An Olympic Interview from Beijing

Walking Up to the Bird's NestWonder what it was really like to be at the 2008 Beijing Olympics?

Though we weren’t in Beijing to report directly, we did pose nine questions** to a friend who was. Nguyen shares his first-hand Olympic experience — including scoring 110 tickets, the simple joy of giving some of them away, an explanation of the empty seats you saw on TV, and how the Chinese people love an underdog.

1. Best Olympic experience?

For me, the best was the numerous times I was able to make someone’s Olympics dream come true, i.e. seeing gymnastics, diving, handball, or any event, etc., [by giving away tickets].

More from a recent online chat: The best moment was giving it [tickets] to some poor Chinese guy and his 8 yr old kid. He asked how much, and the tix were only 30 RMB ($5) so I said 60 RMB (less than $10) for 2. Then I didn’t even take his money – the look on his face was worth far more than the 60 RMB. The smile on his face was worth 100X more…the dad was on verge of tears. And the best part – the entire conversation was in Chinese because he didn’t speak a word of English.

…the best part for her (a woman who was a creative director at one of the Pavilions on the Central Green) was being able to give away so many day passes to get onto the Central Green. You had to have athletics, gymnastics, or diving tickets to get on the green. In other words, the most difficult tickets to get. No one was allowed on unless they had a ticket or a day pass. So she would go to the station each day to or from work and just walk around and randomly pass them out. That alone made the last 5 months of her job worth it.

2. You ended up with 110 tickets! How did you manage that?

Olympic GymnasticsIt was a group effort with 2 other friends. There were 4 rounds of ticket sales. We were all unsuccessful in round 1. I had luck in round 2 and picked up about 16 tickets. [My friends] found luck in round 3, that brought our total up to 59. And then the monster luck came for me in round 4 sales of tickets during the Olympics. I would randomly check at times during the day, and always seemed to get lucky!

That’s how I scored tix for the premier events like gymnastics, beach volley, diving, athletics, handball, etc. Proud to say we didn’t have to resort to buying a single scalped ticket. Reaped the benefits of major good ticket karma throughout the years.

3. How much did tickets cost?

The bulk of the tickets were in the $5 US to $10 US range (80 tix). A few in $20 range: women’s beach volley ball. There were a handful in the $30 range: ping pong, diving, athletics. The most I paid was $66 (face value) for front row men’s team gymnastics final (editor’s note: with seats in front of Glenn Close)

4. Any other stories to share?

Cheering on America I think Americans went a long way in trying to repair our international image. We were surprisingly very subdued and limited with our “USA” chants and cheering. Other countries were far louder and boisterous cheering for their countries. There were several times I ran into obnoxious fans, and thankfully, it was never any Americans.

The Chinese love the underdog. I was baffled on numerous occasions, especially during boxing matches. The Chinese would switch who they were cheering for based on who was losing. In one match in particular, it was Spain-US boxers. They started out cheering for Spain. But then the Spaniard went up 7-2 (which is a healthy lead in boxing), so then they started cheering for the US boxer. Once the US boxer finally took the lead, the crowd quickly switched back to cheering for the Spaniard. This happened in quite a few other matches and sports.

5. Your favorite event?

Beach volley and handball were the most exciting because the crowds were very lively and really into the matches, cheering loudly, doing the wave, etc.

6. Why did we see so many empty seats on TV?

Empty Seats at the Beijing OlympicsThe official excuse was that many tix went to the corporate sponsors who had problems giving them to clients and employees, especially for the earlier matches. I think scalpers were a major factor. Tons of scalpers holding tons of unsold tickets outside the venues. It had been dubbed the “sold out” Olympics, but I think “scalped out” Olympics is more accurate.

I also felt the press areas were unusually large. The athletes’ sections also went mostly unused. Lastly, there were huge chunks of “photo shooting area” seats that hogged up some very prime seats that went mostly unused, since very few people bothered to go to those spots to take photos.

7. What was the best thing about being at Olympic events? The worst?

The best was seeing the athletes compete, sharing the realization of dreams of so many of them. You could see the awe of many of them, excited just to be there. Also seeing many Chinese enjoying their first live sports events.

The worst part was how spread out the venues were. For the most part, transportation itself wasn’t a problem, between taxis, the new subway lines, and special Olympic buses, there were easy ways to get around. The distances between venues was the bad part.

8. Were the venues as cool as they looked on TV?

Olympic Flame Burns Bright at the Bird's NestThe venues were amazing, between the Bird’s Nest, WaterCube, Wukesong (basketball), they were probably more awe-inspiring up close and in real life than on TV. Even the older, re-furbished arenas like Worker’s Gymnasium or Peking University Gymnasium looked really nice.

9. Did it live up to the hype?

The Olympics experience exceeded my expectations, it really was a festive, and positive vibe. For the most part, it was a very well run operation.

A big thanks to our friend Nguyen for allowing to use his photos in this post and for taking the time out from his Olympic recovery schedule in Beijing to answer our questions.

**For an explanation of the significance of the number nine in Chinese culture, check this out.

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  1. says

    I went to the Olympics as well and absolutely loved it. The whole experience was amazing, especially seeing how excited the Chinese fans were. It was easy to get them cheering for your team if China wasn’t competing and it was fun dressing up in China gear and leading them in cheering. The whole experience was great. The only bad part for me wsa the venue food. Sausage on a stick, chips and Snickers bars really didn’t cut it, especially when you had t orush between venues with no time to eat elsewhere. But the 50 cent beers made up for it. :-)

  2. says

    Kirsty, I hear you on the 50 cent beers, but that’s almost a crime that the venue food was so awful considering what wonderful food Beijing has to offer! We saw the level of excitement of Chinese people when the torch went through Kunming – it must have been crazy at the actual Olympic games. What a fun experience! Any plans for 2012 in London?

  3. says

    Yep 2012 is on the cards for sure but London has a lot to live up to. Part of the fun in Beijing was that everything was so cheap so getting from place to place in cabs, eating out all the time between events, and partying every night sort of went without thinking too much about the budget. London will be a totally different story and ticket prices might be scary as well.

  4. says

    Everyone who was at the Beijing Olympics keeps saying that London has a hard act to follow. I agree about the costs too. It’s really freeing to go out and not have to worry about the cost of each beer, taxi ride or snack. We’re missing that a lot about Asia – going out is a different ball game back in Europe!

  5. says

    Bird’s Nest, the venue for Beijing Olympic 2008 has turned into a highlight for Beijing tourism. Most of the tour in Beijing will include Beijing Olympic venues as one of the stops for the tours. Well, from the exterior part of the stadium, it is really impressive especialy when lights are all on in the night.

  6. says

    @Michael: Although the Bird’s Nest is an impressive piece of modern architecture, I hope the Beijing walking tours have included some of the old courtyards and hutongs around Beijing, to the extent that they haven’t been torn down or “modernized.”


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