Lauren Danza is a producer for The Early Show. Jeff Glor is a CBS News correspondent. Both are in Beijing covering the Olympics. They've sent us reports on their experiences and thoughts as the Games progress -- not to mention plenty of videos and photos. Below are entries from Lauren and Jeff they provided to us as they prepared for the start of the Games.
Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008
When you put aside the pageantry, the politics, and even the media - you get at what the Olympics are all about: the sports. Today I had my first exposure to two of the biggest sports of the Games, swimming and gymnastics (albeit, through my own media perspective).
This morning I was invited to a media event by Speedo. They are the makers of the famous LZR Racer swimsuit, which has helped the athletes who are sporting it break 48 world records this year. Speedo also sponsors divers and even a member of the modern pentathlon team. Several of Speedo's athletes were at this event, including two of the biggest names on the entire U.S. Olympic team: Michael Phelps and Dara Torres.
As you may imagine, the media swarmed around these two athletes. My crew and I decided we'd talk with Dara first. She had dozens of microphones and tape recorders in her face, but she took it in stride and with a smile on her face. As I squeezed my way to the front of the pack, I was able to ask her what she felt about being a role model to other women. She told me that when she hears stories of middle-aged women doing things that they normally wouldn't do after being inspired by Dara's story, it actually inspires her in her training.
Michael Phelps was just as good-natured about the media frenzy that surrounded him. With the help of my cameraman and a friendly PR person for Speedo, we were able to pull Michael aside for a few minutes. The Chinese media put up a good fight to get at him, but as we shooed them away, I felt compelled to tell Michael that he was a very good sport about all this. I have to admit, standing face to face with Phelps, I felt a little star struck and it was hard to think of a question that he hasn't already been asked a million times. What struck me most is that this is a guy that just wants to swim. He's going to be in 8 finals in 8 days and he just wants to get in that pool and get the show on the road.
Some breaking news came in the afternoon. Late in the day we learned that Morgan Hamm, the veteran on the men's U.S. gymnastics team, was pulling out of competition as a result of nagging injuries. His withdrawal came just a week after his twin brother had to do the same. Morgan and his team were about to hold a press conference. By this point, The Early Show was just getting on the air, and I wanted to be sure they had a sound bite from Morgan in their show. So immediately after the press conference was over, cameraman Bob Bessolo and I high-tailed it back to the office, where - at 7:50 a.m. EDT - I was able to feed material back to New York in time to get a bite in the 8 a.m. news segment. In television we use the term "crashing" when you are working to get something on the air ASAP. This was my first "crash," so to speak, from Beijing - and something tells me it won't be my last.
"All visitors should be aware that they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public or private locations. All hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times. Hotel rooms, residences, and offices may be accessed at any time without the occupant's consent or knowledge."
That's the warning inside a U.S. Embassy statement regarding travel in China. A colleague of mine just passed that out, "just to make sure everyone was aware." Nothing was totally surprising, I suppose -- we were prepped before we left -- but it's still a trip to see it in print.
China's positions on human rights and privacy and freedom of the press are getting new attention following the. He spoke in Thailand, on the eve of his visit to Beijing and Friday's opening ceremony.
The president said: "America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists."
That sounds like a harsh rebuke of China's leadership, especially on the eve of the Games. And it's clear a message was delivered.
But a Peking University professor whom we talked to this afternoon said the president's remarks were carefully measured, and they won't get him disinvited. There seems to be a recognition here that the president had to say something to appease critics of China, but that the speech won't have a huge short-term impact.
To be sure, there are issues. That U.S. Embassy warning was delivered for a reason. But right now, it seems, China's primary goal isn't to make the rest of the world happy. It's to make sure the vast majority of its own people are happy with the way these Olympic games are carried out.
External criticism, while no doubt annoying to the government, is trumped by internal opinion.
Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008
One of the biggest challenges that CBS faces in our coverage of the Olympics is the fact that we don't have the broadcast rights to the Games. You may have noticed that a certain other network will be airing the Olympics, and they paid handsomely for those exclusive rights - nearly $900 million. The same is true in every country: only one network broadcasts the Games. However, that is not going to stop CBS from covering what may be the most significant, perhaps most controversial, international event of the year. Yet it does create some headaches.
In the last 24 hours there've been some sparks over fireworks. As you would imagine from the nation that invented fireworks, the Opening Ceremonies on Friday will include an elaborate display over the Birds' Nest Stadium. That stadium can be seen from the balcony where we do our live shots. However, we were recently informed that those fireworks - while visible from our camera position and to every Beijinger in a mile radius - cannot air on our network.
Access is another major issue for non-rights holding media. In this case, however, I am one of the "lucky ones." Just a few CBS staffers have access to the Main Press Center, the Olympic Green and the Olympic venues - and I am one of them. Today I met with some of my contacts at the Main Press Center. It is the largest press center in Olympic history and it was a fascinating place. A UN of journalists. I heard people speaking Italian, French, Chinese, English and several languages I couldn't recognize. There are translators for press conferences, language help desks, and a food court with a wide variety of cuisines from around the world.
While there, I attended press conference with the U.S. Table Tennis team and the U.S. Badminton team. Both sports are huge here in China, so the American athletes know that they come in as underdogs. For the Table Tennis team, however, this Olympics will be particularly meaningful. Each member of the team is originally from China. Several reporters wanted to know whether the Americans would receive cheers or boos from the local spectators. Chen Wang, who moved to the U.S. in 1999, said she thought the Chinese would cheer for them - except, of course, when they faced China.
Tomorrow our teams of crews, producers and fixers will fan out across the city as we have scheduled three different shoots before noon. It will be another busy day - and the Games haven't even begun!
I had an early 4:30 a.m. wake up call, and, before emerging from an uncaffeinated haze, found myself sitting on a bus bound for Tiananmen Square. Cameraman Brad Simpson, a veteran of the Beijing scene - he's lived here for 21 years - was sitting next to me.
Olympic volunteers handed us brown bag breakfasts filled with McDonald's food. I was half expecting (hoping) to see an Egg McMuffin inside, but I should have known better. We were given a Big Mac, Sweet Taro Pie, and a cup of corn. Keep in mind this is now shortly after 6 a.m. Big Mac, Taro Pie, and corn. Who knew? Call it the Chinese breakfast of champions.
I actually asked Brad what the typical Beijing breakfast might be. Forget Captain Crunch. He told me it's usually something like meat dumplings and noodles, maybe some leftovers from the night before.
The roads, pleasantly clear when I left, quickly began jamming up, especially around Tiananmen Square. The bus had to circle a few times before finding the right place to drop us off. When we got out, the air felt like a blanket, even this early, warm and thick.
It's tough to overstate the importance of the Olympic torch going through Tiananmen. This massive plaza is bulging with history. I mentioned some of this yesterday. You probably know about the infamous, bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in 1989, but you might not know the deep history before '89, a history that stretches back hundreds of years, to 1420, when the initial gate was built. I'm no Chinese historian, so I won't even try to write it all down here, but it's worth reading about, if you're curious. The research, to me, was fascinating.
This year, the Olympic torch relay is the longest and most controversial in history. It stretches across 130 days and 19 countries. The trip was interrupted numerous times after protestors, upset over human rights issues, staged dramatic demonstrations in places like San Francisco and Paris. Chinese officials were distressed and embarrassed over these incidents, and it was clear they were determined not to let it happen again. Security in and around Tiananmen was second to none.
From our vantage point things went off smoothly, though a small contingent of protestors from the U.S. and the U.K. did make news when they climbed two electrical poles outside Beijing's National Stadium and unfurled signs calling for a free Tibet. Here in Tiananmen, no such scene. We watched as the torch made three cheerful passes. Thousands of locals showed up, many in colorful outfits, proudly waving small Chinese flags.
The torch will spend a total of three days here in Beijing, culminating in a dramatic Friday night trip to the Olympic cauldron.
We'll keep watching, and report back soon. Until then …
Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008
Seeing the sights - and the sun!
We were in Tiananmen Square when we got our first glimpse of the sun in the sky over Beijing. Jeff Glor and producer Michael Teng decided that today would be the best day to see some of the major sights around Beijing. With our fixer Xiyun acting as tour guide, and our driver Mr. Sun at the wheel - we decided to brave the crowds and the traffic to tour around the city.
My first impressions: Nearly everything is massive in Beijing, including the city itself. The capital of China is made up of 18 districts, with circular roads that go around the city (our workspace is on 4th Ring Road). The major Olympic venues are in the Chaoyang district, in the northern part of the city. We spent some time driving around the National Stadium - aka the Bird's Nest - and the National Aquatic Center - aka the Water Cube - which sit in the heavily secured Olympic Green.
After seeing those futuristic-looking buildings from six-lane roads, I felt as if we had gone back in time as we drove through what's considered the "old city." On shady tree-lined streets we drove by the shops and residences that make up this historic area. This is also where you'll find the hutong, or alleyways, where many people live in traditional-style small homes which surround an interior courtyard.
We stopped for lunch in a small Chinese restaurant where Xiyun - who, I should mention, also works as a food critic - ordered us a very large lunch. There were some definite hits and misses. Miss: Battered fried "mystery" fish containing tiny bones, in a brown sauce with raw onions, surrounded by fried corn bread. Hit: Pork pancakes, which - upon arrival - compelled me to exclaim, "Chinese quesadillas!" The most surprising part of the meal, however, was the bill. For six people, who were plenty full and left a lot of food on the table, we paid 189 yuan. That's about $27.
After lunch we reached our final stop on the tour - Tiananmen Square. Here's where things get really massive. This is the largest public square in the world at 440,000 square meters. It is impossible take a picture which captures the sea of concrete that makes up this area.
Surrounding the square are enormous government buildings, including Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, the Great Hall of the People, and the National Museum. They all have a very Soviet-style look about them. After taking our obligatory photos with Chairman Mao's portrait in the background, we looked up at the Chinese flag flying high over the square and realized there was actually some blue in the sky. The clouds were breaking and the sun was finally shining.
While it certainly did not make it any cooler - and boy was it hot! - it did put us in good spirits as we sat in traffic on the way back to the office. It also allowed us our first good view of the Birds' Nest from our 20th floor balcony at the office space. Much clearer than yesterday, don't you think?
We'll be in Tiananmen Square tomorrow (Wednesday, Beijing time) for the Olympic Torch Relay.
I visited the square for the first time in my life today, and it was, in a word, stunning. Forget the complicated history of this massive plaza for a second (most of us understandably think of the bloody 1989 riots when we think of Tiananmen, but the square has a past that dates back nearly 600 years).
Just concentrate on its physical aspects. Everything about it is enormous: the square itself (which is the largest open urban square in the world), as well as every building surrounding it, from the Great Hall of the People to the south gate of the Forbidden City. If you come to Beijing, it is not to be missed, especially tomorrow.
Security was already tight today. Anyone carrying a bag had to put it through a metal detector. I can't even imagine what it's going to be like tomorrow.
We also had a chance to drive through other parts of downtown Beijing. Here again, designers think big. Looming skyscrapers are separated by extra wide streets. The sun was out, and the steel and glass of the buildings glistened in the afternoon. It is an impressive, imposing city center.
Near our CBS workspace, we got to see the main buildings that make up the Olympic venue. The two most famous are the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center, otherwise known as the "Bird's Nest" and the "Water Cube." Both are bold architectural experiments winning raves here in Beijing. What the Bird's Nest lacks in color -- what seems like a basic gray -- it makes up for in design. If you haven't seen any pictures, Google it. Bird's Nest is an apt description. I like to think of it more like a giant rubber band ball. The Water Cube is wild, too. Looks like a giant rectangle of soap bubbles. The outside is made of a Teflon-like translucent plastic that lets in more heat than glass, making the building easier to heat, and more energy efficient. It's also worth an Internet image search.
Until next time…
The servers inside the breakfast restaurant I was directed to are terribly earnest. This is a buffet-style operation, and after each plate is finished (or close to being finished), no matter how small, someone approaches to ask if it can be cleared. "Excuse me," they say, as they move their right hand toward the dish. I feel badly when I have to tell them, "No, not quite, done in a second."
I've been promised a chance to eat more exotic dishes in Beijing, like scorpions, starfish, and cicadas (seriously), but right now my selection is basic and boring -- corn flakes and eggs.
I'm the only person sitting at the table; my only companion, the BlackBerry in my hand. I wish I spoke more Chinese. I'm trying my best to pick up any words and phrases I can, but this is not like traveling in Europe, where a shared alphabet let's me occasionally decipher words and meanings. This is a completely different system of communicating. There's a persistent feeling of helplessness involved (which makes me respect those who are bilingual and multilingual even more). I realize there's little I can do to get my point across besides making silly motions with my hands, or saying words... very... slowly. Bottom line: I just have to hope someone speaks English, at least a little bit of it. Thankfully, a lot of the people I've met do, and in some cases, their command of the language is stunning. Some of my colleagues here in China, some of whom have never even been to America, speak American English with nary an accent. If you just listened to their voices, you might think they were from Buffalo, not Beijing.
Most of the patrons of the government-run hotel I'm at appear to be native Spanish speakers. My accent detector isn't good enough to tell me if that means they're from Spain or Mexico or South America or somewhere else, but it's an impressively eclectic mix here in the breakfast hall.
I'm quickly learning why the Chinese are world-renowned for their tea, not their coffee. The cup of Joe in front of me is -- how should I put this? -- unique. There is a sludge-like quality to it, an only slightly more watery version of the tar used to patch up potholes and cracks in driveways. Since I'm desperate for caffeine, however, I'm not in a position to be picky. I've slugged down two cups already.
There was at least one surprise inside the room when I checked in last night: the lighting system, which would please advocates of energy efficiency. To turn the lights on inside the room, I need to slip my room card into a slot in the wall. If I take the card out, the lights go out, which means they can never be on, wasting energy, while I'm away.
Heading back to the room now, then out for my first full day in Beijing. So far, so nothing when it comes to jet lag, but I'm told that takes a couple days to really set in, and when it does, it can be brutal.
Until next time…
Monday, Aug. 4, 2008
Hello from Beijing. We're off and running. I arrived at 1:40 a.m. Eastern time. That's 1:40 p.m. Beijing time, considering the 12-hour time difference (one positive: this saves the hassle of resetting an analog watch).
The 13-hour flight was smooth. The route was fascinating. Our Continental flight, on a Boeing 777, took a polar path, up over the North Pole and down across Russia before landing in China's capital.
I could tell right away it wasn't a wonderful weather day. The air near the ground, at Beijing's massive airport, was significantly soupier than it was at 35,000 feet. It's a hazy, milky scene all around. Visibility is poor, a setback from what I'm told was a gorgeous weekend, sunny and clear both days.
The notorious Beijing traffic wasn't so bad. We moved swiftly from the airport to the city, helped by restrictions put in place before the Olympic games. Since this is an even-numbered day, August 4, only cars that have license plates that end with even numbers can be on the road. I asked what would happen if an odd-numbered car drives today. I was told, succinctly: "There would be a serious punishment."
I also saw my first Beijing traffic accident, on one of the main roads leading into the Olympic area. I'm told these accidents are usually resolved on the spot, no lengthy insurance claims involved, the kind we're used to in America. Money is often exchanged right then and there. All involved go their separate ways.
There is some news today. China's state run news agency, Xinhua News, is reporting there was a terror incident in Xinjiang province, near China's Central Asian border. Attackers rammed a dump truck into a police station and then threw grenades, killing at least 16 officers and injuring at least 16 others. The attack was in an area where local Muslims have carried out an intermittent rebellion against Chinese authorities. Coming only four days before the Games begin, it's understandably rattled a few nerves, even more than 2,000 miles away here in Beijing.
I've yet to check into my room, which won't happen until after I leave our CBS workspace. After a brief rest, we'll get back to work, and talk to you soon.
A Busy First Day
After making the long journey to Beijing (by way of Seoul, Korea), I got my first taste of Olympic fever just before reaching the immigration lines at the Beijing International Airport.
Two of the Olympic mascots were there to greet us! These are Huanhuan and Yingying, two of the five official mascots of the 2008 Beijing Games. Each mascot is designed to represent a different natural element. Huanhuan is the fire (and the Olympic flame), and Yingying the earth.
My luggage was nearly the first off the plane (how lucky!) and I was met outside by Cindy, an intern for CBS News during the Olympics. Not only was she clever enough to hold up a sign with my name on it, she also had a CBS News Beijing Olympics baseball cap! I have to get my hands on one of those!
After a quick trip to the apartments where we'll be staying, I visited what will be our workspace for the next three weeks. It's situated in a high-rise tower directly across from the Olympic Green. It's outfitted with equipment that will enable it to serve as a newsroom, two edit rooms and a mini-control room.
The highlight, however, is the balcony. From there, you can look directly out onto the most visible symbol of the Beijing Games. Well -- in theory anyway. This was the view from the balcony this afternoon. Can you make out the famous Birds' Nest?
I met a lot of new people today, including the veteran CBS News staffers who worked out all the logistics of bringing in people and equipment from all over the world to cover the Games. I also met our great team of fixers, interns and drivers who will help the non-Chinese-speaking people -- like me -- get around town.
And to top it all off, there was some news to report today. Sixteen Chinese police officers were killed in an attack in the far west region known as Xinjiang. With the Olympic Games just four days away, the incident raises more questions about security. Jeff filed live reports on this for both the CBS Morning News and The Early Show.
After 24 hours of travel and a long day, I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep. And I hope I'll be waking up to clearer skies over Beijing in the morning.
Before leaving for Beijing, Danza offered some thoughts:
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