Dispatch August 2008

Of Beer, Algae, and Sailing

Our correspondent reports from the Olympic sailing competition in Qingdao.
qingdao sailing Olympics

Photos by Adam Minter

At 3:45 p.m. today, the last of the 2008 Olympic sailing medal ceremonies took place on a small concrete platform lodged between the dramatic Qingdao skyline and the breakwater that hosts the Olympic Sailing Center spectator area. The conditions—wind-whipped and rain-drenched—were less than optimal. (One British sailor described the scene as “very English.”) The few spectators who remained took shelter under umbrellas and rain ponchos, and watched as three Olympic hostesses, wearing nothing more than sleeveless dresses and the precise eight-tooth smiles they’ve been trained to display no matter what the conditions, carried medals and flowers onto a catwalk. Between them, the athletes and the attending IOC officials took their places in full rain gear.

Despite this inauspicious ending, the Olympic sailing competition came off better than many had feared. Just days before the first sailors were to arrive, an epic algae bloom had spread across the competition area—and the international media. The hand-powered clean-up, courtesy of the People’s Liberation Army, had provided some of the most memorable images of the troubled run-up to the 2008 Olympics, and had increased the pressure on Qingdao—and China as a whole—to present a flawless spectacle once the Games began. This was by no means guaranteed. Qingdao, a coastal city 350 miles southeast of Beijing, is notoriously hot, humid, and windless during August. Such conditions may not encourage good sailing, but they do encourage algae.

Two Qingdao locals told me, as the last of the racing events finished up, that they were more than happy to see the games finally leaving town. It’s not as if the games have provided this city of 7 million with a tourist bonanza. In fact, according to the locals with whom I spoke, Qingdao has suffered a decline in visitors during the Olympics. Qingdao’s famed beer festival, always held in mid-August, was cancelled by a government fearful of drunken locals, and, the bogeyman of every Chinese government: instability. But even before the cancellation of the beer festival, Qingdao—a tourist town—was less than welcoming to outsiders interested in attending the sailing events. Tickets were cheap, but they were only available for purchase in Qingdao’s post offices (events in other cities were available through a Chinese joint venture with Ticketmaster). The result has been mass vacancies in Qingdao’s hotels, made much worse by the proud refusal of local hoteliers to drop their Olympic room-rates despite the low occupancy rates.

Meanwhile, those few outsiders who did book rooms arrived to find the city’s better hotel lobbies occupied by uniformed police interested in the most unlikely of suspects. Last night I watched as a single police officer, in coordination with my hotel’s reception desk, ID’d all arriving Asian women to weed out potential prostitutes—much to the chagrin of several couples. The hotel manager, when confronted by an angry male companion to one of the suspect women, refused to apologize as she explained that the hotel was only following “the security measures required by the government for the Olympics.”

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Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai.

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