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.