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.

In the spring of 1949, when the Communist Party took control of Shanghai, the city’s days of freewheeling capitalism ended. Yet, even in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, which the city embraced with fervor, Shanghai remained one of China’s most important industrial bases. By 1991, when it was allowed to begin modernizing its state-owned, state-planned economy, the residents were primed and ready to resume their rightful place in an international commercial and financial center. The city very quickly reasserted itself as a primary driver of Chinese economic growth, and it did so in large part because of foreign investment. The city’s leading lights—many of whom were in private boxes at tonight’s match—will tell you so.

Indeed, anybody who spends any time in this city soon learns that to be Shanghainese is to be vain on two points. First, you must believe that you are more are savvy with money than other Chinese, and second, unlike those other bumpkin Chinese (particularly in Beijing), you must hold to the illusion that you are “international.” It is no coincidence that both of these vanities were targeted by Mao’s xenophobic revolution. Even today, despite three decades of economic growth based upon massive inflows of foreign money, many Chinese hold grudges based upon the belief that the country’s 19th century decline was entirely the work of foreigners. For the Beijinger, as for most Chinese, Shanghai may be the more international of the two rival cities, but the capital remains the more “Chinese.”

By the 7:45 start for tonight’s second match, the stands were filled with pockets of young, largely male Shanghainese wearing the characteristic blue and white jerseys of the Argentinean national team. In the section below the one in which I sat with friends, fans were wrapped in Argentinean flags and scarves, blue and white face paint, and even a few blue and white fright wigs. When the Argentinean team strode onto the pitch, the whole of Shanghai Stadium began a steady chant of “Argentina!” that—in unison—erased any hint of a local accent. When I asked a seatmate to explain the vigorous support for a country with no obvious connection to Shanghai, he shrugged. “The ’86 World Cup was the first to be widely televised in China. Argentina won it, and they’ve had a fan base ever since.” A few minutes later, he added, “Also, Shanghai loves a winner. This isn’t a town for underdogs.” The trill of cicadas drifted into the stadium, and the mist of the sub-tropical humidity wavered across the stadium lights. High above the pitch, bats began to dive in and out of the lights as the chants started up again for Argentina. My friend continued, “You won’t get this anywhere else in China. They wouldn’t even think of it.”