Sunday, August 31, 2008

Games over

I’m reading Pallavi Aiyer’s engaging account of her years in China in Smoke and Mirrors, which reveals astonishing facts such as that there are still people who do journalistic research by making and keeping appointments with other people to obtain and ascertain facts and figures, instead of slouching around on the internet in one’s pyjamas.

But China has been on my mind, and on everyone else’s in the world, just in general. It was with unbounded admiration that I viewed the pure fabulousness of the closing ceremony of the 29th Olympiad in Beijing last week. I know, I know—everyone has had it up to the gills with the Olympics, and for my own part if I hear the phrase ‘coming out party’ one more time, I will break the world record in stabbing someone repeatedly with a chopstick.

But I’m still hung up on one particular facet of Olympics 2008, and that is China’s great contrast with once-great Britain. It’s true that China’s episodes of paedo-impersonation and video tampering during the opening ceremony (in the cause of aesthetics and technical perfection) are now world-famous, but the intensity with which people pounced on these incidents suggests a smidgeon of insecurity.

Well-earned insecurity, as it turned out. I thought that the Mayor of London looked shifty and embarrassed, placing his hands in and out of his pockets and generally behaving as if he had no idea what they were doing there at the end of his arms, as they handed him the Olympic flag.

It became painfully clear why, when the London 2012 presentation came on. I couldn’t believe my eyes when, in the epic ambition and sophistication embodied by the closing ceremony in the Bird’s Nest, the London Olympic organisers produced, with a roll of drums…a bus. That’s right, a big red double-decker bus rolled up to a bus stop where people in flappy coats and hats were waiting, industriously reading newspapers under big black umbrellas. The twist of lime was that the orderly queue you’d expect to board the bus turned into a ravening pack of urban anarchists who threw themselves at the doors.

But then, just when it seemed that London had decided it would seduce the world by showcasing chaotic public transport and bad weather, things got worse: the bus unfurled into a hedge-like construction out of which emerged David Beckham (or his waxen double from Madame Tussaud’s, it was hard to tell which) who propelled a football into the crowd; and a musical act that caused the umbrellas to light up with little swirling lights to help shield the coat-clad dancers from the sweat pouring off guitarist Jimmy Page.

In the spirit of Olympic brotherhood, the four or five hundred million Chinese volunteers in the middle of the stadium arranged their features into an expression of gentle, interested mystification.

I suppose it was better than showcasing the Opium Wars.

This really is Asia’s century. But it’s probably time for all the people who like to talk about India rivalling China to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s all very well to gape like goldfish at the comparative poverty of London’s imagination at the moment, but when I drive down the road in Delhi, I can’t say I’m bursting with confidence about Delhi pulling off a decent Commonwealth Games—the banners for which, you might have noticed, came down months ago and have stayed down as people try their best to forget that we’re on a deadline.

Speaking of Delhi, can anyone tell me where they’ve put the roads?

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