That was the games that was: Artificial, scary and far too expensive
It was a spectacle of unparalleled achievement and grandeur, but where was the passion and the joy? By Alan Hubbard in Beijing
Sunday 24 August 2008
Tonight, after Becks, Boris and a red double decker bus have done their bit to show that London can pick up Beijing's challenge to "follow that" in 2012, Jacques Rogge will traditionally declare these Olympics "the best Games ever". But will the International Olympic Committee president really mean it?
In terms of sport, there can be no doubt that Beijing 2008 would have had Baron Pierre de Coubertin enthusiastically nodding his agreement that truly they have been "Faster, Higher, Stronger" than anything that has gone before.
Indeed, a spectacle of unparalleled achievement and grandeur, but one that has set new Olympic records in profligacy and self-aggrandisement.
Should London attempt to copy them it would break the Bank of England. No doubt tonight they will present a knock-out eight minutes in the Bird's Nest Stadium to show they can do things just as professionally, but differently and with more stylish understatement. By necessity that has to be the case, especially in terms of that £200m opening ceremony.
As Seb Coe has said repeatedly, London doesn't have the cash or resources to match Beijing so it shouldn't even try, but obviously it will take more than a bit of hip-hop, the Lambeth Walk and a medley from the band of the Coldstream Guards to have the world on the edge of their seats gasping in awe, as happened here a fortnight ago.
Back home, quite rightly, you have been marvelling at the wonder of it all. So, how was it for us over here? Well, it all worked. The sport was splendid, particularly if you were British, for whom every Beijing cloud seemed to have a golden lining. In fact towards the end we were getting uncomfortably blasé about recording success on success that there were complaints of medal fatigue.
Brits apart, we were served up a rich fare of glory whenever Michael Phelps plunged into the pool or Usain Bolt stepped on to the track. What they did took the breath away. Seeing was believing. Or so we hoped, shoving inbred cynicism about almost unreal performances to the back of our minds.
These were the Games that seemed to have everything yet puzzlingly lacked something. Stupendous as they have been in content and orchestration, there has been an air of artificiality about them. Perhaps it was because they were conducted with such military precision – not only the omnipresent militia but the police, the youthful volunteers and even those who cleaned our rooms paraded in squaddie-like unison to their posts. Here was the truest indication that China really is on another Long March. But you sensed that the Olympic City was not the real Beijing, even less the real China. For while there has been plenty of pride, there has been little real passion.
Fair enough, those around us have been unfailingly polite and helpful, even rushing to hold umbrellas over us when it rained as we climbed into buses which always left on time or dashed for the metro on which a one-way ticket costs roughly 25 times less than London's Olympics visitors will pay when taking the Tube to Stratford in four years' time.
Some of the security – not so much for the media, who the Games organisers tried more or less to cocoon in an Olympic bubble – has been nightmarish. Even the Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, who has been attempting to convince us that Chinese attitudes are radically changing, admits security checks for the public have been "rather intimidating". London, she promises, will take a more public-friendly approach in Games that will have a greater diversity.
Beijing 2008 was designed to show that China is now a major force at playing both sporting and political games, and it worked. For the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, it has been a political triumph of the greatest magnitude, as it was always intended to be, though no doubt he would have preferred less concentration on human rights and more on the uncivil lefts thrown by China's emerging boxing force at the Workers' Gymnasium.
These were the 11th Summer Games I have attended and unquestionably they have been the most spectacular, the best stage-managed and the best for British performances. But the best ever? Rogge, who has staked his own sports political future on Beijing pulling it off without misadventure, may declare them so tonight, but not me.
What sterile Beijing lacked was the fiesta mood of Barcelona, the G'day mateyness of Sydney and the feeling of real Olympism that permeated Athens. And certainly there was none of the joie de vivre that would have been evident had Paris not been outvoted when Beijing was awarded these Games at the second time of asking seven years ago.
Now as the closing ceremony approaches, it is down to London to demonstrate that it can put a genuine smile back on the face of the Olympics. Gordon Brown will be sitting up there alongside President Jintao, and after what the British athletes have done for the feelgood factor back home his own grin should be from ear to ear.
If nothing else, Beijing has shown what can be done when money and people, particularly young people, are no object. Bidding goodbye to Beijing brings mixed feelings, but the one which prevails is looking forward to London even more.
Five gold rings: Beijing's best moments
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1. Usain Bolt
Just when you think you have seen it all, after 20 years on the Olympic beat, up pops the Jamaican sprinter with a genuine bolt from the blue. Not just the brace of world records – 9.69sec in the 100m, 19.30sec in the 200m – but the outrageous celebrations before he reached the line in the shorter event. It was simply breathtaking. It was just what track and field needed.
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2. Dana Abdulrazak
The 21-year-old Iraqi ran in the heats of the women's 100m wearing a white T-shirt and cycling shorts, then left the track carrying her kit in a shopping bag. Having braved sniper fire while training on a mortar-scarred track at Baghdad University and driven through Sunni-Shiite battle lines to get there, she was as much of a star of these Games as Bolt.
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3. Michael Johnson
It was 2.30am on Thursday and deep in the bowels of the Main Press Centre, where Johnson was leaning on the counter of the coffee bar clutching a brown paper McDonald's takeaway bag. Four hours earlier he had witnessed his supposedly untouchable world 200m record reduced to a takeaway, wrapped up by the exceedingly talented Mr Bolt.
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4. Christine Ohuruogu
She had done it in Osaka at last year's World Championships and she had done it the year before at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. When Ohuruogu got into the home straight of the Bird's Nest on Tuesday, there was only going to be one winner. She might have been back in fifth place but give this young woman a sniff of the line and she'll gun anyone down.
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5. Paula Radcliffe
She should never have started the marathon and should have pulled out for the purposes of self-preservation as soon as she dropped off the pace. The fact she was there, that she had a go, and that she gave every last drop, is why Radcliffe is – or has been – the runner she is. A fighter every inch of the way and, in distance-running terms, as much of a legend as Bolt.
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