far away that I barely remember where I wanted to go with that series but here we go anyway...

The Beijing Olympic Games were not the party I was hoping for. This is not to say it wasn't interesting (it was), nor that it was the fault of the security measures (it wasn't) or the Chinese organizers (not sure). For all I know, the Olympics are never as much of a party as you would expect. When Vancouverites put down our own Olympic bid as a waste of money, though, I countered that it was like throwing a house party: of course you'd rather go to somebody else's house party and avoid the costs and cleanup but eventually it comes your turn to step up and host one of your own.

And yet, while there were more people on the subways, more accreditation-pass-sporting foreigners on the bar streets, and Olympic sponsor booths scattered here and there, on the whole, life outside the sports venues seemed to be largely business as usual. The athletes (and those who could afford to drop $400 on a one-night admission) could seek out one of the many national houses or embassy-sponsored functions. But the rest of us were left to the usual collection of bars and restaurants, now lined with flat-screen televisions and sporting 15% surcharges to cover "the increased costs of food and labour" during the Olympics. I can't help thinking that if each country opened their national houses and threw a big party (much as the Dutch Heineken house did nightly) even just once during the event the atmosphere might have been a lot more festive.

That said, the atmosphere at the sporting venues was often electric. Because of the large number of individual competitions combined into a single ticketed session, many people either arrive late or leave early rather than sitting on hard bleachers for 6 or even 8 hours (way, way, way too much tennis for one go). But when the Chinese athletes were competing you could count on a pretty full house. I imagine that for many of the spectators, attending a major sporting event would have been a novel experience and the Beijing Organizing Committee had been circulating instructions on how to perform various "suggested" cheers. There were also cheering squads with bright yellow shirts scattered throughout the stadiums to provide guidance. The main cheer, quickly adopted (and adapted) by foreigners from all countries was a rhythmical four-beat chanting of zhongguo jiayou!, which means, basically, "Go China!".

At one particular basketball session, the stadium quite full of Chinese fans awaiting an upcoming game, a rowdy group of Russians behind us was trying to initiate a Mexican Wave (first time I've heard it called that) in support of their team. A few tentative participants at first. Then a few more. Maybe a section now. A few sections. Finally, after 8 or 9 attempts, the first wave trickles around the stadium, picks up a few more people, builds a little momentum and completes several more rotations before petering out. The slightly surprised but enthusiastic looks on the faces of people around me are contagious...

Several more attempts were made with limited success. These attempts are (and I have never seen anything quite like it) best described as "square waves". Each section seemed to stand up en masse, cheer, and sit down. Only then would next section do the same. The result is a sort of pulsing roar that is really quite off-putting. By the end of the Olympics, however, the stadiums full of fans were waving, clapping, and stomping their feet to "We Will Rock You" like they had been attending NHL hockey games since before they could walk. And when the Wave got started, not only could you see and hear it, but you could feel its energy passing over you: the roar would come barreling towards you and almost literally pick you up out of your seat. Teaching a nation of 1.3 billion people how to wave? I'd call that mission accomplished for the Olympics.

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