Olympic bubble leaves real China hermetically sealed


More than at any other Olympic celebration , we were aware of being tranquillised - we lived in a theme park, not China, writes Tom Humphries

THE MAIN transportation area at the Olympic press centre is a grid several football pitches in area with buses going hither and thither from designated stops. To get to the shuttle that whisks us nightly to our plush seven-star hotel suite, we must go past the stop that whisks other people to the Beijing Foreign Experts Institute. We can't help but feel a pang of envy.

All of us here, after all, are foreign experts, unblushing about painting an overall picture of China after a couple of weeks spent within the Disney on steroids environment that the Olympics provides.

In truth we are the least-qualified people on earth to comment on China and the games. We can only compare and contrast these Beijing games as seen from within the bubble with the experience of being within other bubbles.

First the bubble. You know it is there but the Chinese, in a masterstroke of overstaffing, have solved the security problems that can occasionally make the Olympic experience (or lately just working in Croke Park) so oppressive, intimidating and so involving of queue.

Exposure to the Salt Lake City winter games and to the Athens Olympics left a trace impression of a security world gone mad. Nightclub bouncers and men with machine guns had inherited the earth. Long, long queues formed to get into any arena or press centre. There were no words better guaranteed to sink the hearts of hacks at the back of an epic security queue than the demand that all cameras and laptops be removed from bags for inspection.

The Chinese have solved it all. We come down to the hotel lobby, scan our danglers in (sounds more exciting than it is: our danglers are our accreditation cards, which dangle from our necks like cowbells). Once that is done (10 seconds max), including wild cheery hellos and good days and thank yous and you're welcomes, we step on to a bus and drive down a special Olympic highway and become part of the Olympic family in the pristine Olympic green.

And we can go from venue to venue on our dedicated Olympic highways without ever leaving the Olympic bubble or needing to be searched again. Our meals, our banking, our technology, our haircuts, our massage requirements, our visits to McDonalds - all these things are provided within the bubble. Sometimes we come out and it has been raining. Other times we come out and the government has been oppressing. Of the two conditions, rain makes more impact on us. We berate the athletes for not making an articulate expression of political concern like Smith and Carlos in 1968, but in the bubble we are just as soothed and self-absorbed.

We are not so much in China as living within the set of the Truman Show, vaguely aware that, to paraphrase the philosopher Bono, outside it's China.

Outside it's China and the impact that makes on life in the bubble is small. You detect the well-nigh invisible force of the security fence that surrounds the games by the things that are missing. The Olympic green doesn't throng and throb with thousands of rubbernecking sightseers. If you have the correct dangler or ticket you are inside the bubble. If not you are somewhere else entirely.

In terms of being hermetically sealed off from the host community, these games feel qualitatively different from their recent counterparts. The Olympic venues don't groan under the weight of merchants' tables flogging mountain ranges of licensed souvenir gear. In parts of Beijing, the Olympics are practically invisible.

Perhaps because the Chinese people are so overwhelmingly decent and friendly without ever being cloying about it, we find ourselves within our Truman Show compound trying to re-educate ourselves and to help things along for China by maintaining a sunny Olympic spirit.

You give little things a pass. You can't get Amnesty sites or the Huffington Post on the web within the press centres, but we are busy anyway. That little girl miming because she was cuter than the girl who was actually singing well - The Irish Timesoften uses other people's photo-bylines on my pieces for the same reason.

Even the charmingly Kafkaesque idea that there would be three special areas reserved in Beijing for people who wanted to protest about things, but that those people would have to apply to the local authorities for permission to protest (no permissions were granted among the 77 applications), almost became darkly humorous with the news that several applicants for the right to protest had been arrested, among them two old ladies.

If we are to be frank, the human rights violation we fret about the most is that the shop in the main press centre stocks no other type of chocolate except Snickers bars and M&Ms - and they disappear quickly once word gets around that a new consignment has arrived.

We live in a big theme park, not in China. Those of us who came to this country to work at the games don't even have visas. Our danglers identify us as special at the airport - Olympic family. More than at any other Olympic celebration we are aware of being tranquillised and we are gulled by the experience, soothed and made passive.

China has planned and constructed these games to soothe us. It exposes us to the friendliest, most helpful security people in the world, the warmest citizens and their touching innocent pride. They smile hugely when they throw Snickers bars at us! And our reservations and protest plans feel like bad manners.

We roam the huge Olympic green like contented buffalo. Past the wonderful red glow of the Bird's Nest and the gloopy blue Water Cube, and the quiet thrilling efficiency of everything, and we are not in China but China is selling a version of itself to us.

We remember all the promises made in Moscow seven years ago and realise that China has delivered over and over again in terms of the infrastructure of these games and, rather cynically, hasn't blinked on much else. But we can see nothing and hear nothing, so while we are here, we do nothing and hope those who hope for more understand. We were queuing for M&Ms. Okay?