Friday, August 08, 2008
And With a Tear in My Eye
I was about fifteen seconds away from calling this a 'narrative,' and then I read the blob previous. Immediately it struck me that there might be a better way to say what I was going to say (not necessarily what I want to say, just what I was going to say. Tonight, quite to my surprise I was twice brought to tears. Now, as our chip off the old block, Jordan Kai, will tell you, emotions run in the family. She has been known to tell people with whom she has been involved in an accident (it was the other guys fault, big time) "I have to cry, I 'm an emotional person." I'm not sure the other guy got what she meant. He happened to be drunk and to have run into her car at 3am. It was lost on him. But I heard her say it, and furthermore I believe it; and I believe she came by it honestly. We all seem to be emotional. And the thing about emotions is, you never know -- almost by definition -- when an emotion will strike you, and emote you.
But tonight I was overcome rather unexpectedly. It was at the National Stadium (i.e. the"Birds Nest" - in Beijing where the Olympics kicked off tonight with the most absolutely stupendous show (for this, the word Spectacle could well have been invented) I have ever beheld. Sequencing being what it is, I have to say that this occurred after I unpacked. After I had carefully undone my half dozen bags of their photographic gear. Tonight, as always with 'OPENING Ceremonies' thousands of people paid thousands of dollars (except the Politicians who go for free, especially the ones who majored in Poli Sci in school) for the chance to sit in a large outdoor arena and watch a show. Some shows are better than others, to be sure. Some put you right to sleep. Some even put the politicians to sleep That kind of show is REALLY boring. But every now and then, one of the shows just stops you in your tracks. That show was tonight. I suppose I was one of the skeptics a half dozen years ago who thought the choice of Beijing a rather odd one. There hadn't been, at that point, much of a sense of the place being a success as a venue for big international events. The 1995 In'tl Women's conference was one such event which was probably not considered, from a logistics point of view, a great success around the world. Shoddily prepared buildings, an inability to deal with constant rain, and generally a disrespect for many of the traditional ways of holding such meetings, left a bad taste in many mouths. So, the idea of coming to Beijing for a vast sports program, the biggest one in the world, was daunting.
Tonight, as a way of re-introducing itself, China vaulted ahead of many of those old impressions.
It was a hot and sweaty night (courtesy of one of my Chinese friends in the row behind)
The Olympic Games, like most big events, has become a TV show, driven by sponsors and advertising. We all watch it, think whatever we think about the "show", listen to the mindless blathering of overpaid commentators, and then wait four years for them to do it again. With all the hoopla, you sometimes forget that basically it's just another track meet. Tonight's kick off, though, was something extraordinary. I probably shouldn't say this, being a photo guy, and all, but nothing short of being there will ever give you a real sense of the grandiosity and power of a show like this. TV lets you see movement, but it's 2 dimensional and doesn't really get that flavor. Photography , as always, can give you a real feel of what the place was like, but capturing in a still picture something that is elegantly moving in mysterious ways is a challenge.
I know I'm a softie. I cry at Will Ferrell movies. Well, not quite. But I find that the older I get, the less I worry about reacting, or more particularly, how people see me react to things. During the first round of pledges to the Olympic Ideals, there was a moment, amid the explosions of fireworks visible thru the Bird's Nest roof, when it did seem to be something special. Where, in spite of the flogging of money and the media B.S. there might be the tiniest chance that the world would become a little more civil. I know that this is asking a lot of a track meet. But the beauty and stunning quality of the visuals just hit me square in the face. In one moment I realized that this will probably be my last Summer Games ( who wants to go to London, pay $750 for a lousy room in a B&B, drink $13 coffees, and deal with the difficulty of getting in and out of London with more that a paperback book in your purse.) I have been doing the Olympics for almost twenty five years. The work I have done has become in many ways part of what my life is. We all have our very own Olympic moments, and mine have been moving, important, and something I count on coming back to each quatrain. So I realized that in some ways this might be my own personal swan song to the Games. (The average age of a photographer here is probably 32, with many older and a few very very young.) As a place to work, it is extremely challenging both visually, and physically. You have to carry too much gear too far, and usually too fast, for it to be fun. (Maybe that is where the theme "altius, fortius, citius..." comes from.) Just yesterday, I had a small run in with a very nice kid working as a volunteer. The Chinese, enabled by the nearly endless supply of warm bodies, many of which are highly intelligent, rely like all host cities on fleets of volunteers. But I missed a turn walking back from the Water Cube (the stunning pool) and had to retrace my steps a half mile, instead of one little 200 yard short-cut. At that moment ( major F bomb involvement, snarling, the whole bit) as I walked by the theme painted everywhere (One World, One Dream...) all I could think of was "My Dream isn't really getting any traction today...." The long walks, the slow, meandering (but on time) buses in the transport network also challenge your sense of time and place rather seriously. You CAN do this, you CANT do that... Each venue is different from the next in terms of how the rules are applied.
So when I sidled into the Nest at 4:30 today I wasn't sure what I was in store for. Seating was tight; my 4x5 Speed Graphic was taking all the space where my feet wanted to be. It was hot beyond belief: the front row, which one would have thought would give you a good breeze, was buffeted by the heat from the projector lighting just a couple of feet away. It was an oven. I probably lost five pounds in sweat alone. I tried eating my Snickers bar. Fuggedaboutit. One mini bite and off to the trash for that melted mess. So, in other words, I was kind of in an ambivalent mood. I was there, I wanted to a good picture or two, but I almost felt as if things were conspiring against me.
Then the show started, Amazing, fantastic. All my adjectives fall short, as do my pictures. The creative minds which cobbled it together must have been extraordinary. The one thing I can tell you for sure: this operation was NOT put together by a bunch of consultants using their Blackberrys. In the last few minutes, when the medalist carrying the torch started to ascend from the edge of the playing field, you could hear 80000 people say "Ahhh!" all at once. That is a sound you should hear at least once in your life. Then, tilting to the side, he became a slow motion runner, legs taking in ten, twenty feet at a stride. He lacked only a flickering light to make you think you were watching a film clip of the 1920 Olympic Games. As he started into the first turn, headed towards me (and my 200mm lens.) I couldn't see the image in the viewfinder, for the tears which were crawling down my face. [I believe my exact words were "Oh my god, it's the most beautiful thing I have ever seen..."] Please, don't write and tell me the Commies just figured out a way to hoodwink us tonight (though I do wish more of you would comment from time to time). No, this was special. This was amazing. This was in the truest sense, performance Art. Seconds later, another gasp of anticipation from the crowd as he tipped his torch into a flame way (thats where the flames drive) and .. voila, we had the Olympic flame. I know how it all moved me, but even more touching, I think were the people in the row behind me. They were the kind of folks who could buy tickets to an event like this (there is a LOT of money being circulated in China these days, way, way more than you would ever know) Yet, they were all in their 40s, 50s, a few in their 60's. These are people who might remember the Civil War in the late 40s but surely all lived through the Cultural Revolution in the 60s, and the post Mao era. Looking at them tonight, they were almost to a man (and woman) beaming with the kind of sublime pride I have never seen in the Chinese. There were a few people, so overjoyed by the 'coming out' party the Chinese were throwing for themselves (and us) that the glint of almost teary eyes was in abundance. Many of them shook my hand as I left, and the smiles we all felt were very genuine.
Bird's Nest, from up high, looking out to Olympic Green
I have no idea where this will all end up, except for sure there will be a few athletes ding'ed for drugs, maybe a judge tossed because of his partiallity. But more than anything, as a young American who came to China last year to find his fortune and explore the place, said to me: 'they are throwing this shindig as much for the Chinese as for any of us.' It's to prove to themselves that a mere generation after the tumult of the 60s, the rebuilding in the 70s, and opening up in the 80s, that this place is here, and here to stay. As usual my schedule has been so nuts (its now 4am folks) that normal things you do on a visit (eat... for example) are curtailed or done rather badly. I'd probably still rather eat on Sunday's at Mark's Duck House in Falls Church for dim sum. But no longer will we be able to think of the Chinese in that 70s mindset which seems to still rule these days: China is the next force to be reckoned with, for better or worse. And all I can hope is that I wasn't the only person with tears in his eyes tonight. That maybe the Games can actually serve a higher purpose, and open some doors and minds.
In Section L, Level 5
I wish Mark had opened a cafe in the Press Center. It's a big buffet, plus a McDonalds (why would you?). But those dumplngs will wait for me, I'm sure. Whether China decides to wait for the rest of us, I'm pretty sure that won't happen. We're just sayin.... David.