3) Logistics. On the whole, they've worked pretty well. In particular, the new subway line 10 has been a godsend for getting people to the main Olympic venue. Sometimes line 10 shuts down earlier than the Olympic events do, but that's a detail. And the young volunteer guides are numerous, friendly, and eager to help.
There are three notable exceptions, which I say based not just on general reports but on repeated personal experience with all of them.
- Food. Spectators are searched for food and drink on the way into the venues, and any consumable item is confiscated. (After previous confiscation episodes, my wife got away with smuggling a small Toblerone bar into a stadium. The guard held it up skeptically and asked what it was. "Medicine," she said in Chinese. He made her taste some, which she did quickly without letting him look too closely at it -- and got through.)
The problem is, it is very difficult to find much else inside. The relatively abundant food stands sell snack-junk only: potato chips, popcorn, sweet rolls, ice cream cones, plus cheap beer and Coke. I have not yet seen even one spectator at a venue consuming anything heartier -- say, sandwich, hotdog, you name it. Is McDonald's, the monopoly fast-food sponsor, responsible? It has a huge central outlet on the Olympic Green, but not any at the sporting venues. Some other business obstacle? I don't know. Believe me, I'm not the only one to notice.
Update: Indeed, I see that the WSJ also covered this story in its Aug 13 edition, in a dispatch by Sky Canaves and Geoffrey Fowler. Sample: "China is famous for its culinary treasures, but its Olympics are starting to be known as a dining disaster... At many [venues], all that's for sale are saltine crackers, dry instant noodles (no hot water provided), plain bread rolls and potato chips."
Also, they offer this observation, which connects to my next logistics point::
The shortages highlight one of the thorniest problems of China's massive Olympic project. While impressive stadiums were completed with dazzling speed, there's still a long way to go to develop the know-how to run them.
- Transport, information, and "signage." For instance: pity the non-Chinese-literate visitor who is naive enough to try get to the "Olympic Green Tennis Center" by going to the "Olympic Green" itself, or exiting at the "Olympic Green" stop on the special Olympic subway line. Either error will cost an hour or two of extra travel.
The real route, which one learns only by doing (in defiance of advice from volunteers who steer travelers to the Olympic Green), is to get off at the Beitucheng subway station and then take a K1 or K2 bus that loops around the whole Olympic site. Challenge for most visitors: the stops on the buses' routes are listed in Chinese characters and in "English" transliterations that will be meaningless to most outsiders. To get to the tennis site, you want to get off at the stop listed on the route maps as AOLINPIKEGONGYUANWANGQIUCHANG, and announced that way by the Chinese conductor. I don't know how a visitor who is looking for "Olympic Green Tennis Center" which is what that means in English, would have any idea where to get off.
- Empty seats. This truly is amazing. A few marquee events have drawn full houses, like last night's 100m sprint final. But much of the time, huge swaths of seats have sat empty. This is unfortunate, given how many people, Chinese and foreign, would love to see those events. It's also strange, given the repeated announcements from Beijing Olympic officials that every single ticket to every single event was snapped up long ago.
Illustration: my wife and I tried hard, and repeatedly, to get tickets to yesterday's and today's rowing finals at Shunyi. Not a one could be had. The best we could get were cheap-seat standing-room tickets for the heats a week ago. But when we watched the Saturday finals on TV, we saw thousands of vacant places in the grandstands. Also: If the bronze medal match for women's single tennis, which includes China's own Li Na, is shown where you are today, check it out. It's on an intimate court, which doesn't take many spectators to fill up -- and it's mostly empty.
(Update: the heavyweight -champs rowing races are the finals of the men's and women's eights. In both of them the U.S. has plausible entries. On Sunday afternoon CCTV carried live coverage of the other rowing events where Chinese boats had made the finals. But now it's switched away just before the eights begin racing. No Chinese boat in either event. Grrrrrr.)
I have no theory on why the empty-seat pattern is so. That it is so, is widely noticed and strange. (Update: including in this Business Week account, which has the delightful detail that "Even the world's richest man, Bill Gates, had to settle for tickets to badminton.")