Olympic Village wins praise for comforts - and even bizarre twists

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 July, 2008, 12:00am

The Olympic Village projected a heart-warming image of the Beijing Games, long troubled by various issues from politics to air quality, on its inauguration day - though not without upset or, even, bizarre twists.

The residential compound of the village, home to an estimated 16,000 athletes, coaches and officials during the Games, was mainly off-limits to the press. But the vast recreational area has already shown the host's eagerness to embrace its guests with open arms.

An acupuncture and massage therapy salon and a traditional Chinese tea house stood out amid the normal cluster of supermarkets, churches and information centres found in the athlete villages of previous Olympics. To help visitors better grasp Chinese culture - usually conceived as arcane and mysterious for westerners - Games organisers even set up a makeshift classroom to give computer-assisted lectures on the basics of the Chinese language.

'We have 26 teachers on board in our teaching crew, with six to eight on each shift, working 10 hours a day,' said Lu Yuhong, a volunteer teacher. 'Besides instilling basic language skills, we will also give foreign athletes Chinese names at their request, based on the pronunciation of their names in their native tongue and their individual personality as well.'

In the nail salon, athletes are offered nail polish in strong Chinese colours and flamboyant Peking opera designs.

'It is the best Olympic village I have ever been to,' said Joerg Ziegler, an official with the German Olympic delegation. 'The greenery, the fountains, the recreational area and the condos themselves are all impressive.' To others, however, there might be something else that differentiates previous Olympic villages from the Beijing incarnation.

Contradictory to Beijing's promise when it bid for the Games, of uncensored internet access for the international Olympic fraternity, the South China Morning Post found that most of the previously banned websites remained off limits on computers at the internet cafes in the Olympic Village. They include the BBC Chinese network, the online sites of Taiwanese newspapers like Liberty Times, and Hong Kong's Apple Daily.

But while censorship is something predictable in a communist regime, the bookshop in the Olympic Village offered something totally beyond expectation. A search ended in vain for such sex-related magazines as Playboy and Penthouse which, it was rumoured, could be bought in the village. But it turned out that the Chinese authorities were determined to appeal to those robust athletes in their own way. Tucked in a corner of the bookstore was an entire shelf of photo albums featuring nude Chinese women, and they did raise eyebrows - even among those weathered Olympians.

'It's bizarre, I don't expect something like this in the bookshop of an Olympic village,' Brad Hiskins, an Australian therapist who has been to four Olympics, said.

'I have never seen anything close to this in my previous Games experience. But I might consider buying one as a token.'

Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Sun Weijia , media operations director for the Games organising committee, said the Chinese host had kept its pledge to allow free internet access. When reporters asked him why they were unable to access the BBC and Kyodo websites at Olympic press centres, Mr Sun said as far as Bocog was concerned, all technical problems over internet access had been resolved.

'I am not clear if the [problem] regarding [those] two websites ... is a technical one or not,' he said.

Winning formula

The complex is located in the Olympic Green, adjacent to the Olympic Forest Park

The number of people the village can accommodate: 16,000

The number of rooms: 9,000

The number of apartment buildings: 42

The number of working staff: 2,100