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BILL PLASCHKE

Sneaky, yes, but with a smile

August 24, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

Beijing

There are more than a billion people in this country, but I wouldn't capture my Olympic experience here until I was alone.

At least, I thought I was alone.

It was a quiet weekday afternoon, I was hustling through the quiet lobby of our military-owned hotel, taking an empty elevator up to the 16th floor, walking down an empty hallway, ducking into my empty room to pack for my next assignment.

Five minutes later, the hotel phone rang.

"Your door is open," said a voice.

Click.

I looked at the phone. I looked at my door. It is dark oak. The frame is dark oak. There is no obvious crack. How could anyone tell it was open?

I touched it. By maybe one inch, it was open.

That somebody at the hotel knew my door was open meant only one thing:

Somebody had been following me.

I walked outside looking for this person, up and down the hallway, but nobody was there.

I rode back downstairs, planning to confront the manager about a lack of privacy, when I was greeted in the lobby by a smiling worker. And another one. And another one.

By the time I had taken 10 steps, five employees have called out to me, asked how I was doing, smiling and waving to me.

By the time I reached the front desk, I felt so foolish and paranoid, I shrugged and returned to my room.

This, it turns out, was the sum of my Beijing Olympic experience. And in this, I am certain I am not alone.

When the torch is passed to London at the closing ceremony today, the Games will remembered as the most technically, logistically successful in history.

They will also be remembered as the sneakiest.

But the locals have been so unfailingly pleasant and polite about it, we will just shrug and return to our rooms.

------

In three weeks I have grown to love this city, with its ancient neighborhoods and stately boulevards, with its temples next to tobacco stores, with its tree-lined river walks and rolling city parks.

I'm just not sure how much of it is real.

I've also grown to love the people, the women who cover their mouths and giggle at every dumb joke, the men who enthusiastically shake your hand as if it were the first hand they have ever shaken, the simple acts of kindness that occur a dozen times a day.

I just don't know how much they really liked me back.

It feels as if I've just spent three weeks on an Asian version of Disney's Main Street.

Part of me would love to linger, but part of me can't stand to stay another minute.

The constant smiles?

Oops. The government made the people take classes on everything from dental hygiene to, yes, proper grinning.

Those wonderful new blue seats that were in every taxi, making this traffic-choked city seem a bit more bearable?

Oops. Slipcovers.

Those wonderful new buildings that towered over every corner, making this dull capital city seem glitzy?

Oops. Many of them were vacant, having been built only to make a good impression for the Olympics.

Those stands filled with fans chanting for whatever nations happened to be competing?

Oops. Listen closely, and you realize most of them were Chinese nationals, many of them children, all of them used as substitutes for the thousands of ticket holders who didn't show.

China tried so hard to earn the world's applause, it even faked the cheering sections.

Whenever asked about the discrepancies, officials responded with, "National interest."

The sky was filthy with smog the first few days of the Games, yet it is officially called "haze"?

National interest.

An opening ceremony song is actually lip-synched, a 9-year-old girl pretending to have the voice of a 7-year old who was deemed not cute enough to be onstage?

National interest.

Thousands of glowing Chinese dancers at the opening ceremony turn out to be duty-fulfilling members of the military?

National interest.

And when those performers were inhumanely worked this summer, enduring marathon rehearsals that sometimes required the use of smelling salts and adult diapers?

National interest.

I talked to many Chinese nationals about it, and they all said it was just another form of patriotism.

"If you could do something for the good of your country, wouldn't you do it?" asked a young volunteer.

Yes, I told him, but not at the expense of the sort of democracy upon which our country was built.

I wonder, as China has grown much larger on the world stage, have its people gotten smaller?

Beijing was initially awarded the Olympics in hopes that witnessing two weeks of world brotherhood would influence China to ease its restrictions on human rights.

But didn't China's successful management of these Games make that plan backfire?

Isn't China now looking at the rest of the world and saying, "You see? This is how you do it."

This is certainly how you should run an Olympics.

But it is not how you should run a country.

I applaud the Chinese's effort and ingenuity. I admire their devotion and strength. I am in awe of their gentleness and politeness.

To show my appreciation, I hereby offer to take their gold-medal-winning gymnasts to a victory party at Chuck E. Cheese.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke @latimes.com.

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