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DongDan Park

In need of some exercise after weeks of inaction, greasy Chinese food and overeating, I went to DongDan Park yesterday to have a run and showcase my deadly jumper and tenacious defense to China.

It was Saturday evening and the courts were packed, even though admission was a steep $15 RMB (I’m learning how to be cheap in China; $1 RMB goes a long way here). There were too many people to run full-court games, so every basket was used for 4-on-4. Games were to five, with no twos.

So half-court games, no transition games, no pressing, very little running, no twos, a game catered to big guys and rebounding — not in my wheelhouse. I felt like Roger Federer playing on clay.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long to join a game. I was able to hook up with a squad that must have picked me because they appreciated my sporting outfit: plaid shorts and dirty, faded tennis shoes. What can I say, I ball in style.

Here are a few things I learned about playground basketball in Beijing:

— They don’t check the ball, so you better be prepared at all times. I got burned twice on defense thinking some one was going to check the ball.

— The skinniest, nerdiest guy on the court has the most accurate midrange jumper.

— Some of these guys can ball.

— My jumper in Beijing is still the same shitty jumper I had in Seattle.

— Games can get physical. I got elbowed (errant, I hope) in the back when I was among the trees in the lane. Thankfully, massages here are cheap.

— The boys from Nob Hill could hold their own here.

— Crappy basketball is crappy basketball no matter where you are.

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I’m a big fan of Play Magazine, the sports zine that the New York Times produces. Each one — sports cliche alert — is a home run. They just published a new issue, one devoted to the Olympics.

Among the features on Michael Phelps and Liu Xiang, is an erudite look at how Beijing has transformed itself to host the Games. From Tom Scocca:

… the Olympic preparations are like tidying your house in a hurry before company comes over. The clutter gets stuffed into cabinets or under the bed; you wipe down the bathroom the guests will be using; you hide the dirty dishes and dig out matching forks and cloth napkins. This is not the way you live every day.

Are you defrauding your guests? Or are you showing them how you would live, if things were different?

Visitors will be seeing a Beijing that has swept its vices and imperfections under the rug. Unlike every other subway system I’ve been to, gone are the hawkers, performers and beggars. Not one in sight. In fact, I’ve only seen one beggar in the subway station since I’ve been here. Each station is pristine, guarded by a cadre of security and volunteers.

This is the utopia China wants visitors to see: clean, orderly, well behaved, sophisticated, open.

Perhaps the real story won’t be how well China plays host to thousands of visitors, but what the country will become — or not become — long after the Games of the XXIX Olympiad have faded into history.

No pajamas, no slippers, no flip flips, no flashy clothing, no mismatched socks, no line jumping, no spitting, no tactless questions. Beijingers are receiving a crash course in etiquette as the Olympics loom.

Officials have handed out 4.3 million booklets to local residents, hoping that all of them will be on their best behavior for one month. God forbid visitors return home with pictures of men with their shirts pulled up above their protruding bellies.

Good luck with that.

But to be fair, I haven’t experienced a lot of the bad manners that Beijing is notorious for. Sure, a guy cut in line while others were patiently waiting at the subway ticket booth. That might be the worst thing that’s happened.

The spitting doesn’t bother me much. Perhaps it’s because I spit from time to time.

I think what bothers people is how Beijingers spit. It’s not discreet, not a simple spit and go. The way they spit is guttural, almost primal. It’s as if they’re summoning a vast of amount of mucus deep within their Confucian souls, making it a whole body experience.

Each step, from the collection to the final expulsion, is done at the highest possible decibel, just so everyone within spitting distance can hear, an ominous warning to get the hell out of the way.

If there was a spitting competition in the Olympics, the Chinese would surely take the gold.

Many countries set up hospitality houses during the Olympics to entertain their officials, sponsors and athletes. Most are in a secret location and closed to the public. Some, like Switzerland’s “House 2008“, will be open to the public. The House, located in the trendy 798 artists’ district, features a bar/lounge, restaurant, cinema and exhibits.

I was able to get a sneak peak at the facility on Friday night after the expats I was hanging out with negotiated (uh, barged) us inside. The house was still closed to the public and was hosting a private party for invited guests. After standing stubbornly at the entrance for five minutes, the security guards called the director of the House. He promptly whisked us inside, even apologizing for the minor commotion.

He took us to the bar, where we enjoyed drinks on the House. A view of the bar area:

The Swiss House

The Swiss House

A few interesting notes from our conversation with the gracious and gentlemanly director:

— He said security procedures have been much tighter and stricter compared to 2004 in Athens. He had to wait six months for the Chinese government to approve the site. He not only brought his own security from Switzerland, but he also had to hire Chinese security as well.

— When he visited the U.S. hospitality house in Athens, security was so tight and the location so secretive that he was blindfolded before getting into the car that took him there.

— He was proud that Switzerland has one of the few hospitality houses that’s open to the public. Perhaps that’s why Switzerland hasn’t been in a war in nearly two centuries.

The director sat with us for an hour or so before he had to head out to dinner. We probably had three rounds of drinks, all supplied by our hosts. After experiencing such hospitality, I’m booking my flight to Zurich for 2009. Anyone care to join me?

The highlight of the night, however, was the man who walked right into a glass partition thinking it was the exit out of the bar. If you’ve ever had a bird crash into your window, then you know the sound he made — a loud bang that reverberated the glass. Sadly, I neglected to get the photo of the smudge his face made on the glass.

A friend passed along this clip.

I’m certain my Mandarin sounds worse than their English.

Journalists are none too happy about the working the conditions at the Main Press Center. The internet is slow, they complain, and sites are being censored. This after officials promised open access to the internet for the Olympics. One of the sites being blocked is Amnesty International after the human rights group released a critical report on China.

I can only imagine what the MPC is like right now — literally. I’ve decided to set up shop at my hutong guest house 20 minutes away from the Olympic area. After two days of trekking to my designated Olympic work area and dealing with a slow internet connection, I’m spending today in the hostel’s computer lounge. The connection has been faster and more reliable.

Moreover, I can connect to any Web site I want, including www.amnesty.org. Of course, it’s most likely because I have a personal VPN. Journalists who live in China also use proxies to get their way around China’s Great Firewall. Both were recommended by Human Rights Watch for journalists covering the Olympics.

It’s a little ironic that I have a better work station in the middle of a gritty, rundown hutong than at the sleek, pristine MPC.

My two cents on the situation: Journalists are a surly (and demanding) bunch, especially sports journalists (I should know). China should just open the gates of the Great Firewall for the next month to avoid any more grousing and controversy.

The taxis are quick and reliable in Beijing, if you’re fluent in Mandarin. Which I’m not. So for those about to travel to Beijing, be sure to have a map or the place you’re going to written in Chinese because taxi drivers will not speak a lick English (despite reports that drivers were given English lessons).

Also, be on the lookout for drivers who start the fare at 11 RMB or more. The baseline should be 10. I had a driver try to pull that move on me yesterday.

For the most part the taxi drivers have been friendly. I had a conversation with one about the merits of Kobe (he’s awesome) and the demerits of Tracy McGrady (he’s always injured and doesn’t care about winning). Most importantly, the drivers have been quick, shuttling me from my guest house to the Olympic area.

I’ve also been able to practice my butchered Mandarin on them; some of them placate me and say that my Pu Tong Hua isn’t bad. I know better.

Officials must be happy — and a little vindicated — today. The weather cooled off, the breeze came in and the visibility improved. You can actually see buildings off in the distance, which is a vast improvement from the weekend.

Perhaps the traffic restrictions and factory closures are making a difference.

Lastly, I met an NBC producer on the media bus this afternoon. He’s an veteran, having covered multiple Olympics. I asked him how the security in Beijing is compared to Athens in 2004. Athens, he said, was much worse, much more strict. He did point out, however, that he hadn’t gone within the Olympic compound yet.

For a newbie, the heightened security definitely has an impact. But after three days of entering and exiting the Olympic area, I’ve gotten used to all the screening and checkpoints.

About a week and a half ago, the South China Morning Post published a story claiming Beijing authorities  told bar owners in the Sanlitun strip to ban blacks and Mongolians. Local blogs jumped on the weakly-sourced article, and major publications ignored the report.

Beijing Boyce, a local blog on the city’s nightlife, made the SCMP look like amateurs (and fools) by doing some actual reporting: He went to the bars and witnessed blacks drinking and partying.

I also went to Sanlitun last night to check out the scene. A handful of countries have already arrived and a few teams were enjoying libations in Sanlitun. A contingent from Cameroon was sitting on a patio outside one bar, clearly not affected by the ban on blacks.

I think this SCMP story has been debunked, for now. Ultimately, Sanlitun bar owners, many of whom employ  pushers who try to persuade you to enter their bar, could care less if you were white, black, yellow, green or blue. They just want you to buy a bucket of beer.