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O Boy the Olympics

By John Overington

Beijing 2008

Ancient and recent history shows that holding the Olympic Games in your country is a momentous event, one that is earned only by the most modernized states.  Greece was the epicenter of the ancient world, and the Olympics were held there.  By the turn of the 20th century, when the Olympic Games were revived they were held in the Western Hemisphere, which was then the economic and social center of the planet.  More recently, Japan had its coming out party with the opening of the bullet train and the Olympics there in the 1960s.  Now, in 2006, the Chinese government and people are preparing for their coming out.  China has began its course toward more open markets, and as a result, has made a name for itself on the world stage.  The top hat to this ensemble is the 2008 Olympics in their capital city of Beijing

       These Olympic Games are very relevant to our over arching discussion of transnationalism versus vernacular urbanism because it highlights the Chinese government's decision to move toward the former.  By throwing their name into the hat for the games, and then completely rebuilding the city of Beijing, the Chinese government has chosen transnationalism for its people, regardless of any other sentiment.  A very sad and often over looked aspect of the new building that is a result of the Olympics in 2008 is the massive displacement of communities from areas where new massive stadiums are being built.  Much like the situation described by Eric Darton in the article “The Janus Face of Architectural Terrorism,” the communities that live in the areas that will be soon built on for the Olympics are being displaced to new homes.  Like communities that were moved from their homes and businesses in New York City before the construction of the World Trade Centers, the Chinese communities of Beijing are being subjected to overpowering governments forcing them from their livelihoods and homes.  The Chinese communities are being ripped from what they know as familiar for many of the same reasons that the maritime community that had been in lower Manhattan for 300 years were displaced before the building of the World Trade Center in New York.

        I was able to spend just over forty hours in Beijing, but every one of those forty hours had huge evidence of construction and progress toward transnational and away from the vernacular that makes up the 1.3 billion Chinese people.  The second we got into our bus from the airport to our hotel an hour away, we were affected by the reconstruction of Beijing that is a result of the games coming to the city, and all the crowds that accompany them, in two years.  We had to take an alternate route to our hotel, by passing the highway to smaller, more local roads.  The highway is being rebuilt better night by night, while traffic is sent to other roads that are also being worked on!  The fact that both the road I should be on is being fixed, and the alternative route that I am traveling is being repaired as well is a good indicator of the massive improvements planned by the city.  Once into Beijing, the sites were about the same, construction galore.

The National History Museum had a huge digital clock counting down the seconds until the games begin, some 686 days away.  The Forbidden City was only partially accessible because the government had decided to repair and clean every building in the complex.  I was only able to see a photo of the large throne room that was printed on the tarp that covered the original, due to the massive construction.  At night along the main pub street, I stumbled through pavement, gravel, and dirt roads, all being changed for the massive numbers of visitors expected in 2008.

    All of these different sites point to an overwhelming change in direction for the aesthetics of the city, which tramples on the vernacular of Beijing.  The quaint local shops and markets are turned into tourist traps for the gain of the new more open government.  The Chinese want to break our in a big way in 2008 when the spotlight will be on their city.  Is the only way that the Chinese will be able to make this huge splash at the expense of the local culture that is being forced out of their otherwise unchanged lives?

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