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.”

Qingdao has been a major commercial port for more than a millennium, but it was only in 1897, when German forces took over the city, that its modern image began to take shape. Soon after a ninety-nine year lease to Germany was imposed and signed, two of the city’s most important features were established: a German naval base and a Bavarian village on the city’s stunning hillsides. The Germans didn’t remain for long. Japanese forces, idle during World War I, recognized the strategic military value of the German base, and occupied it while the Germans were occupied elsewhere. They held it until 1922, when China regained the city by treaty. The Japanese took Qingdao once more, during World War II, before returning it—once and for all—to Chinese hands in 1949.

In China, what politics cannot change, commerce often can. In the mid-1980s, the Chinese navy relinquished control of two of Qingdao’s valuable piers for the purpose of encouraging the development of the city’s economy. Since then, Qingdao has become one of China’s most important commercial centers, home to several of its most innovative home-grown companies, and a tourist haven renowned for its German architecture and beer. (In addition to a world-renowned beer festival, Qingdao is home to the German-founded Tsing Tao Brewery.) Despite having some of China’s best urban beaches and waterfront, however, Qingdao—like the rest of China—has yet to develop a recreational boating culture.

I arrived in the city late Wednesday afternoon and spoke with a receptionist at my hotel who told me that the city had had more visitors for the algae cleanup than they did now, during the Olympic competition. Half an hour later I arrived at the Sailing Center as a jubilant, mostly Chinese crowd was exiting, having just witnessed the first gold medal ever won by a Chinese athlete in an Olympic sailing competition.

qingdao sailing Olympics

The excitement carried over to this morning, despite rain and wind, and by noon the security lines were backed-up with eager new spectators. The enthusiasm level quickly diminished, however, as fans found themselves buffeted by fierce winds and discovered that watching competitive racing from shore can be a distant, relatively dull experience. By far the busiest, most crowded sections of the spectator area were the souvenir stands, followed by any section of the breakwater where foreign spectators were cheering. Lacking knowledge of how and why the races were won, the few curious Chinese fans seemed content with watching the foreigners enjoy themselves.

But when the last note of the last national anthem played over the public address system, they fled just as quickly as the chilled medal hostesses, no longer under any obligation to pretend that they wanted to smile in a freezing rainstorm.