Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing

So claims Katie Melua in her very catchy and melodic ballad.

Well, I just had the privilege of completing a whirlwind two-day tour of the great city where I represented SASCOC. And I reckon I must have seen around three million of those bicycles in my short stay! Extraordinary stuff!

My mission was to finalise the accommodation for the South African Paralympic team sponsors, and officials outside of the team.

Welcome to the Park Plaza, a well appointed four-star hotel with a direct rail link to the Olympic precinct, very convenient and central. Anyone wishing to go to Beijing, contact Fli-Afrika Travel on 0117182000 and speak to Maggie.

About Beijing! I couldn’t do much in such a huge city in two days, but I did find myself in a very sombre Tiananmen Square, and I vividly recalled the image of the lone student blocking a column of army tanks during the 1989 student protests.

The City
It’s quite eerie actually. Beijing is ripe with history, real history that dates back thousands of years, and somehow you can feel it. Although the expansion programme is huge, the flavour is still a blend of the old and the new with the people obviously very “old school”, proud and disciplined.

The smog is an issue. It simply hangs over the city like a blanket, allowing only glimpses of the sun at erratic intervals. The traffic (bicycles aside) is constant and when one considers that Beijing has fourteen million inhabitants, it’s not hard to realise and understand why there are so many cars!

En route to our meeting with the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG), I was fortunate to visit the famous Silk Market which is a hive of bustling market stalls selling anything from authentic Gucci handbags at R120 (yeah right) to live snakes. It’s a mind-blowing experience, though not for the faint hearted. Barter wizards will have a ball and there are certainly bargains galore to be had.

Olympia venues are, as expected, simply awesome! The aquatic centre is simple in layout but spectacular in every sense. We attended a session of the FINA world diving championships currently underway. On a weekday mid-morning, the place was packed for the preliminary rounds. I wonder how it will be for the real thing in August? The indoor arena that hosts the Olympic gymnastics event will be the venue for the Paralympic wheelchair basketball competition. Our team, who has qualified, will surely treasure the memories of playing in front of a 25 000-strong crowd in the most modern venue in the world.

It’s a just reward for those who have qualified. For the record, representatives from WBSA attended the draw in Beijing in January, where South Africa received what I think is a favourable draw in terms of their pool. Of course there are no easy games!

Pool A
South Africa

Pool B
Great Britain

The Olympic village is special and is situated around 2km from the sports precinct. The village was built by developers with accommodation for 16 000 residents. All units have already been sold off for occupation after the Olympic Games. It’s very up-market and somehow the term “village” doesn’t do the area and concept any justice. I have one comment, though. Perhaps I missed something, but for me the awareness and profile of the Olympics and Paralympics were lacking.

Low key
I have visited Olympic hosting cities for past games, and even early in the Games year, merchandising stores, street banners and billboards have been very prominent. Perhaps this sleeping giant has a trick up its sleeve, but at this stage it’s all relatively low key.

I was quite interested to see in the “Facts on Beijing” tourist brochures that Marco Polo is regarded as Beijing’s most famous tourist. Well, I have now been there, and I expect they will update their records in due course!

On the basketball court, the 2008 Super Series gets underway shortly and it really promises to be a bumper season, with several teams securing new sponsors. There are overseas and incoming tours for the national side in preparation for Beijing. Hopefully this year will unearth a true Ladies League in South Africa, as that would complete a very healthy picture.

Columnist Photos