Its raining sparks in Beijing. Showers of sparks burst from the steel frame of the Olympic Stadium, from the flat-topped shell of the Central Television Headquarters, from the scaffolding on Tower 3 of the China World Trade Center. Its raining sparks in the Jade Garden, on the Beijing Riviera and in Capital Paradise, where the high-rise apartment blocks of the nouveau riche emerge from thin air by the dozen. Sparks cascade from the façades along the ring roads.
Beijing is being welded, sawn, constructed, repaired, renovated and retouched. Burning shavings fall to the ground in a shower of golden rain, with 265 days still to go before the start of the Olympic Games.
The city is smartening itself up in the gleaming mirrors of the 31 sporting facilities that are scattered, seemingly at random, throughout the city. The stadiums, arenas and sports fields stand in three or four clusters to the north, west and east of the city center. Whoever visits them, or indeed anyone who even wants to find them, needs an expert driver and nerves of steel; the route will take them through a sprawling, congested, swamped city, an immense urban settlement that covers 16,800 square kilometers.
Thats the size of a real metropolis. It is 20 times the size of Berlin and it's a city with no defined edges, with an interior accessed by elevated highways and multi-level expressways, divided by five many-lane ring roads that sketch out their wide, crooked circles around the center point of the Forbidden City, the ancient heart of China.
If one starts out at Tiananmen Square, the Square of Heavenly Peace, and heads west, the path soon leads to Wukesong. There, a mighty hall that looks as though it is made of turquoise frosted glass stands in a large, fenced-off building site.
In August 2008, this hall will host the basketball tournament of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad; it will be all about free throws, technical fouls, points scored in the last remaining seconds, as if these were the only things of any importance. But the sporting dramas fade into insignificance, because in fact the whole of the vast country that is China is perpetually in play: as a former empire but also as a new country that wants to demonstrate how brilliantly it has entered the 21st century.
The forecourt of the Wukesong Indoor Stadium, to the left of which three Olympic baseball fields can be made out, is intimidating in its hugeness. Migrant laborers in everyday clothes populate the building site. Not one of them wears a hardhat as they swarm like bees over the square. Behind the sports grounds, cranes stretch up over the shells of the buildings that comprise a new business quarter, where banners flutter, with their message printed in white on red: Celebrate the 58th Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China."
In front of the site fence, old men play with Dou Kongzhu, diabolos, making the cones dance on strings like yoyos, elegant acrobats with weathered faces, old enough to have heard Mao on the radio live. Many wear soft-peak caps and buttoned-up overalls. They hold aloft small dragons that they have made out of cut-up shopping bags from the French supermarket chain Carrefour. They stand with their backs to the new Olympic sports hall, but the old and the new are in close proximity here: opposite, the windows of Military Hospital 301 can be seen, where Deng Xiaoping died in February 1997.
Satellites to the Mother Ship
To some extent these are his games, and if Deng, the architect of the new China, were still alive, maybe Swiss construction company Burckhardt + Partners original plan would have come to fruition.
Their idea was to cover the exterior wall of the basketball hall with LCD panels, making the entire facade a screen for live broadcasts from inside. But the project was stopped when, three years ago, all plans had to be rethought on cost grounds. But it also likely had to do with a general suspicion in China of too much Western influence, too much transparency.
Many of the new Olympic buildings are reminiscent of space ships, of flying saucers, of UFOs and of science fiction generally. The centers outside of the Olympic Green, often hidden away on rambling university campuses, are clad with various light alloys or are finished as though they were sealed, often windowless, smooth and closed. The buildings, which are often round and often have no angles, are to the new Chinese National Theater in the center of Beijing (the controversial Egg designed by French architect Paul Andreu) like satellites to a mother ship. They offer little resistance and they show little face.
This also applies to the two gymnasiums in the Tongzhou district, southeast of the center, on the Peking University of Technology campus. These buildings are reminiscent of melting golf balls, in which badminton and rhythmic gymnastics will be the order of the day. A UFO has also landed northwest of the center, on the Beihang University campus, where a cheerful aluminum building has been provided for the weightlifters.
But the good news, and thats what its all about, is that Beijing is ready. The games could essentially start the day after tomorrow, because the sports halls and the stadiums are built and the stage is set.
Banners hang over the building sites with mottos like: "Work hard, make sure the building is a success." Beneath them, parquet is already being swept, lines are already being drawn, pitches laid out, nets put up. Water will soon flow into where it is required and ammunition will be laid in where it is needed for shooting range competitions.
On a visit to the table-tennis hall on the Peking University campus, loudspeaker announcements resound through the domed hall and fire sirens are tested several times, with announcements in Chinese and English. Far out to the west, at the Olympic shooting range, a bold line in front of the Western Hills district, access is already strictly forbidden, so that not a single speck of dust will be brought in.
At the old Capital Indoor Stadium, built in 1968, all that is required before the Olympic volleyball tournament is a bit of cosmetic work. As with almost all of the competition sites, only minor work is left -- a little green here and there, some decorative stones.
The message here is loud and clear: We are ready. And moreover: We could have done it even in 2000, when Sydneys bid won at the last minute. But now, in 2008, nothing will get in the way and nothing will be improvised, there will be nothing like the hectic last dash for Athens 2004, everything will go according to the far-sighted plan. In the catacombs of the wrestling stadium 280 days before the huge opening celebration, computer-printed labels are already stuck on the doors, reading "fresh flowers," referees and even medals." Nothing will be left to chance in Beijing in 2008.
Bringing in Farmers to Build the Stadiums
To provide labor for all this construction work, huge numbers of China's farmers have had to become laborers. Hundreds of thousands have made the long journey to the capital city. On the western outskirts of Beijing, in front of the new velodrome designed by the architecture firm Schürman, men and women from the province of Hebei and from Sichuan add the finishing touches to paths and borders, shoveling stones seven days a week for the glory of the nation, and all for 800 yuan ($107) each month. The builders are constructing a new Olympia in the Far East.
Droves of them are building the square in front of the Laoshan cycle track, which also looks like a spaceship -- round, futuristic, while at the same time vaulted like a church dome.
In the shadow of the velodrome, just a few meters from the huge hall, oppressively close, two low apartment blocks have been left standing. Socialist accommodation with flaking stucco; they look as though the demolition balls left them behind by mistake.
Between the buildings two elderly women are walking a Pomeranian. They say that there are no vegetable markets left in the area. They can't think of anything else to say about Olympia. A girl in a sweat suit says that where the hall now stands there once were fields. But she can't remember exactly -- they might have been the training grounds for a driving school, she says. Work began on the cycle track three years ago. And three years is a very long time in todays Beijing.
Growth is visible everywhere. The vehicle fleet of the capital city alone increases by 1,000 vehicles daily. No one counts the apartment blocks any more, hundreds are under construction with hundreds more planned. Foreigners who have lived here for a long time no longer talk of development, but of explosion. In 1994 the city laid its third highway ring road, in 2001 its fourth and in 2003 its fifth; now the sixth is underway. And all of that has always had a lot to do with sport, with sports policy in China.
A Storm of Progress
Beijing experienced its first major modernization push after the Mao era in the run-up to the Asian Games of 1990. At the time, one year after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the government presented new, magnificent buildings to gloss over the disgrace. New housing and business centers sprang up around the competition sites. The Asian Games were the prelude to the fugue that is the Olympics.
The storm of progress since 1990 has not come without a price. The average speed on the roads has dropped to 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) per hour thanks to perpetual jams. It will soon be possible to travel faster on foot, but that involves breathing in the notorious Beijing air, air that is pregnant with sulfur dioxide, with nitrogen oxide, with heavy metals, with fine particles, all at levels that regularly show contempt for national and World Health Organization guidelines.
On bad days, when its foggy, when the coal heating is lit, when dust storms hit the city and yet the air nevertheless stays still as though in a bell jar, the pollution makes itself felt, thick on the tongue, causing the throat to ache.
But the Games take place in summer and a travel ban will be slapped on car drivers in their millions. The government wants to impose temporary factory closures, will bring old power plants to a standstill and is already making large-scale shifts from coal to gas, a move which has been applauded by the United Nations Environment Program.
And if none of this helps or if it is too slow, then the governments weather-makers will have it rain, or they will shoot missiles into the clouds to disperse them; they will do everything without a second thought to make sure that the air over the huge Beijing sports festival will at least not be as dirty as for Athens 2004 or Los Angeles 1984.
There are another 265 days before the Games open on Aug. 8, 2008. Twenty new sports grounds have been constructed, 11 have been fully renovated and anyone who finally manages to approach the Olympic Green on the fourth city ring road is suddenly and overwhelmingly confronted with the most emblematic building of the forthcoming Games, the National Stadium, also known as the "Bird's Nest."
Beside it, the Olympic Campus stretches two, maybe three kilometers to the north, with the spectacular swimming pool, the Olympic Hall and the Conference and Meditation Center strung out in a row, behind them the trifling Olympic Village, the tennis courts, another park with trees and ponds -- that's what Olympia will look like next year. Pictures will be supplied to sweep away old clichés. And each picture, even before the games, is a small victory for China.
But nothing has a more impressive or more moving effect than that of the huge stadium itself. The interwoven steel nest is a proud emblem, a monumental building with a human face, an ingenious design by the architect duo Herzog & de Meuron, together with the artist Ai Weiwei. Its as though this stadium is the first of Chinas great gifts to the world in the 21st century. Nothing material, nothing that is for sale, but rather an original piece of global culture, made in China.