From: Qingdao, China
We are heading into week two of the Olympic Sailing Events here in Qingdao. It is time for a short report.
To host the Olympic sailing events, Qingdao built a modern sailing center right in the heart of the central business district. This modern facility will be converted into a sailing school and public park after the Olympic sailing events are concluded. I live in an apartment on Dong Hai West Road in Qingdao, just one block from the entrance to the sailing center. So my neighbors and I have been in the middle of the preparations for the event.
The primary concern of the Qingdao Olympic committee has been to ensure a smoothly functioning event. Olympic sailing is quite complex, involving numerous races on multiple courses with many different types of vessels. As expected, light winds have been a problem, leading to the cancellation of a number of races in the early days. The situation changed dramatically on Sunday when a major storm moved in bringing 20 km winds and high surf.
The downside of the concern for things to run smoothly is that the events have been very unfriendly for spectators. The sailing center is basically sealed off from the city. Those inside stay inside and the public stays out. There is no signage at all indicating how or where a spectator should enter the event. Once inside the sailing center, the spectator will of course ask: how do I enter the viewing enter for the event. The incredible answer is: we don’t sell those tickets here. You have to buy a ticket in town at a post office. Question: well, where is the nearest local post office. Answer: We don’t know. All this is done in Chinese. There is not one English language sign that explains how to actually get a ticket to see the sailing event.
The area immediately outside the sailing center is one of Qingdao’s most popular nightlife destinations. The great fear of the Qingdao government is that some foreign visitor will go to a bar or club in this area and cause some sort of “problem.” To combat this, at least 4 policemen are stationed on every street corner in this district and at least 4 more policemen are stationed in each restaurant, nightclub or bar. These folks are not there to protect the foreign visitors. Quite the opposite. They are there to make sure the foreign visitors don’t make “trouble” for China.
All this is typical of China as it painfully becomes a modern country. China is good with hardware (buildings and trains) but not so good with software (people). The Olympic facility was built on time and within budget. It is beautifully constructed and works as planned. Considering the number of small boats moving in and out of the water, this has been a major achievement. When the event is completed, the center will be made into a public park, opening another stretch of waterfront to public access. Qingdao has worked hard to ensure that the entire coastline within the city is open to the public. The Olympic Sailing Center opens up the last closed stretch of waterfront, which will greatly benefit the public.
On the other hand, the intense fear of foreigners and the problems they might bring has resulted in a lack of foreign visitors to Qingdao in connection with the event. Spectators for the events seem to be almost exclusively from within China. In hotels and other public places near the sailing center, there are virtually no foreign tourists. The spectator area for the events is also almost exclusively occupied by Chinese tourists. In fact, it appears there are actually less foreign tourists in Qingdao during this Olympic period than is typical for a summer in Qingdao. It is hard to know exactly why this is so, but the intense security and the limits on visas for foreigners seem to have had an impact. My hope that the Olympics in Qingdao would be a chance to introduce Qingdao to foreign travelers has not been realized. Qingdao remains a difficult city for travelers who do not speak Chinese and the Olympic organizers did virtually nothing to make things better. In fact, the heightened security has made it even more difficult to get around town than usual.
On the other hand, the event has served to introduce the sport of sailing to the Chinese public. The Qingdao television stations have extensively broadcast the event. In addition to broadcasting the events and results, the stations have devoted much effort in explaining the techniques and rules of international sailing. For the vast majority of Chinese spectators, this has been their first exposure to small boat sailing. Since the events have gone very well, the impression has been positive. After the events, a major portion of the sailing center will become a sailing school. It is a goal of this school to focus much of its effort on sailing lessons for children. All of this will have the positive goal of introducing the Chinese to water sports and ocean recreation. We will wait to see if the Qingdao locals decide they want to share all these nice things with foreign visitors.