Wednesday evening Olympics, in two parts

The real Beijing
Before the Olympics began, one hypothesis for their outcome was "Potemkin Beijing." All the preparations would have worked so perfectly -- migrant workers dispatched home, construction sites completely finished or else covered with bunting and billboards, no one spitting, everyone standing in lines, the air sparkling blue and clear, the Olympic Lanes avoiding all inconvenience for Olympic crowds -- that visitors would come away not simply with the proper degree of respect for what China has pulled off but with an unrealistic sense of a magic kingdom.

Jim Boyce, an resident of Beijing who is so enthusiastic about his home city that one of his blogs is called Beijing Boyce (the other, about the local wine trade, is called Grape Wall of China) says in a note that he is no longer concerned on this score:

I think we can put to rest the worries of long-term expats that visitors wouldn't see the "real Beijing". The air has been fairly bad, the traffic, while lighter, shows that the "etiquette" rules have not been taken to heart by drivers (I saw a few terrified tourists amid traffic last night as cars did U-turns through the cross walk), every fifth taxi driver has a bad attitude, etc. This is the way it should be -- Beijing doing a good job on infrastructure, the people being friendly overall, and a few warts (traffic, air) for all to see.

The point is actually an important one: giving an impression of Beijing and China that is on-the -whole positive, with more goods than bads (while having some of both), is more valuable in the long run than the perfect Potemkin effect. Though I imagine the organizers were hoping/ planning for perfection.

It's so crowded, nobody goes there any more
Both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have good stories today pointing out that crowds are disappointingly thin at the main Olympic Green areas -- disappointing for the advertisers, that is, who have paid tens of millions to put up expensive displays.

Anyone in or around Beijing can diagnose the problem here, which the stories also point out: You can't get into the place. Even to board the special Olympic subway line to the venues you need to have an admissions ticket to one of that day's events. This is entirely apart from the pre-Olympic crackdown on issuing visas for potential Olympic travelers, much discussed by hoteliers. I would have liked to see these pavilions -- if I had been able to get a ticket to swimming, tennis, or some other event at the main site. If and when I do get tickets, maybe I will enjoying strolling without the bother of fighting crowds!

Bonus point, speaking of perfection: The main, official Beijing Olympics site, English version here, is very, very good. Easy to navigate; fast; accurate; updated practically in real time. This master-schedule page lets you see exactly who is doing what, and has done what, in any sport. Tabs at the top let you look up any athlete from any country instantly. Nicely done.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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