The scenes from today’s Olympic cycling road race in Beijing were stunning. NBC shot beautiful high definition video of the ancient city with its Asian filigree, curved cornices and dragon motifs. Then as the race progressed they moved on to arial swoops of the modern city with its muscular, physics defying architecture, finally out to the countryside, to the great wall of China.
This bird eye tour ride followed a night of unrivaled artistry as the Olympic opening ceremonies with its permutations of 2,008 drummers, Confucian scholars, and harmonious martial artists, showed what you can do with an unlimited budget, an unlimited population, and unlimited control of both.
Watching the precision and the power of the infrastructure surrounding these games, how could anyone in the rest of the word not feel awed and threatened by the resurgent and emergent China? Last night Mandarins sat behind traditional (and beautiful) hand carved dark wooden dais as Messrs. Putkin, Bush, and Sarkozi, to name just a few, squirmed and sweated in the cheap seats. The symbolism was shocking. First, they had to come; second, it was as if they weren’t there at all (Putkin is actually running a war in Georgia right now, generally a time when leaders stay home)
Until 2008, winning an Olympic bid was a invitation to municipal humiliation. Hosts consistently failed to complete train lines, airports, stadiums, or even the streets in time for the world to arrive. Greece confirmed the world’s opinion of Mediterranean (in)efficiency by delivering a host city more in ruins when the games began then the one they had at the start. And while the Americans in LA began the trend toward the games as modern spectacular, it was Atlanta that just skidded through to functionality by under designing vast swaths of infrastructure (a disposable version of the games). I was at Atlanta. Most of the construction was done with cardboard posters and banners. You felt that if someone fell the wrong way the ripping sound alone would bring the whole thing to a halt. There certainly was no new airport two miles long, or a TV broadcasting center that disregards gravity. As they did in Atlanta, some grouse that the sheer expansion of the numbers sports, and the complexities of those added, require unique and ever more complex designs that doom organizers at inception because they struggled to satisfy the needs of beach volleyball, basketball, and skeet shooting …as well as swimming, track, and gymnastics… The Chinese drowned that argument forever with millions of flowers planted on top of an absolutely complete infrastructure for all the games. The Chinese are playing for keeps. One wonders how London will do.
But as startling as the scenes were from NBC, there was no avoiding the darkness that hung in the air. As amazing as these first days of the games are, all of Beijing is still all cloaked in a common brown tar of the nation’s viscus pollution. (and in this case I’m only taking about effluent, not the tar of politics)
Looking at the spectacle through the haze was not unlike being in an old bar where nicotine stained walls were encrusted long before we decided that cigarets killed more certainly than massive infusions of cheep whisky. In this case the room is still filled with smoke.
The greasy air is so bad that even the IOC’s pallet of rainbow colors for the games, with its predominant and central imperial red at the core, had trouble burning through the brown air.
But should we be surprised? The Chinese’s aren’t. They seem to understand a truism from the European industrial revolution, and its bad boy offspring in America. All this achievement comes from massive industrial output, done on the cheap because pollution is a non-internalized cost of manufacturing. Put pollutants in the air and it’s as if you get a huge discount on a major cost of producing goods. China is doing this on a massive scale and achieving massive rewards. The future wealth of a nation is built with pollution, and by the looks of it, the future wealth of China will be awesome.
Oh, and today our President hung out on the volleyball beach…