BEIJING—Down in the basement of Beijing’s celebrated National Stadium, outside the empty press-conference hall, I put my finger on a problem that had been troubling me for a month. I mean this literally. In front of me, plunging at an angle from the ceiling to the floor, was one of the immense, square-sided silvery columns that make up the stadium—a colossal, intricately woven assemblage nicknamed the Bird’s Nest.
This was my second trip to the stadium. I had been reading (and writing) about it from various distances for the past few years, watching the gleaming avant-garde structure gradually rising and being knitted together at the south end of the Olympic green: “a lattice of interwoven steel” (The New York Times); ”a tangle of steel trusses” (The Times); “mesmeric steel frame” (The Guardian); “monumental steel thatching” (me). Describing the building was like reviewing restaurants and groping for new ways to say “tasty”—it’s a bird’s nest. Made of metal. The end.
The edge of the column I was looking at had been chipped by some passing object. Below the silver surface, a dark gray was showing. I pressed my fingertip into the chipped part. When I pulled it back, there was concrete dust on it.
This was what I had been worrying about since my first visit, in April. The Bird’s Nest had been the last of the Olympic arenas to open to the public. One by one, over the passing months, the other venues had already hosted test events—archery, wrestling, ping-pong, rhythmic gymnastics. The stadium was at the end of the test schedule, with an April race-walking competition, followed by a full track-and-field open in May.
Tens of thousands of people, a sellout crowd, turned out on a sweltering Friday morning to see the race-walkers—that is, to be the first spectators in the building. Approaching it, my feet briefly lost contact with my brain as I tipped my head back to take in the looming, bellying curve. So this is was the Nest.
Somebody won the walking race. I wandered the concourse, taking in the futuristic details: the deep-red paint job on the seating bowl; the translucent, alien-looking hanging light fixtures; the glossy black-painted restrooms; the oddly cartoonish signs and logos, like something drawn up by A Bathing Ape. And everywhere, veering off and coming together at different angles, those huge columns. I walked up to one and touched it, then tapped its surface with my knuckles. It had made a dull, stifled tap.
Tap? I kept mulling over the sound and feeling, in confusion. I’m not a metallurgist or a structural engineer, but it felt as if I had knocked my fist against a big chunk of concrete. Not steel. Or not what I would have expected steel to feel like. But what did I know?
Reporting in China, I find myself constantly groping along through an epistemological fog. Language is part of it (and a big part, in my case, without question), but there is something more fundamentally elusive and opaque about fact-gathering here. People and institutions are not used to the experience of being reported on. It’s not merely that they may be secretive or uncooperative or obstructionist, unprepared for the glaring light of a truly free and inquisitive press, and so on. It’s that even people who want to cooperate—who may even be affirmatively trying to put out a news story—don’t quite know how to distill and transmit information.
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?
Liu won the hurdles final the next night, again with ease. Stadium volunteers formed a barricade to keep the crowd away, then scurried after him down the hallway themselves. His press conference was scheduled for the very end of the evening.
While I was waiting, my phone buzzed with a text message from another reporter: “A3. Exit. Architect. Now!” I hustled around the concourse to find J Parrish, the architectural director of Arup Sport. He was tall and bearded and loquacious. According to his business card, the J has no period after it. He was politely telling a radio reporter that he had no idea what the opening ceremonies might involve.
What, I asked, apologetically, were the columns made of? Parrish looked around us. “Concrete,” he said, indicating the nearest one, and continuing on: “Concrete, concrete, concrete … steel.”
I double-checked: steel? The outermost layer of columns in the Nest, the key to the structure, were indeed steel, he said. Steel boxes, in cross section, of various thicknesses. The thicket of columns on the inside, crisscrossing the concourses, were concrete, mostly. All the columns were painted silver, to match.
You might need to hit them with a hammer, Mr. Parrish said, to tell the difference.
Mr. Liu gave his press conference. Who, a perky male reporter with an American accent asked, would he describe as his role model? “Zhende hai meiyou,” Liu said, beginning his response. (“I don’t have any particular role model or idols,” the official translator said.)
It was near midnight when I exited the stadium. I had a long hike ahead to get a cab. First, though, I veered back to the outer row of columns, and I knocked on one, with force. It rang.