The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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August 12, 2012

Emily Younker: London is fun, but Beijing wins in my book

— "Another evening of exciting tennis.”

That’s what I wrote in my journal on Aug. 12, 2008, when the Olympic tennis competition was in full swing in Beijing, and I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat.

As the London games draw to a close today, I can’t help but compare them to my experiences in Beijing, where I worked in the media center at the tennis venue. My official title was “volunteer,” but my school — I was a graduate student at the University of Missouri — treated the experience sort of as an internship. At the venue, I was assigned to the photographers’ moat, which ran the length of the tennis court in front of the stands.

I don’t know much about the London venues, other than that the tennis competition was held (for practical reasons, probably) at the Wimbledon stadium. Beijing’s venues were certainly aesthetically unique and tapped into the city’s history and culture, which made them infinitely more interesting to me.

The main tennis court, where I worked, was built to resemble a lotus, a flower native to much of Asia. Great concrete “petals” opened outward from the base of the court, encompassing thousands of seats. The Bird’s Nest, the athletics venue with the iconic nest-like design, and the Water Cube, which housed aquatics, were built along the north-south axis that runs through the center of Beijing — the same axis on which were built the Forbidden City, the ancient imperial palace; the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, built centuries ago to help people tell time; and Tiananmen Square, known to recent generations as the site of protests in 1989.

One of the main differences in watching the London Olympics at home is that I’ve gotten to see events that feature American athletes, such as swimming and gymnastics. In Beijing, the only events we could find on TV were the ones in which the Chinese excelled. I’d never watched so much table tennis before, and it was actually kind of enthralling.

Daily life here doesn’t revolve around the Olympics, but the competitions were a big deal to the Chinese. I remember eating lunch one day in a restaurant on the university campus where we lived, and every person in there was glued to the TV mounted on the wall, which was showing men’s gymnastics. At every successful dismount by a Chinese athlete, the restaurant applauded. It was energizing to be part of a community so supportive of its people.

I’ve also had to smile at certain broadcasts because I know how they really happen behind the cameras.

Take medal ceremonies, for example. We viewers are treated to a close-up shot of an American athlete, cradling his or her medal and placing one hand over the heart as the national anthem plays. Perhaps there’s a tear rolling down his or her cheek, or a grin spread ear to ear. It comes across as such an intimate moment.

Those ceremonies are ultimately a media circus and a national parade rolled into one. At my venue in Beijing, medal ceremonies were for presenting the medallists to a crowd of screaming photographers and then prancing them around the court like show ponies. On the other hand, participants get to share in a moment that you just can’t imagine unless you’ve been there.

“It was so awesome because the medallists and their fans in the stands radiate pride and nationalism,” I wrote in my journal on Aug. 16, 2008, after the men’s doubles medal ceremony. “There is so much positive energy and joy.”

I’ll admit it — I think the Beijing Olympics were the best. That’s because I was there; I know I’m a little biased. But I’ve glimpsed how massive an undertaking the Olympics are, and although I’m 4,000 miles away and only have TV experiences to draw from now, I do think London has done a nice job hosting this year.

Whether we’ve been a viewer or a participant, that’s something we can all applaud.

Emily Younker covers higher education for The Joplin Globe.

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