Dispatch August 2008

The Olympics' Second City

Our correspondent attends the first Olympic soccer game at Shanghai stadium and explains why Shanghai is only grudgingly playing co-host for this year's Olympics
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Olympic soccer game one at Shanghai Stadium. (Photo by Adam Minter)

Ask a young Shanghainese to tell you the first thing that comes to mind at the words “Shanghai Stadium” and the answer—invariably—is “Ikea.” This is partly an accident of infrastructure: the Shanghai Stadium is adjacent to two subway lines that disgorge passengers at exits next to the city’s wildly popular only Ikea. But it’s also an expression of culture: given the choice between sport and commerce, the Shanghainese invariably choose the latter.

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Never was this more apparent than in the days running up to the first of nine evenings of Olympic soccer scheduled for Shanghai Stadium. As of game time, on the evening of August 7, Shanghai, a city of at least twenty million residents, had only sold out three of the nine events to be held here. Two days ago, when I walked by the Shanghai Stadium box office, the lone customer was a middle-aged British woman (or tai-tai, in the local parlance) who—with the help of the halting English of her Chinese driver—was picking out seats for the August 18 women’s semi-final. Fifteen minutes later, clear on the other side of the stadium (and the overpass), I stopped into Ikea, where I found lines four deep.

By contrast, devoted sports fans in Beijing camped out for two days to get first crack at the last lot of Olympic tickets for that city. When the box office opened on the morning of July 25, fights broke out.

Tonight, at approximately 7:15, in the intermission between two men’s Olympic soccer matches at Shanghai Stadium, a slow but steady flow of fans began to exit. It was subtle at first, but by 7:30, on the verge of the match between gold medal favorite Argentina and scrappy underdog Ivory Coast, there were obvious patches of empty seats throughout the stadium. The under-card between Australia and Serbia had apparently been enough soccer to entertain the curiosity seekers only interested in attending an Olympic event. And by and large, these attendees were more committed than most in this ambivalent Olympic co-host city that rarely gives credit to its northern rival for anything, much less the ability to hold a major international event without embarrassing itself (and China). Ever the more cosmopolitan city, the Shanghainese believe they could have done the Games better. But barring that opportunity, they prefer to pretend that they wouldn’t deign to do it in the first place.

Shanghai’s history has shallow roots, as Chinese cities go. Prior to the mid-19th century, the future city was barely a dot—if anything—on most Chinese maps. But the Opium Wars, and the subsequent Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, changed everything. Shanghai, which had previously been little more than a concentration of villages focused on fishing and textiles, became a “treaty port” where international trade flourished, the Chinese government had little to no power, and foreign nations enjoyed extra-territorial privileges. For the next century, Shanghai flourished as a lawless hub of international trade, second only to Hong Kong in commerce, and it adopted the prejudices and preferences of its mercenary capitalist builders.

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Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai.

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