My Little Olympics

The Olympic Games are invariably expensive, and defined by their hugeness. But they are made of many small things.
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Every Olympics is different, and every Olympics is in some sense the same. The athletes themselves ensure the difference, and a singular shared impulse among the host nations—think of Ron Burgundy screaming, "Hey everyone, come and see how good I look!"—guarantee that all the games feel fundamentally the same. This was true of Beijing in 2008, and of Sochi in 2014.

There's also the controversy surrounding human rights in Russia, and the question of whether an Olympics should be held in a country with that sort of record. This was there, too, in the build-up to Beijing in 2008, when protestors demonstrated at torch parades around the world demanding that China "Free Tibet!" and "Free Fa Lun Gong" and that everyone else "Remember Tiananmen Square!" World leaders threatened to skip the opening ceremonies, and a few actually did. All of this was said to threaten the spirit of the Olympics.

What the spirit of the Olympics actually is and what it means—if it exists and has meaning—is an abstract one. But assomeone who worked on the ground preparing for the 2008 Olympics, I remember the threats differently. They didn’t involve human rights.

***

Two weeks before the Beijing Olympics, a man who had been fishing in the Ming Tombs Reservoir, the center of the triathlon site, approached me with a serious look on his face. "The reservoir rose again," he said. "Your wireis underwater. I thought you should know." He left.

Aggreko, a western power supply company, had hired me as a Chinese interpreter for three months during the 2008 Olympics. Beijing Olympic Broadcasting (B.O.B.), a temporary international camera crew that filmed the games, contracted the company. Television networks all over the world used B.O.B. raw feeds in their broadcast of the Olympics. Aggreko connected all of B.O.B.’s cameras and broadcast centers to China’s electrical grid which, at Olympic venues, manifested as a large electrical box labeled "State Grid."

Our second job was to provide "temporary and backup power solutions" in case of a grid failure. Aggreko’s technicians synced generators to the State Grid electrical boxes on site. In the event of a blackout, the generators would automatically start and B.O.B. could continue filming.

Aggreko assigned me to the team in charge of installation at the triathlon venue, one of the games' smallest events and one that took place in a rather remote location outside of the city. Our team was made up of two Aggreko electricians, three Chinese laborers, and me. One electrician grew up in rural Idaho, the other lived near Sydney, Australia; our three Chinese workers were migrants from Hebei and Shandong Province. I’m from Boston. The six of us, for the most part, made a pretty good team. When we were on call troubleshooting, we played a lot of cards together in our office, a temporary metal shack, using electrical screws and drill bits as poker chips.

The longest cables were fifty meters long and four inches thick. Stringing the cables to every camera took nearly two months, and on most days we did this while buckling under muggy ninety-degree Beijing summer heat, which stuck to one’s clothes and carried a faint smell of burnt rubber.

Some cable runs were over a mile long. Crews at other venues like the Bird’s Nest National Stadium, where the Opening Ceremonies were held, had been installing their equipment for months prior to our arrival. I translated between western technicians and any local Chinese staffed at the venue. This was a lot of people—our laborers, venue workers, government bureaucrats, and private sponsors. If Chinese noticed our cable, there was a good chance I ended up talking with them.

The word for "electric cable" in Chinese is dianlan, but this is merely the technical term, and I quickly learned that no one used it in conversation. Xian, pronounced "she’en," is the more commonly-used Chinese word for "wire." The character is 线. Its most basic translation is "line" as in Chinese words such as hot xian (hotline)and subway xian (subway line).

That summer, xian dictated my existence. On my current resume, the job is listed as "Chinese Interpreter" which is technically accurate but doesn’t really describe the nature of the job. As interpreter, I acted within our venue as public spokesperson for our xian, an ambassador for our xian,a lobbyist for the interests of our xian, and a xianpolicy wonk. The most apt description for my role was a politician—a politician who represented the interest of our single constituency, our xian.

Every day, our xianunderwent scrutiny, both positive and negative. I was the only triathlon team member who spoke both English and Chinese, so we listed my cell phone number in the venue's phonebook as our office number. If I was a de facto politician, I was also that politician's de facto secretary.

I was busy. Olympic venue designers wanted the cable hidden. "Your xianis getting in the way of our Olympic venue flag display," an angry man, dressed in full official Olympic jumpsuit, said to me one day.

Other domestic Chinese technicians were concerned as well. "Your xianis too close to ours," they often told me, worrying it might interfere with their wire’s electrical currents. They yelled at me, then we fixed the problem, and then they shifted tone immediately. "Is that xianspecifically designed for outdoors? It is not as stiff as ours, which is really for indoors but that we are using for outdoors. Yours is tough and curls easily." I asked our technicians who said it was specially designed. "Cao. Fuck. We still don’t use that here. China is still so behind."

I fielded phone calls from Olympic staff all over the venue. "Why don’t we have your xianyet?" People yelled at us when their power hadn’t been connected, even if we weren’t responsible for supplying their offices. They looked at the venue directory and found our name, starting with Ag,as the first power supplier on the list. I told them we mostly did cameras. This never stopped the demand for our services. Between all this, I filled out endless paperwork and used limitless bureaucratic loopholes to move our equipment outside the venue.

"How much xianare you taking out of the venue this time?" the gate guards asked me. "You need another chumentiao (exit gate slip) and jinmentiao (enter gate slip) for that."

"I’ve already filled out ten of them," I said

"You need to fill out another," they said. This happened even if we were using our forklift to move our xianout of the venue and then back intothe venue through different gates.

The forklift itself was also a hot commodity. "Can we use your forklift that you use for moving xian?" other construction crews asked. And similarly—"Can we borrow your xian?"—other technicians.

We said no and met the appropriate consequences. "You are using our xianhangers for your xian," the same technicians said. "You can’t do that. Those are our hangers."

We had internal friction over our xian; our Chinese workers liked to take naps on them. Ten cords of outdoor xian assembled next to each other made for a comfortable bed. When our technicians told them to stop, our senior laborer Gao Bo responded,"But this kind of xianis the most comfortable I’ve ever worked with."

***

When we gave venue staffers tours of our site, they always asked the same question –"How much does your xiancost? How much money are you making in your Olympic contract?"

The fire department was particularly vigilant, deciding one day that "Your xian is a fire hazard. Your fuel tank is leaking. You must address this." Our fuel lines dripped only a few drops a day. We finally solved the problem by telling the fire department officials and venue manager that the leaking fuel lines were the only equipment sold to us by a Chinese company. Could they perhaps help us seek them out? They never bothered us again.

In the middle of the night in July, our generator fuel supplier called to tell me he couldn’t get through the gate security. I awoke to a loud telephone at three in the morning and a man screaming, in a thick Beijing accent, "I can’t get in! Your generators and xianwon’t have power!" I woke up one of our Chinese workers on call at the venue that night; he found a guard to let him through the gate. We sometimes let the guard rest in our air-conditioned office. The returning of favors and pulling of strings and connections—guanxi—was endless.

The job was never as simple as laying cable and screwing it into control panels. Everything had to be managed politically. I had so many meetings with various venue staffers that, after only a week or two, we referred to attending these meetings as going to tan xian zhengzhi—talk wire politics.  

When the reservoir continued to submerge our xian, the venue manager and I tried to inquire with Beijing’s state water resource managing bureau about keeping the water level steady. The depths of that bureaucracy put the IRS to shame, and it became my first failed political campaign against red tape. When I left our office for meetings I notified everyone, in both Chinese and English, that I was leaving "to talk wire politics." They nodded and went back to work. In the first two weeks, my American and Australian technicians sometimes insisted on going with me. After only a few experiences talking wire politics, they voluntarily opted out.

Our oldest laborer, Gao Bo, functioned more like my political aide, and was indispensible in the meetings. When I got nowhere talking wire politics, he’d take over, yelling in a Shandong dialect that some Beijingers couldn’t understand. More often than not, he eventually got his way.

I didn't ask what he’d said, just thanked him profusely and was grateful that he knew how to say it. China's migrant workers are tough, and often have to shout their way into factory jobs. Gao Bo also simplified things for me. I could talk about a decent amount of subjects in Chinese, but electrical technology was not one. When a Chinese called from our electrical supplier asking questions like "What is the maximum diesel carrying capacity of the S500 generator?" I put him on speakerphone. Gao Bo would yell across the room to me "He wants to know how much fuel to deliver." He deserved a bonus.

***

We had outside help from civil society as well. One camera position far outside the venue on the bike route required its own generator. The delivery truck came on the appointed day and moved the generator to its planned location next to a small village. As the truck driver lowered the generator, the entire village came out to watch. This seemed an instance in which my public relations skills might fail.

I walked over to an older villager who seemed to be in charge—she was making sure everyone stood back. "I’m sorry about this," I said, "the generator will only be here for the next few weeks. Once the event is finished, we’ll take it away."

"No need to be sorry!" she said, "We’re very proud to have it here! This is for the Olympics?"

"Yes."

"We know allabout it. The police began preparing us years ago. They said to cooperate with anyone involved with the Olympics."

I could see she was right – red propaganda banners lined the sides of the road which read "Diligently support the Olympic triathlon!"

She motioned to one of our technicians, who promptly came over. "You are going to just leave it out here? The race isn’t for two weeks," she commented incredulously.

"Yes, we’re going to lock the control panel door," I said. "It would require an entire truck to move."

"Chinese thieves are very resourceful," she said. I couldn’t deny that – I had recently seen someone hauling three refrigerators behind his bike on a rickshaw cart. "Ask him what we can do to assist in protecting this important Olympic generator!" I relayed this to one of the technicians.

"Tell them they don’t have to do anything," he said. "Don’t touch it. Or if they see anyone, have them make sure other people don’t touch it."

I translated this to the woman, who nodded vigorously and seemed satisfied. "We will protect it, women baozheng we guarantee it." She gave me her phone number in case anything happened.

We returned every morning to check on the generator. Upon our first check-in we found one of the villagers sitting next to the generator in a knock-off security outfit emblazoned with a red armband. Security officers and volunteers wore these bands, symbolizing a sort of vague authority, all over China. Villagers were taking shifts day and night guarding the generator, he said; it would never be left unattended for a single moment of the day. We thanked him, happy to have unintentionally outsourced a volunteer generator security team. The politician in me felt somehow more legitimized.

I thought of Aggreko’s Beijing leader, who had briefed us at the beginning of the summer by saying that we couldn’t possibly imagine how important the games were to some Chinese. Aggreko had been hired to do the same job four years prior in Athens, Greece. Our boss remarked that a sheep wandering by on the side of the road during a torch running qualified as an impressive display of Greek public support. China was different.

Our venue’s event went smoothly, as did the Olympics themselves. Our xiandid its job, providing power to the cameras that put the Beijing Olympics onto the world’s televisions. People in other countries protested the 2008 Olympics, causing a nationalist backlash in China, particularly after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The earthquake had a rally-around-the-flag effect, though the Chinese people hardly needed one that year.

All these protests made sense; the outrages they decried were indeed outrageous. I knew it then, and I know it now. But, that summer, our own problems with the politics surrounding installing our xianseemed more pressing. The Chinese government could handle foreign protests of the Olympics, for better and worse; it couldn’t go without a power supply for its cameras.

On the night of the opening ceremonies, I walked around the Bird’s Nest after work. Crowds of Chinese had congregated in the roads, chanting and singing patriotic songs. The Bird’s Nest lit up red, with fireworks exploding in beautiful sequence. As I walked down side streets I noticed that, for probably the first time in modern Beijing history, there was no traffic. People huddled over TVs in small shops and homes.

I looked back at the Bird’s Nest, shining in the distance, and imagined the xian politics for the interpreter on Aggreko’s Bird’s Nest team. Their crew installed what were likely millions of pounds of cable around a stadium that China cared about more than any object in its entire country. My job was repeated at various scales throughout Beijing that summer; every xianhad its own keeper. People around the world had many heroes during the Olympics, their own chosen idealistic activists or inspiring athletes. Aggreko’s Bird Nest interpreter, the anonymous representative of that million-pound xian, was my Olympic hero.


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