‘Software’ and intangibles still a problem for Beijing Olympics

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Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

With the Central Government and IOC in Beijing this week to mark the one year countdown before the start of the Olympics, problems are starting to surface concerning a variety of issues over the events, and in particular the ‘soft’ issues that are so important in making a success of the Games. We’ve traveled around some of the Olympic sites and unfortunately not everything looks rosy. Here is a list of concerns we have:

The Chinese insisting upon having the Olympics kick off at 8pm on August 8, 2008 (lucky eights), for a nation that has long sworn off ‘superstition’ is proving to be a problem due simply to the timing. The Sydney Olympics were held a full five weeks later than this, from the opening ceremony there on September 15th. The problem with the 8/8/08 date is simply the weather conditions in China at that time. Beijing is at its hottest, and as the city essentially lies in a plain between low mountains, heat and pollution tends to gather and lie in the city at that time. This is not conducive to good sports, and is not just confined to Beijing. Hong Kong, where the equestrian events are being held, also suffers from poor air quality, high humidity and typhoons during this month. Consequently, the HK Jockey Club has had to announce events will be held in the early morning and late evening, and an extra few days have been set aside to cater for poor weather. Special ‘cooling’ facilities are also being put in place to treat stressed horses. Qingdao, site of the yachting events, during August experiences its lowest wind conditions, hardly conducive to competitive racing, if indeed they can get underway. For a nation that prides itself on doing away with ‘old superstitions’ the decision to hold the Olympics far earlier than usual – justifiable only because of those lucky eights – is likely to create a poor general standard of performance during 2008’s events.

Air quality
The quality of the air in China has been talked a lot; however despite assurances from the Central Government that pollution would be cleared up, as of today, the skies around Beijing are dirty and grey. Hardly the sort of atmosphere world class athletes are best competing in. Indeed, Dr. Marco Cardinale, medical advisor to the British Olympic Committee goes as far as to say “I wouldn’t expect many world records in track events at this Olympics. The bad air is going to affect performances.” The Chinese government handily put up a website showing air quality amongst 84 different cities in China. Beijing is the worst. A rating of 107, according to their own data, means “The cardiac and respiratory system should reduce strength draining and outdoor activities”. Yet the Olympics are being held with athletes trying their hardest to win. A lot is going to have to be done to get Beijing to decent standards of air quality in a year – and again, that date of 8/8/08 during the height of summer when such conditions are at their worst is now proving to be a major problem that will affect the performance quality of the athletes.

Beijing is not going to have problems with this, although residents will be affected – the Beijing government has announced today 1 million cars will be taken off Beijing’s streets immediately to offset both the pollution and the traffic congestion. How is this going to be managed? No comment has yet been made as to who will have to give up vehicles. That aside, Beijing’s stadium and so on is all up to speed and pretty much delivered. The same in Hong Kong, where the Jockey Club is a world class institution who knows what they are doing. However, the same cannot be said for Qingdao. This writer, who has a 25 year background in amateur competitive yachting, has been alarmed by infrastructure for the sailing events in Qingdao. Equipment has been purchased that is not up to the job of handling competitive yachts. Winches and machinery used to haul craft up into dry dock for hull maintenance failed to take account of Qingdao’s six foot tides – meaning yachts can only be hauled out of the water, or lowered back in at high tide. Gantry cranes to assist with this are the wrong design with cross bars in place as supports. That means the yacht masts get in the way and the crane is useless. The solution when I asked a Qingdao official, “They can take the masts down.” Oh no they can’t. Yacht masts at that sort of class are an intrinsic part of the structure, removing it is like taking the engine out of your car. It came as no surprise to hear the crane had been built and provided by a ‘friend’ of the government and by a yard with no experience of making such equipment. Beijing no doubt will be asked for a handout to rectify the problem, but from what I see, with no yachting or offshore experience at all over the past 100 years, China is set for major problems with it’s Qingdao yachting events – and with big people with massive egos, highly competitive natures and some very serious money coming in to the city this is not the time to be messing about with the unworkable machinery. Or a lack of wind.

Food quality
The Chinese have insisted there are no food hygiene problems, however with recent scares of exported Chinese products, and many domestic problems with food quality (banned additives, processed cardboard ending up in baotzis, tainted milk and so on) Madame Wu Yi has been placed in charge of a taskforce on a national crackdown of food safety problems. A statement, issued by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) announced satellites would be used to track trucks carrying food. That’s all well and good – but what about what happens at the supplier level? Wu Yi’s appointment is significant – she headed up the SARS taskforce and tends to be the senior ranking official the Politburo turn too to sort things out. That is indicative of a current and serious problem that does need to be sorted.

The much hyped attempts to teach Beijing’s taxi drivers has failed. I know, I live there. Plus matters of personal hygiene remain problematic – many drivers essentially live in their cars, and while at rest eat, smoke, drink and sleep in them. Smelly taxis are still a problem, as are the language issues. Commenting on this, I was told by a policeman, of all people “Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language. Most visitors will be able to communicate with us.” This is an attitude that needs to change and quite where Beijing will get the English language talents remains to be seen – I suspect by pressing into service students studying foreign language at universities across the country. To examine the issue, I had foreign staff stand outside our offices on the main Chang An street (which leads directly to Tiananmen Square, 2 miles east) “Excuse me please, could you tell me how to get to the Forbidden City?” (it’s right next to Tiananmen). 40 officials from Policemen to Security Guards were asked. None of them understood the question or could reply.

Greening Beijing
The momentum here too is being lost. Trees planted a year or so ago along the Fourth Ring Road have been removed due to poor health and have been replaced by plastic ones, with plastic flowers appearing also in many parks and other urban areas as a short cut to ‘beautify’ the city. It doesn’t work.

Press freedom
This has still not adequately been addressed, with Beijing about to be engulfed with a battalion of international journalists there is some huge potential for conflict between the notoriously conservative security and media agencies in China and the standard of access foreign media are used to. Requests for payment for access to stories or personnel by Chinese journalists and media are still rampant, and access to information still jealously guarded by the authorities. Fingers crossed there is not any incident, because with the worlds media on hand, quite how China will deal with managing foreign journalists in areas it prefers to keep a strict handle on itself could be a potential flashpoint.

Access to entertainment
Fancy a drink and a meal afterwards? Many of Beijing’s most popular expat bars and restaurants have done deals with international events organizations during the Olympics, and sold rights to use the venue during this time. These events companies are then sub-letting the venues out to their corporate clients. An example being The Pavilion, whose owner told me of the deal he’d arranged and the likely consequences to regulars. “It’ll be up to US$100 just to get in,” he said, “and many of the venues will be invitation only.” Private enterprise, admirable as it is, is taking away an awful lot of regular watering holes during the duration in order to cash in.

Timing of events
U.S. television and advertising dictates that events are to be held at times suitable for U.S., not Asian consumers. As a result, many of the most prestigious events are being held at either very early or very late timings locally in China. Not the best situation for time adjusted international athletes to have to compete with. Would you fancy doing a 100 meter fast crawl in the men’s swimming finals at 2am? Because that’s what is being scheduled.

There is, obviously, still a lot of work that needs to be done, and the devil, as they say, is always in the detail – something China has not shown much competence for during the recent scandals of supplying products from the country to international markets. When those international markets come to China to see first hand – can the country stand up and deal with it? There are 365 days to get it all fixed. But worryingly, August will still be August.

Fingers crossed it’ll be a great occasion for China, I do hope so. But I suspect a lot of it will come at the compromise of world class athletics, sports and performances, which rather misses the point of having the Games in the first place. For that, London may be the better bet in getting the Games back in the realm of the athletes who participate.