Beijing must shake off that know-it-all attitude
Last week's Olympic test events at the Bird's Nest did exactly what they were designed to do - test Beijing's state of readiness for the Olympics. They also tested the patience and understanding of the proud mainlanders who, after a series of recent events - torch relay melees, et al - have become increasing irritated with critics bashing their much-adored Games.
This column has long argued that come what may, the 2008 Olympics will be one of the greatest Games ever, thanks to the fantastic venues, the dedicated sports stars and the hospitality of the Chinese people.
Constructive criticism should not, however, be confused with 'western [media-fuelled] bias', the new, popular catch-all to denounce anything negative said against Beijing 2008 and its organisers. Nor should it be an excuse for knee-jerk reactions that expose belligerence bordering on nationalism, which is what occurred during the test events last weekend when someone dared tell the emperor the new clothes he was wearing had a button missing.
In the eyes of the mostly Chinese competitors, organisers, spectators and scores of mainland journalists, the three-day race-walking and marathon events went off in a state of fluffy flawlessness. But the reality is far from the official airbrushed world of cotton wool clouds and fluffy Fuwa mascots being hugged by the happy-go-lucky Olympic-mad masses.
There are a few things that need fixing ahead of the August opener, as pointed out by the international athletes who took part. Some are serious, some not so. Most, if not all, can be fixed in time.
For instance, this photo of the National Stadium was taken by a freelance contributor who managed to get past several levels of security at the weekend.
'I got through the security X-ray section and was able to stroll around unchallenged outside the stadium,' he told this column. 'I've covered hundreds of international sporting events in my career but I've never seen such lax security. I could have easily been a terrorist or activist on a scouting mission, taking reconnaissance photos, or worse,' said the highly respected professional sports photographer.
'I was not wearing any form of identification, and was not asked for any. The security was there, but it was not being used effectively,' he added.
He slipped through the 'tight' security on the eve of the marathon last Sunday. Security should never be taken lightly. But as so often is the case in the mainland, in a blink of an eye the landscape suddenly changes. On race day, many spectators and media with tickets and accreditation could not get access without a struggle.
One accredited international journalist - with ID visible - had to wrestle past People's Armed Police guards near the assigned media entrance because of language difficulties.
The confusion among lost spectators and media trying to enter the centrepiece stadium and the abruptness of security staff are concerns that are growing, as they fuel unnecessary tension.
'Such rigidity and lack of flexibility is going to lead to friction when foreign journalists and hundreds of thousands of overseas visitors arrive,' said the sports correspondent from Britain, who dared come through a different entrance yards from the assigned gate, which was blocked.
A China Daily sports reporter said he was not allowed to enter the designated entrance as the road was also blocked because of the marathon. One German reporter said. 'No one seemed to know what was going on but they [security guards and volunteers] all could say 'no'.
'We were left walking around the stadium in the rain, as were lots of spectators.'
Earlier this year, we sat in a Bocog media class where an expert was warning staff to expect a 'tsunami' of reporters sticking their noses and lenses everywhere. What he didn't mention, was that most of these reporters have been brought up on the first rule of (western-styled) journalism: never take 'no' for an answer. Over 21,000 accredited journalists, many of whom are famed for their bolshie ways, will go to town with their pens if resentment grows over this unwillingness to be just the slightest bit flexible and the double standards brought about by the faceless layers of bureaucracy.
Then there will be the 'investigative' reporters outside the arenas challenging the mainland's rigid ways.
Later that day during the dress rehearsal, things turned uglier for this column. China's growing impatience at embarrassing Olympic questions was exposed when the otherwise innocuous issue of toilets was raised.
'The organisation was okay. There are a few things that could be better,' said Britain's Maria Yamauchi, who has a Japanese husband and lives in Japan, after the marathon. 'There weren't any toilets at the start in Tiananmen Square. It's a simple thing but as an athlete it's important.'
When her concerns were raised at the post-race press conference, the serious query became a joke for one Chinese runner-up due to a misinterpretation by the translator. Her subsequent wrong answer was met with a defiant round of applause from the mainland media.
This column then said an image of marathon runners being forced to relieve themselves in Tiananmen Square due to a lack of portable lavatories could prove to be a PR disaster. Afterwards, scores of mainland media - some irate - surrounded this column's correspondent, insisting there were toilets at the start.
It was an unnerving experience. One presumes journalists, wherever they may operate, would not seek to barrack the messenger and one of their own.
Moreover, as the China Daily reported: 'Some Chinese journalists and volunteers who had not been to the marathon start insisted there must be some toilets as Beijing has held many marathons.'
Thankfully, there was one voice of reason amid the melee. 'This is what test events are for and we will listen to such comments and advice,' a Bocog spokesman told this column later.
Stop the press
Mainland officials are covering the cracks over the test events at the Bird's Nest
This number of journalists who will be covering the August Games: 21,000