The Gritty Core of Beijing’s Olympic Infrastructure

Last month, for one example, the Beijing Olympic organizing committee invited the press to meet the director of its project-management department. A handout explained in English that the director’s duties were to “provide services for … decision-making,” “coordinate the compilation of overall operational plans,” and “carry out research … on leading subjects” and “frame preparation policies.”

What followed, after a long opening silence, was the reporters asking, re-asking, and finally badgering and pleading with the guest of honor to explain, with one or two specifics, what sort of things he actually had decided or coordinated or prepared. (“First,” the director replied, after a particularly desperate entreaty, “I would like to say a few words about project management.”)

Usually, reporting in America, when you ask more and more sources about the same topic, their answers begin to converge—the point of convergence is what reporters and their editors think of as a fact. It doesn’t always get to the truth (as in the invasion of Iraq), but the basic method will carry you from the first line of a story to the last.

That sort of focus is more elusive here. Figures and facts drift in and out of view, depending on who’s giving them and who’s asking and who has the final say. Sometimes the best you can do is say what it was that official news reports said. A two-week cutback on driving private cars becomes a four-day cutback. A comprehensive citywide smoking ban, when it went into effect, turns out to allow smoking in restaurants, clubs, Internet cafes and sundry other places.

At one point last year, I read that an official had told a press conference that China had no plans to modify the weather during the Olympics. By that time, I had already interviewed the head of the Weather Modification Office, been briefed on the three-banded layout of the Olympic rain-prevention perimeter, and visited an emplacement of cloud-seeding guns. Sometimes you more or less do know what you know.

But there I was, underneath the Bird’s Nest, with the weight of the whole edifice hanging over me. I had come there, in the deserted afternoon between track-and-field sessions, for a seminar on Olympic reporting, to be held in the press-conference hall. This was yet another inoperative piece of information, a red herring, a wild goose: The room was vacant and undisturbed—almost sterile—rows of white plastic seats under blue-tinged lights, flanked by coolers with every shelf full of untouched water bottles.

Out in the hall, by the columns, a stray venue volunteer suggested that maybe the session would start in half an hour. (It would not.) She went to check on it.

And then I took a look at the column, and the chip out of it. Does steel chip? And there was my left index finger, now with concrete dust on it.

I began to review in my mind a rough list I had been making since the first tap on the pillar in April, the list of all the editors to whom I might now owe a correction. Due to a reporting error …? Due to impenetrable confusion about stadium-engineering techniques …? Due to the fundamental unreliability of received information …?

But what would the substance of the correction be? I am truly, truly not a structural engineer. My knowledge extended only an eighth of an inch below the surface. Maybe there was steel below the concrete. Maybe there was more concrete below the steel below the concrete. After more than two years of reporting on the Beijing Olympics, I had no idea what the National Stadium was made of.

The reporting seminar had been canceled due to lack of interest. I went home and rummaged through my notes. Deep in my clip file, I found an official story from Xinhua, the government news agency, in English. Possibly it was a rewrite or translation by the Olympic organizing committee. It was an interview with Li Jiulun, identified as the “chief engineer” of the Bird’s Nest. It described how Mr. Li and his colleagues had “stuffed the steel tubes with concrete bars” and “poured concrete into the tubes from underneath to custom-make over 1,300 concrete columns and trusses” (“which are three times as efficient as those made through foreign methods”). When I was done reading it, I had even less of an idea of how the stadium had been built.

An e-mail to the Arup engineering firm, one of three companies that worked on the stadium design, went unanswered. I went b
ack to the stadium to cover the track-and-field competition. Liu Xiang, the Olympic 110-meter hurdles champion and world record holder—possibly the most popular athlete in China, even beyond Yao Ming—had showed up to lend his star power to the event, against a field largely made up of provincial runners. In his qualifying semifinal, the race was over by the time he reached the third hurdle. I pestered other reporters, face to face and by SMS: What do you think the stadium is made out of? I think the whole surface is concrete! Does anybody know?