Going for Gold: Reflections on the Olympics
Dr Chan Dassanayake
• Beijing 2008, My Olympic Experience
• China’s Olympics
• A Bit of History!
• The NZ Team
• The Olympic Village
• The Doctors Day
• China and Beijing
• The Athletes
• The Venues
• The High Points
Beijing 2008, My Olympic Experience
Many people have asked me about China and the Olympics, and some to write it down in our newsletter. It has taken me a few weeks to settle back into life here, to review, recap, relive and give thought to my extraordinary 4 1/2 weeks in Beijing.
To have accompanied our Olympic team has been a privilege I will always cherish. The event and memories are indelibly imprinted on my mind. It would have to rank as the most memorable event of my life, after meeting Miriam, our wedding and the birth of our children.
I’d like to convey the sheer excitement and adrenalin charged atmosphere that existed for me. I guess we’ve all been to a show or film or play that has left us dazed, full of wonderment, reflective and perhaps wistful for hours or even a few days. It has left you on a high – well my high was constant – there, every day for the four and a half weeks I was in Beijing, and to some extent it is still with me. I’m sure the feats I witnessed and the times I shared will be unrepeated, for me. The superlatives and adjectives that come to mind are: wonderful, fantastic, unbelievable, phenomenal, unforgettable and magical.
It is not a surprise – firstly China and all that it has to offer and then the Olympics. These two factors, synergistically combined, created the greatest show on the planet. China is a country of superlatives; historically, culturally and physically. This provided the context for a sporting extravaganza that surpassed my expectations. For me, there was the added spice of the visit to Beijing, and the chance to see the world’s finest physiological specimens fighting it out for a supreme title.
‘One World, One Dream’ was the official Olympic Games slogan, and on 8pm on the 8/08/2008 the opening ceremony for the 29th Olympiad began. The number eight is auspicious in China – it means – ‘to make fortune’ – and I’m sure many in the Chinese government did, though small businesses in the Olympic environs did not.
This Olympics had the possibility of reminding me of the old ‘cold war’, when athletic supremacy, for some reason, equated with ideological supremacy. This was China’s time – a chance for it to showcase its people and its country. We all know that China has been preparing for these games earnestly ever since it won its Olympic nomination. And let’s face it, every country has done similarly, and will do so in future, given the global audience such an event has. The themes of this Olympics were – a ‘green’ Olympics, the Peoples Olympics, and a high tech Olympics. As you will see, I think it lived up to these goals.
Beijing was the main host city, the others being Qingdao, Tianjin, Shanghi, Shenyang Qinhuangdao and Hong Kong. The other cities were utilized for soccer, sailing and equestrian events. Despite being away from the Olympic village, where the majority of competitors were housed, our NZ competitors at these sites were in constant contact with the main hub – through modern technology and video link ups.
A Bit of History!
The Olympics has an immense tradition, a legacy of sporting perfection and of course a history of political statements; a stage for protest as well as violence. What would China be remembered for?
The ideal rhetoric that embodies the modern Olympic movement started in 1894, when Pierre de Coubertin conceived the concept of the modern Olympic movement, based on the ancient games of Olympia in Greece. His idea was to promote more than a sporting competition, rather an international movement promoting integrated culture of sport and education, to promote sport as a means to peace and to promote a set of values that would extend beyond the playing field. This concept lead to the ‘Olympic truce’, during which time war stopped and no acts of aggression were allowed. Unfortunately this was not observed by Russia or Georgia and some say China, this year. Times have changed and to many of us this ideal, at times, seems farcical. Nevertheless, for the 4 ½ weeks I was there, I forgot my worries of Tibet, war, hard times, hunger, strife, man’s greed and indulged myself in a passion; sport and observation of human kind in a competitive arena. I enjoyed and immersed myself in the celebration of friendships, respect and excellences. I let the assault on my senses continue unabated, unabashed and indulged in every aspect of the games.
The NZ Team
For our NZ team, this Olympics was a special Games. There is no doubt that NZ has a rich Olympic history. This was the 100th year since our 1st Olympian took part in 1908 – Harry Kerr competed for NZ as part of the Australasian team. And this year, amongst this, the biggest team to be sent, was our 1000th athlete. Ever since 1908, our athletes have worn the Silver Fern, our Olympic emblem. To this day our athletes train for years, strive to qualify for selection, overcome doubts, worries, lack of funding, uncertainties, injuries and illness, to get to the Games and wear a Silver Fern.
NZ is one of 205 countries taking part, our athletes and coaches amongst the 17,000 athletes and coaches who come together every 4 years. I was privileged to be part of a 290 strong NZ team. I was proud to be part of a NZ team – to welcome in the athletes with a Hakka, to celebrate our individuality with them – the one team one spirit mantra was evident here – the environment we created was strong, ‘kiwi’ and secure for our athletes.
The team I worked with, i.e. the health team, with whom I shared my daily experiences, was well put together. There were fellow health professionals, eager to help our athletes and exchange thoughts and ideas including: an orthopedic surgeon, a sports medicine specialist, masseurs, a chiropractor, physiotherapists and a sports psychologist. The wider team of athlete support (the operations team), were the people who worked tirelessly behind the scene, during all hours to ensure the NZ team felt safe, comfortable, rested and secure in our created Kiwi home. The amount of work that is done pre-Olympics by the operations team behind the scenes came as a surprise, though it shouldn’t have. The well thought out flags and gigantic banners adorned the building, there was a ‘Bro town’ theme in the lounge and a barista producing home delights; this all contributed to an amazing homely environment, which was set up in tower block B8 of the village. We had to make do with what we were allocated by the Beijing Olympic Committee, and I think we made the most of the resources we had. I enjoyed the fact that the team was small enough that we knew each other, if not to talk to, by sight and recognition. I pitied countries with huge teams, where it would have been more difficult knowing who the other members were in their team. I know that some of them felt isolated. Our team was small in numbers but not in heart.
Added to our efforts, were a few touches that left one with a feeling that we were special. In 2004, Ngai Tahu gifted a large pounamu touchstone to the NZ Olympic committee. This took pride of place in the entrance to our ‘marae’ (tower block B8). Athletes made it a point to touch or rub the stone as they passed. Each member of our team was welcomed onto the ‘marae’ by a Hakka performed by their team mates, and then received their own pendant carved from a single pounamu, a greenstone rock blessed by Ngai Tahu, and carved with the emblem of our Fern.
At the beginning, I trembled with trepidation at having to perform a Hakka, having not been brought up with this culture, and having no sense of rhythm! Being on the bottom floor of the building, and always ‘in’, we were always the first port of call when a new athlete arrived, and hence always first to be summoned for the Hakka. By the end, my hairs bristled and my heart pumped, as I like others beside me, proudly performed the Hakka to welcome our athletes. One of the most memorable Hakka was the challenge issued to our women’s soccer team – the Football Ferns. Our numbers were swollen with the presence of the men’s team and all the other current athletes residing in our block. We stood tall and performed a Hakka to welcome in the girls – it could be heard all around the village. True to protocol, and for the first time, the Ferns challenged us back with their own Hakka, lyrical and graceful. We all stood amazed at their response, proud of them and fiercely pumped up – yes, we were here and the other nations could only watch and wonder. This was the glue to our team – a sense of belonging to a proud nation. Our medal winners were welcomed back when they returned with a rousing Hakka, and this time we indulged with a sip of bubbly!
The Olympic village
I’ll start with the Village, sited just in the north of Beijing and within 30 minutes walk (despite the heat and humidity) of the Birds Nest and Cube, 15 minutes to the tennis and hockey venues. Within the village was the dining area, 2 athletes’ laundries, several communal areas with entertainment such as video games, TV/DVD lounges, pin ball machines, a fully equipped gym, a 50m outdoor swimming pool and an international centre with a supermarket, bank and Chinese arts centre. To the consternation of many, but probably very wisely, the Chinese had stipulated that the village was to be ‘dry’! To all intents and purposes, you could just have stayed in the village, completely self sufficient – cocooned and closeted away from the real China, only venturing out to watch a few events. There were only 3 entry and exit points in the village, necessitating passing through electronically screened security points, similar to that seen at airports. All athletes and officials had to have an ID card on them all the time – without these, reentry back to village was nearly impossible. ID’s were checked at other communal points in the village and entry to these points within the village was impossible without the ID card.
It surprises me how athletes from all over the world have an aversion to walking – it’s a no-no. They just want to ‘save their legs’ – all the time!! Hence within the village was a village only bus transport system. In addition many countries such as ours brought bikes over for our athletes to use. Unfortunately these went missing during our stay – but that’s another story!
The village consisted of twenty-two, 6 story buildings and twenty, 9 story buildings, each containing apartments for the athletes. The rooms in each wing were doubles or triples, some with shared bathrooms and some with en suites. Air conditioning was ubiquitous. The buildings were constructed of environmentally friendly building materials, using solar panels (6000m2 of heating panels), water saving technology, using recycled water in cooling systems. NZ had one nine story block (block 8), which we adorned in kiwiana. Every country made a similar effort, but in my unbiased opinion, ours was the most eye catching and colourful, with its marae like entrance, yellow AA sign posts and gigantic unfurled banners, draped from the top floor. Our ‘home’ contained accommodation, an operations room, medical clinic, coffee lounge, and an athletes lounge as well as a computer room for the athletes to email or ‘Skype’ friends and family.
At the entrance to our ‘marae’ stood a large stainless steel carving of a dragon on granite stone base. The dragon held a pounamu in its mouth. The dragon is an important symbol in Chinese culture, and in 2008 the Chinese community in NZ commissioned the sculpture. Artist Guy Nan then crafted the dragon for the NZ Olympic team, to accompany them to Beijing and stand within the village. The dragon was shipped to Beijing and stood bold and proud at the entrance to our block. After the games it was gifted to the Chinese Olympic committee as a token of NZ’s good wishes.
The Doctors Day
My typical day started at 5.45am – out of bed – waking my unfortunate room mate and bullying him to get up and go to the gym for 45 minutes, or for a swim or run. Then breakfast at 7.30 and a quick retreat back to the village for a medical meeting to hand over all the previous days’ drama. And then on duty, in 4-6 hrs shifts with a break for lunch and depending on your shift, back on duty from 2-8 or 10 pm. Every night, a doctor remained in the medical room from 8pm to 8 am, all night to be available should an athlete need help overnight. Luckily we weren’t disturbed except for the all too frequent problems of gastroenteritis! For me, whenever the men’s hockey team played (every alternate day for 7 matches) I accompanied them to their game and likewise, for the women’s’ marathon. Likewise other doctor accompanied their respective teams to rowing camps, women’s hockey, triathlon, swimming basketball and biking events. In addition out of our pool of 5 doctors, one had to fly to Hong Kong for the equestrian events. Soccer and sailing teams had their own designated doctor who stayed with them out of the village in their respective cities, outside Beijing. On occasions we had a 4-6 hr time slot off duty – then it was a mad rush to a venue or out sight seeing or shopping in the markets! The markets were a magnet for some us, seeking a bargain, and enjoying running the gauntlet of the local traders, for whom, physically dragging you into their store, or baring your exit seemed to be acceptable. The main tourists’ spots were of course the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace with the adjacent Tiananmen Square. I was lucky to get to these spots, especially as my job with the women’s marathon, took me there. The course started at Tiananmen Square, and so I spent a couple of hours wandering around, taking in the excitement of the marathon and absorbing the beauty of this place. These iconic spots were just so breathtaking, and at times I still had to wonder how it was that I was at these sites?
Most of the work was GP type work – indeed only about 1/5 was musculoskeletal or injury related, the rest was based on infection control. Surprisingly, dental problems popped up all too often, but the Chinese dental clinic was superb.
China and Beijing
The Peoples’ Republic of China first competed in an Olympic games in 1980, and won their first medal in 1984 in Los Angeles. This year China topped the medals table with 51 gold medals. Their aim to be a premier sporting power seems to have been realized, and was never in doubt. Their preparation was immense, and when you consider the lengths they went to in the preceding years to achieve this goal, it is not surprising they accomplished so much. With 1/5 of the world’s population, it’s only a matter of time before they dominate in their less traditional strengths.
Beijing appeared to be a thriving city of architectural modern marvels, literally and physically dwarfing a few old style mystic temples and hutongs. It was just another city in some aspects, but so different to what we have. In its architectural framework, imagination is allowed to flow unbounded by building consents, and eye catching concepts revealed themselves. Beijing with its 13 million people was an assault on your senses. So many adjectives come to mind when describing the atmosphere in the village and at the venues. A myriad of colours, the subtle smells and the cacophony of noise within the Birds’ Nest, the piercing clear light within the Cube, the overpowering humidity on some days, the cloudy ‘sea smog’ pervading through the atmosphere (Beijing is landlocked!!), the smell emanating from the ground after a spectacular seeded electric rain storm!
Attitudes changed during my time in Beijing; at the beginning, the starchy, suspicious Red Guards, armed with semi automatics, eventually relaxed with time - they became less severe and more relaxed, permitting us to have our photos taken with them.
You’d have to be awe struck with the colossal achievement that comes in holding an Olympic games. It’s a logistical nightmare fraught with difficulties. It is beyond me to even come close to looking at the various piece of a jigsaw that needed to be in place to host an Olympics. And of course China was meticulous in its planning and preparation, execution and delivery. The games appeared to run like clockwork.
The Chinese were meticulous on the detail: the village, the venues, the volunteers, the Olympic transport system, the timings, the dining experience, the security. I could be picky and moan about flaws in security, or the tiresome constant smiles from the locals, or the fact that we spent hours waiting for the opening and closing ceremony, there were problems with plumbing, the village was ‘dry’, there was no wireless internet in our rooms – but then from the nature of my complaints, you’d be justified in telling me to get a life.
The Chinese way was often frustrating, but we were mindful that losing ‘face’ for the Chinese was a definite no-no. We had to put up with seemingly nonsensical decisions, in an effort to appease our hosts. In the end it all didn’t matter, as the games proceeded without too many hitches.
The China we saw was the China the government wanted us to see. Green, techno savvy, friendly, and prosperous. The government went to extra ordinary attempts to paint this façade. They undertook a mammoth task and left nothing to chance.
Pollution controls were instigated to meet the Olympic committees stipulations – European emission standards were adopted, and coal fired furnaces and factories were shut down, and on alternate days odd and even registration plated cars were denied access to the roads. Traffic was manipulated to give the mirage around the Olympic venues of a less congested, almost tranquil Beijing. Apart from the scarcity of cars on the roads, there were special Olympic lanes – dedicated to athletes’ buses or specifically designated Olympic cars carrying VIPs. In total there were 34 special bus routes exclusively for athletes to use to and from venues. Thus transport to venues from the village was a breeze. With the restricted traffic – both vehicle and foot traffic was limited, and small businesses in the area were forced to shut down due to lack of exposure – just hard luck – I’m sure they received no compensation – could this occur in London – no way!
Smoking was banned in the Olympic village and vicinity from the 1/5/08. Spitting was similarly prohibited. Citizens were asked not to liter and to heed traffic signals. On the tube they were asked to be polite, smile and give up seats to the elderly and infirm or pregnant. They were taught English, and given lessons in manners and etiquette.
Volunteers were asked for – 1.2 million applied and 70000 university students were selected. Certainly the local Chinese volunteers were helpful, always eager to please and help out, with a smile. They never challenged or questioned the official policy and sometimes even though some protocols were senseless, they were obeyed to the letter. It was the Chinese way, during the games – often individuals deferring decisions higher up the line. This was often time consuming and frustrating – and necessitated a deep breath and sigh, and resignation on our part to do things the Chinese way!
Now that the Olympics are over and Beijingers contemplate a return to their pre Olympic chaos, there is growing protest at the prospect of change back to pre Olympic pollution levels! May be a critical mass is now ready to take action in China, and a greener society is being formed?! People have realized that having cars on alternate days and other anti pollution measures didn’t half work!
On the athletes, what an exhibition! Functional human physiology and anatomy on show, the psychology of competing evident, the gamesmanship, mind games and grandstanding, the egos - all ignited with the Olympic flame. There was grace, flexibility, speed, stamina, strength, tactics and cunning. Then there were the athletes’ individual traits. Just watching how they relaxed or let off steam or their coping strategies was an education. Being around such physical specimens left you with a feeling of awe, if not inadequacy or insignificance! Some of us Homo sapiens were careful to be in and out of the gym or swimming pools before the ‘Super sapiens’ entered the same arenas. It’s not often I feel inadequate in a swimming pool, but I wouldn’t dip my toes in after 8am! We Homo sapiens often joked that it was hard sucking in your tummy and pushing out your chest all day – we couldn’t wait to lie down at night and just let it hang out! The gym was similarly frightening after 8 am – full of narcissistic Adonis and Amazonian types, strutting and staring. It was definitely a great place to watch, if you had the nerve to stay! I remember the Cuban heavy weight boxing team arriving, glistening with perspiration, their shapes chiseled from rock – every muscular contour evident. One of them got onto a bike next to me, glanced at me and smiled. He then set the bike on its top level and nonchalantly warmed up! I left pretty well immediately.
We often passed our time at the communal gathering places playing a game – matching the body type and country with a sport – the ectomorphs of distance running, the mesomorphs of swimming and the endomorphs of the power events. Then matching nationalities with the sport. Some of us were cruel – wondering about gender or drug induced phenotypes.
I witnessed first hand very emotion that befell athletes, the result of years of training, toil and perseverance, the result of testing every human trait – the grimace of pain, frustration/anger/desolation of falling or tripping in an event – the ultimate show. Human frailties were exposed after all in these otherwise super humans – the race we called the Super sapiens.
The 2 main venues were extraordinary. Firstly the National Stadium – 21 hectares, a capacity of 91,000 seats and 36 km of twisted steel, designed by a Swiss architect to make athletes feel as if they were actors on a stage. And as usual the 100m sprint had the usual theatricals one associates with this prima donna event! The stadium had none of the usual supporting pillars which often obscure spectators’ views and it is claimed to be earthquake resistant.
The Cube was also a technological masterpiece, covering 7000m2 and costing 1 billion Yuan to build. It has been called a masterpiece of theoretical physics, a steel and bubble framework based on foam physics. The roof and walls contained 3000 bubbles – air filled layers or bubbles, strong enough to resist the weight of a car and with the ability to be stretched to x3 its original size. To allow maximum light to enter in winter, internal plates can be used to reflect and separate light, allowing max lighting conditions, and also allowing light and heat to be kept out in the height of summer. Computers monitor air pressures within the bubbles and will allow refilling if the pressure decreases
The High Points
I have many memories and highlights from the event. Some are quietly tucked away in the recesses of my mind, as they involve athletes at their most vulnerable, when all they want is dignity and privacy. There are others which bring a smile to my face, and due to confidentiality cannot be revealed. Others make me despair at attitudes – as in every day life. There are best memories involving athletic achievement, Beijing, the health team, the Olympic village – all woven into my consciousness. Here are a few -
• The Opening and Closing ceremonies. These were overwhelming and unbelievable. To be there in the stadium, surrounded by the premier athletes of our nation and the world was magnificent. To hear and see the welcome we received from the local people was amazing; a cacophony of noise and colour. Both ceremonies, as theatrical as they were, symbolized the opening and closing of the Games. There was a feeling within our health team that we were privileged to be part of such a spectacular event.
• To be seated close to superstars such as Phelps, Federer or Nadal, Kobi Bryant or Mesi etc. was really not a big deal for most of us. It added to the surreal environment, and there were a few ‘groupies’, but for most of us, your job and reason for being there brought you back down to earth. There was no time for star gazing! For me, I was much more star struck by Hamish Carter and Sarah Ulmer, who just proved that despite stardom, you can be down to earth, pleasant and human. In a way these 2 athletes stole the show in our village. They were full of support for the current athletes, inspiring when needed to be and thoughtful and supportive at all times. There presence lifted our team. I feel a similar accolade fell naturally on Mahe Drysdale – a natural leader, whose deeds inspired us all.
• Usain Bolts’s achievements were truly leviathan. Colossal achievements that rank along side Bob Beamon or Jesse Owens. The sheer dominance (and arrogance or disdain) in the 100m was unbelievable. Yes, he was a showman, but the games thrive on personalities such as his. His performance was standout – and what a story – the boy who loved the fast lane and a was an also ran, who knuckled down with a coach, sacrificed his previous lifestyle, and conquered the world – surely there’s a film there somewhere. Let’s hope, drugs never enter the story line!
• As far as NZ athletes are concerned, they all performed well. It is almost impossible to single out achievements when every athlete gives 100% and has sacrificed so much. The Evers-Swindell twins and their achievement stands out, as most had written them off. To see them out running at 6 am the next morning, as if nothing had happened is testament to their professional attitude. Mahe Drysdale’s effort to gain a bronze was colossal given his state of health prior to the event. For his fortitude, single mindedness and ability to lead our team, his memory lives on with me. To see his withered limp appearance 48 hrs before the race, to the man standing staunch and proud, refusing to blame his illness, or to seek an excuse, is a lesson to us all.
• I guess for me, Nick Willis’s tremendous 1500m race was the most exciting and memorable race – the 1500m, a game of chess and chance on the track, a race of strategy and guile – it had all the elements of a potential disaster for him and yet there he was, strong and supreme, coming through to take his bronze. I’ll never forget the scene at the village – our athletes from all disciplines crowded around the TV in the athletes lounge – all commenting on Nick, all of them, suddenly 1500m running ‘experts’, all shouting out advice and admonishing Nick for his tactics or what seemed to be the lack of……. and all slowly realizing that he was going to get a bronze….all cheering with unbridled passion as he made it.…that was our boy who just got a medal, and there was not one person in the room who didn’t realize the significance of his effort.
• I loved the Cube and swimming – for me the search for the perfect stroke in the water is like the search for the Holy Grail – never achievable for me, and has perfection been reached with Phelps? Maybe for now, but in 10-20 years time or less there will be a new Phelps. I cannot forget the grace and power of his strokes.
• Then there were the amazing thunder storms and electric shows. I’m sure they weren’t Mother Nature in action, but the results of ‘seeding’ clouds. However the Chinese tried to manipulate the weather, that ‘sea mist’ was ever present, though in the latter part of the games we did see sun and blue sky.
In my mind these games were simply prodigious – an epic display of mans ability to push the body to extremes. Every decade we ask how much further can we go, how much more will our predetermined anatomy and physiology allow us to develop, and every decade an athlete such as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps comes along, and re writes the record books. The romantic days of Chariots of Fire are gone – the fairy tale of an athlete getting by on raw talent alone, I think are gone – today’s athlete has to be entirely professional in attitude, making full use of sports science in all its facets, sports psychology and an iron will and determination to succeed and achieve their dream. A bit of good luck and a compliment of superhuman genes are needed as well – and there’s the recipe for sporting success!
For me, one of my highlights is coming home – to my screaming children and the chaos of life with a 7 and 4 year old, and 18 month, hell raising toddler! The welcome at the airport and the shouts of ‘daddy, daddy’ still echo in my ears! Yes it’s good to be home with Miriam, in our beautiful country – and yes, I can’t wait for the next games – but 4 years is a long time and anything can happen!