BEIJING—Apart from not seeing the US “Redeem Team” embarrass everyone in basketball (though we did see Kobe and LeBron in separate sports venues here) and not capturing, with our bare eyes, the historic 8-for-8 achievement of a dolphin named Phelps, our China trip lived up beyond our expectations—especially with what we witnessed two days ago.
For there, fronting us, stood a colossal monument that is the one symbol of the 2008 China Olympics. Costing nearly $500 million, it was built with 36 kms. of unwrapped steel, weighs close to 50,000 tons and occupies a whopping area of 258,000 square meters.
But more than the astronomical figures, it’s the intoxicating beauty of a structure that, when the name “Beijing” will be mentioned from hereon, will appear beside those of The Great Wall and The Forbidden City as a global landmark: The Bird’s Nest.
Prior to landing in China, we had seen dozens of magazine photos and viewed several National Geographic documentaries of this arena otherwise known as the Beijing National Stadium. But seeing the elliptical latticework shell with one’s unfiltered eyes will elicit no verbal response other than your eyes enlarging, your mouth opening to a gasp and your body frozen, transfixed at the most dazzling sight of the China Games.
Finally, after eight days of morning-till-midnight excursions around Beijing, it was our first up-close moment with the Bird’s Nest.
Why this late? Why not sooner?
Because we couldn’t. Unless you hold tickets to the Athletics competition—which only started last Friday (or had the rarest of tickets to the Opening Ceremony)—you can’t get inside this architectural marvel. In fact, you can’t get anywhere near it. Security here is so tight (they pass your belongings through a series of X-ray machines and they do multiple body searches along subway lines and Olympic venues) that, suppose, you just want to snap photos near the Bird’s Nest—that’s disallowed.
Here, it’s not only “No Ticket, No Entry,” it’s “No Ticket, Nowhere Near The Site.”
Thanks to Todd Entner, an American whom I played junior tennis with in Cebu but has since called Beijing home, my wife Jasmin and I got tickets to Athletics.
The Bird’s Nest, from the outside, is imposing; from the inside, it’s even more humongous and immense—nowhere near our decrepit and ancient relic, the Cebu Coliseum. It is, by far, the largest stadium I’ve entered—a sea of seats, all colored red, circling a track oval with the green rectangle grass at the center.
Jasmin and I sat near the upper-most box, on seats 10 and 11 of Row 11 on Aisle 636 of Tier 3 of Sector H. Ha-ha, if that confuses you, it did us. The stadium is so vast that they need layers of labels for spectators to locate which, of the 91,000 chairs, is your appointed seat.
When we arrived at 10 a.m., the 20-K Walk was nearing completion. Minutes after, a skinny Russian entered the gate (the event was held on Beijing’s streets) to a roaring envelope of applause. The winning time read “1 hour, 19 minutes”—that’s faster than most of our top Cebu runners! After the victory, he next wrapped the Russian flag around his shoulders then savored the golden moment.
Simultaneously, the Men’s Discuss Throw competition was underway. So was the Heptathlon, with the female athletes sprinting from the starting line then flying to land on smooth sand in the long jump.
Pole vaulters ran, hurled their elastic sticks forward, bent their bodies, twisted on air, then fell on the soft foam below. We were fortunate to see the reigning Olympic gold medalist (and world record-holder), Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia.
An hour or so later, it got exciting: the 100-meter dash eliminations were next. Heat after heat—a total of 10—we saw the speediest women on earth. We counted an average of 6 of the 9 runners for every heat as black athletes—no doubt the dominant race in athletics—with the fastest qualifier clocking 11.13 seconds.
Next up: the Women’s 400 meters. Like we all see on TV, they don’t start side-by-side but merge together nearing the final 100 meters stretch. Needless to say, this is the Olympics and the world’s best were all gathered to sprint on the oval.
After three hours caged inside the nest—and dozens of photos taken, including a few after we descended all the way down to the front row—we exited the iconic shell, gazed at the mesh of steel and marveled at the Olympic Flame cauldron all-burning… Jasmin and I with smiles as wide as a hurdle.