Let the games begin: journalists have been promised a pampering at the Beijing Olympics
Monday 04 August 2008
From outside it looks like a modern office block crossed with a Chinese-style pagoda. Inside, a corps of "hard-working" professionals are being offered massages, hairdressing, modern gym facilities and world-class starters and mains. It sounds like a playground for high-flying hedge fund managers, but this complex in Beijing is aimed at a more earthy audience: the global fraternity of sport hacks.
The Beijing Olympic Green Convention Centre, which will make its debut on Friday when press coverage of the Olympics springs off the starting blocks, will be the working base for the more than 20,000 media professionals expected in Beijing. Never one to pass up a PR opportunity, the Chinese authorities have rolled out the red carpet for the Fourth Estate. Reporters will file their copy via Wi-Fi from their laptops, or any one of almost 1,000 computer workstations, and then really get down to business, drinking or hitting the sack in a five-star hotel that adjoins their working area, or indulging in top-of-the-range medical care, banking and shopping.
"This is one of the largest media centres ever built, by some distance," says Peter Morrison of the London-based architecture firm RMJM, which designed the centre. "We worked very hard to understand the scale of the Olympics. The numbers are staggering. Even last week the quantity of people there was absolutely unbelievable. There is a real buzz about the place."
The press workroom is the largest in Olympic history. It has 971 broadband-equipped workstations, 680 with high-speed network connections and an additional 206 for photographers. The floors are reinforced to shoulder the weight of the pre-fabricated broadcasting studios that have been shipped in. Large, transparent walls ensure superlative views of key Olympic landmarks, such as the "bird's nest" stadium, and the building has cutting-edge acoustics to prevent sound leakage. Next year, the whole complex will be converted into a national convention centre.
"From the beginning we looked carefully at the centre's environment," Morrison says. "The Chinese are very sensitive to culture. That was critical. That is why you can see the pagoda shape in the roof."
The architects have promised the hacks "celebrity-style treatment reserved for Hollywood A-listers... a working journalist's paradise where every need and whim is catered for, including masseurs, chefs, fitness trainers and hair stylists".
Those set to use the complex are slightly more cynical. "It is quite spacious and well appointed, but I am not sure luxurious is the right word," says Chris Buckley, a reporter in Reuters' Beijing bureau. "I think it will be less spacious once it is cluttered up with journalists. They have a canteen and that was OK but it wasn't exactly caviar on toast. I think if the food is good the journalists there will be grateful, because they will be stuck in there for so long. It's not like you can step out and go to a restaurant instead. There is so much security around the perimeter."
So is this complex simply a gilded cage, designed to keep the truth of contemporary life in China from prying eyes? On Thursday, Amnesty International attacked Olympic organisers for backing China in its blocking of certain "sensitive" websites, including Amnesty's own, over issues such as the Chinese government's abusive treatment of the Tibetan people; other websites load incredibly slowly, according to reports. The Independent's Beijing correspondent, Clifford Coonan, says that the website of this publication have been blocked when it has not suited the Chinese authorities. "If you Google words such as the Dalai Lama, [the oppressed movement] Falun Gong or even the Chinese-language version of the BBC website, you have problems."
The Chinese authorities are perhaps hoping that foreign journalists will put their inquisitive natures to one side while in Beijing and head off for a good shoulder rub – or just console themselves with a moment's contemplation before the centre's plum blossom tree.
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