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Beijing all game for big show

Beijing is in Olympic mode. Even the freezing Beijing winter isn’t preventing people in droves from buying up all the memorabilia possible, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2008 23:56 IST
Amit Baruah

Beijing is in Olympic mode. The Games will showcase China’s arrival on the global stage. And, to make the August 8-24 Olympics a success, the city is being decked up, as 31 Olympic venues spring up across the city. Of these, 12 will be spanking new.

As the clock ticks away to D-day, the freezing Beijing winter isn’t preventing people in droves from buying up all the Beijing Olympics memorabilia possible. Clocks, pencil boxes, sweatshirts, Swatch watches, caps—you name it— just about everything with the Beijing emblem and mascots are on sale.

Shivering at minus eight, with gloves, muffler, inners and all the protection one can muster, yours truly set out to the nearest Beijing Olympic store, a short walk from the hotel and about a kilometre from the city’s imposing Tiananmen Square.

It was the most important mission of my two-and-a-half-day-stay, most of it spent inside my hotel and in front of the laptop screen. Because returning home empty-handed, without any gifts for my daughters (aged 11 and 9), would have been akin to inviting the wrath of…you choose!

In the early morning (for me), I see all the branded stores possible on way to the Olympic store. And, since my knowledge of branding is not very strong, I’ll take a pass on the names. But, yes, just about everything is on sale in Mao Zedong’s country. It’s the long march to prosperity via consumerism.

Make no mistake about it. Beijing is First World. Maybe it’s in better shape than some of the older First World cities. So, as I cross branded Beijing, and make my way to the Olympic store to appease my kids, I get a whiff of the city.

Since my last visit in May 2004, the sky looks cleaner as Beijing attempts to clean up its act ahead of the showcase games. But the pundits differ: they feel that Beijing suffers from a major air quality problem so much so that authorities are planning emergency measures for August.

Local newspapers have reported that in order to deal with air pollution and traffic congestion issues half the city’s transport could be pulled off the roads. By October, Beijing is likely to have 3.3 million vehicles on the roads—so 1.65 million vehicles will have to be pulled out.

But all this is possible in China. In India, it’s impossible. In 2001, Shanghai hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. To de-congest the roads, the residents of Shanghai were given an option: either stay indoors or take a week’s holiday.

And, believe me, it worked. Dignitaries (and less important people like us, hacks) had no problems sailing through the streets even as police patrols ensured that the odd motorist did not get on to the roads.

To me, that’s the fundamental difference between India and China. If you ask Indians to stay indoors, all of them will be on the roads to make a point. In China, they listen to authority —to the Party and the State. Two countries, two systems, two peoples.

Back to my stroll. The people on the streets look as if they dress better, in more trendy clothes. As I enter a massive Beijing Olympics store, close to a 24-hour McDonalds, I’m struck by the sheer variety of what’s on offer.

Looking for a sweatshirt for my older daughter, I turn to a shop assistant to check the size. Will she able to respond to me in English? Yes, absolutely — effective and to the point. In a city where you feel like hitting your head against a boulder given that you have no Mandarin skills, the reply in English comes as a pleasant surprise.

Over the last couple of years, city authorities have been making a special effort to impart English language skills to deal with the five lakh tourists, athletes and journalists who will be descending on Beijing in early October. Clearly, these efforts seem to be paying off.

The only thing I see of the Olympic preparations is a brief trip to an exhibition centre, close to the Bird’s Nest Stadium, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to be given a briefing on what’s happening with the preparations.

As usual, security requires that the journos (with cameras) are kept at bay as the Prime Minister is given a quick tour and briefing at the exhibition centre. So, I can’t tell you what was said.

But what I can tell you is this: the Beijing Olympics is about China announcing that we can do exactly what the more developed parts of the world can do; possibly on a grander scale. And, unlike the dead and buried Soviet Union, the Chinese have the economic muscle to back their sporting talent. In about 200 days, the factory of the world is going to turn into the sporting capital of the world. Almost Time to reach for the bubbly Beijing.