Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Can't turn off the charm even in China

My goal when coming to China was two fold. One, to survive. And two, to not cause an international incident. With five days to go, I've accomplished both goals so far. Survival has been based around not eating anything moving or looking at me. I've approached my second goal with the plan to be friendly to everyone I meet, especially the good people of Beijing. That's worked well, for the most part. But I think I've been misinterpreted by one Chinese girl.

When you cover an Olympics, you ride from venue to venue on buses. You grab your bus at the International Broadcast Center and ride to whatever event you want to go to, then a bus will bring you back to the IBC, where you grab a bus at the end of the day to come home. I've now officially ridden more buses than I did in several years covering UNO Mavericks athletics, and that was plenty of bus rides.

In a country that has 74,000 volunteers for these games (again, they have the population of Kearney and Grand Island working as volunteers shortage of people in China), they staff a volunteer or two on each bus. This job seems to consist of standing or sitting at the front of the bus, and then announcing that we've arrived at a venue, which if you are watching, you can plainly see that the bus has stopped and we've arrived at our venue, but the Chinese believe in covering all bases.

One of my beats has been to cover USA softball, and on the softball bus is a young Chinese college student. I've been friendly to every volunteer, again trying to avoid an international incident, but I think this young lady took it the wrong way. After meeting her on the bus a few days ago, she has shown up on every softball bus I've taken after every USA game.

After the initial small talk conversation on the bus, she's tried to escalate the situation. She's also bringing me gifts. She's trying to convince me to return to Beijing so she can serve as my tour guide. In short, I think I've charmed this young Chinese girl.

I never realized that my charm was such a powerful thing. I've certainly never exhibited any charm of any kind before. But if anyone ever needs love advice, obviously, get in touch with me. I'll forward you the number of a bus riding volunteer in China.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

China is not the United States

Monday marks the beginning of my final week in China, and while it's been one of the more interesting educational experiences of my life, I'm really ready to get home, see my girls, spend time with my wife, and of course, spend time with Mike'l Severe. It's been way too long without a full 4 hours of sports talk for me, and I'm anxious to get back. Someone reminded me the other day that this would be what it would be like if I actually took vacations....I might be off the show for a week or two. I responded that there's a reason I don't take vacations too often. I enjoy what I do, and miss it when I don't.

But from an educational standpoint, I've enjoyed learning and trying to navigate around a culture in which I truly am at a giant disadvantage. Taxi cab navigation, ordering at a restaurant, shopping...all things in which the language barrier becomes an issue. I'm not sure, though, what one of my latest finds is all about. I'm thinking political correctness is a little late in arriving in Beijing.

In the International Broadcast Center, which is our headquarters in Beijing, they have it set up much like a little town. It's a giant building, housing all the broadcasters, but it's got a newsstand, post office, bank, plenty of restaurants, and a general store. I walked into the general store earlier today, and saw something that caught my eye.

The picture you see to the left is the most popular brand of toothpaste here in China. On sale in the IBC for 15 yuan, which is one of the pricier places to buy items like that here in Beijing. Probably half that price at a local grocer, but they know most of the press isn't as likely to venture out into the world as I am (who thought I'd ever be among the more adventurous people in Beijing?)

The name of the toothpaste is Darlie. That's a recent name change, from Darkie. Yes, that's right. The most popular toothpaste, the toothpaste with the smiling man on the box, used to be named Darkie. They changed the name to Darlie, but unfortunately, they didn't change the Chinese name, also on the box. I asked a guy we have working with us for the Chinese translation. This toothpaste is "Black Man's Toothpaste." That's the man's toothpaste.....formerly known in China as Darkie.

There are many cultural differences between China and the United States, this being among them. I know race relations have a way to go in the United States, but we have moved past China in the toothpaste realm. We may lose the gold medal count in these games, but the U.S. is number one when it comes to least offensive toothpaste brands! U-S-A!!! U-S-A!!!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Can Baseball ever get it right?

Anybody who knows me knows I love baseball. One of the hardest things about being in Beijing has been missing the Cubs games in what could be their greatest season ever....or not, but I prefer to think it will be their greatest season ever. Let me have my dream!

Anyway, I've been missing baseball, so I was excited Wednesday to get the chance to cover Team USA's opener in the final Olympics for baseball. For those that haven't heard, baseball and softball are being removed from the Olympic games after our time in Beijing. Softball players are extremely passionate about fact, interviewing one of the members of the three time gold medalists before the tourney started, I asked her about it leaving after this year. She started tearing up. I felt like Roy Firestone, but I also understood the passion and heart for the sport. I was ready to see how baseball responded to its debut in the final Games. What a disappointment.

Not that they lost the game to Korea, which they did, by the way, by the score of 8-7. Team USA baseball is not a fair representation of the strength of the sport in the U.S. because the best Americans are playing Major League Baseball. No, the loss wasn't the most disappointing part. It was the way the team handled it afterwards.

The Olympics is all about overcoming adversity. The ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat. Rau'shee Warren losing his first boxing match and talking about it afterwards. The look of absolute horror and shock on the faces of the U.S. Gymnastics team and talking about their heartache afterwards. The stunned looks on the faces of the U.S. Baseball team after losing a tight game and.....not talking about it afterwards?

That's right. Even though Kobe Bryant will stand and talk to anyone who asks....even though Carlos Boozer will make a point to ask if anyone else needs anything before he leaves....the minor league players that make up Team USA can't be bothered to talk after their FIRST game in the last Olympics for baseball.

When you cover the Olympics, the media gathers in what's called the "mixed zone" which is essentially a roped off area on the field where we as media members gather to get quotes after the game from players. They have it in every Olympic sport. Players walk in, we talk to them briefly, they leave. No big deal.

Last night, every single baseball player walked through, and none talked. Not one. Later, they claimed "miscommunication" on how the mixed zone works, but I'm not buying it. I attribute this to the culture that baseball has developed over the last 20 years or so. This culture of horrible P.R. for the game. You are playing in a sport that is dead after this year in the Olympics. And yet, you still act like you are bigger than the event? Ridiculous.

Baseball has lost its spot at the top of the sports power tree because of continued public relations gaffes at all but the lowest levels of the sport. You wonder why football is king? This is one of the multitude of reasons. I can talk to Joe Ganz after a football practice, or a game, but I can't talk to a member of Team USA baseball? There were 9 media members there. Nebraska will have more at football practice this afternoon than they had at the game last night.

Baseball's gone after these Olympics, and until last night, I was disappointed by that. But from what I saw last night, none of these guys want to be here anyway. They'll get their wish in 2012.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Random notes from a Beijing Bus

Nee How from Beijing and the 4th bus ride of my Tuesday.....that's how we make our way around the Olympics, one bus to another, one venue to another. Currently, on the way to basketball from softball from the IBC from the Media Village. It's strange but today is really a normal normal as one can get in Beijing. No earth shattering stories in Beijing. Michael Phelps won gold again. Not a surprise. Team USA softball won a game 11-0. Not a surprise. The US hasn't even played Angola yet in basketball, yet I'm confident enough to call that one a win already. Not a surprise. So without a big story at the Olympics, a few random thoughts for the blog....

*I'm old enough to remember friendship bracelets. One of those little things you remember about your youth. For those that don't remember them, they were this little woven bracelets that you traded among friends....little multi colored bracelets were flying all over the school in my elementary school days. Well, we've got our own version of friendship bracelets at the Olympics, but instead of bracelets, it's pins. I'm slow to the collection, but picked up three new pins today....they are like gold here, and the Chinese workers seem especially excited about pins.

*I was quite concerned that I would be eating strange things at the Olympics in China, but so far, so good. No food issues at all, and I'm almost halfway home. And the other thing I'm particularly proud of is no McDonald's yet.

*Someone with more experience than me in Chinese culture is going to have to help me out here, but one thing I've noticed in and around Beijing is the babies. They don't wear diapers when they get to around 9 months or so. Just nothing under there. Most of them have clothes that are split right down the backside. I've seen more bare behinds in the last 2 weeks than I've seen since my girls were in diapers. My question is this....when they go, and there's nothing to stop it, what do you do? Like I said, someone with more Chinese experience is going to have to help me here.

*My clothes are still drying, I hope, after this morning's debacle with the Chinese language washing machines. Would have been helpful, I suppose, to understand the written Chinese but I thought I had it figured out. Two hours later, clothes not even close to dry, but very wrinkled, I headed to work. Good times. For more information on this washing machine experience, check out the podcast at

*Speaking of 1620 The Zone, I'd like to offer my congratulations and thanks to Mike'l Severe, Scoop our producer, Neil Nelkin and everyone involved with Unsportsmanlike Conduct, our little radio show in Omaha. Spring ratings came out last week, and while I'm not going to go into any details, nor will you hear us talk about it on the air, or send letters to any trade publications, let's just say we're very pleased and very grateful that people actually want to listen to our ramblings. Thank you. Fall is here, that means football, and that's our wheelhouse, so we'll keep up our end of the bargain.

*I'm going to owe Mike'l a steak or two after this Beijing experience, but I'm awfully fortunate to have a co-host who can handle as much as he does. Plus all the folks who have been kind enough to lend their time to the show, like Damon Benning, Matt Schick, John Talman, Joel Makovicka, and whomever else Mike'l has roped into doing this. Thanks to all of you as well.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The game China was waiting for

KETV Newswatch 7's Matt Schick, who wanted me to mention him in this widely read blog, asked me a question once that I remembered last night here in Beijing. He asked if I ever get used to getting to do some of the stuff I'm doing right now. I thought of that as I sat inside Wukesong Gymnasium in Beijing getting ready to watch and do some play-by-play of USA -China in the Olympic games. And the answer is still no. This game captivated an entire country. Millions of Chinese did care about this game, and they all stayed up late to watch it. And I had something that they all wanted....a seat, four rows from the floor.

Inside the arena, the place was absolutely electric. An entire nation, rooting for their team to make a good showing. I will say remember Rocky IV? The part right before Rocky fights Ivan Drago and the Soviet National Anthem is played and the entire crowd is belting it out? I thought of that as the Anthem of the People's Republic of China was played before the game, and the ENTIRE building was singing it at the top of their lungs. Going to games in the States, you don't hear much singing of the anthem by the crowd, and when you do, it always surprises you. For the first time in my life, I knew how Rocky feel just a bit overwhelmed by your surroundings.

I don't know that anyone thought the Chinese would win. After all, they have never beaten the US in Olympic play, and until last night, the margin of defeat was 52 points. Not exactly a game where you'd pick the underdog. But with Yao Ming and crew, this is a better Chinese team.

The good news, at least in my opinion, is that this is a better United States team, at least better than what we've seen in the last few international competitions. Now, it's not the Dream Team. Nothing will ever be the Dream Team, in any sport. Greatest team ever assembled in sport, period. There's no debate about that, and never will be.

But this team has weapons. And they defend. One of the weaknesses of previous incarnations of USA Basketball is that the team has been willing to give up defense to get the ball back and dunk it on the other end. Well, they got plenty of dunks last night, but they also had several points in the game where they played suffocating defense.

The achilles heel of this team is two-fold. One, free throw shooting, and two, perimeter shooting. I think the second problem will be less glaring as the Olympics goes on, but the first could be a problem in a close game. We will find out nothing about this team in their next game. They play Angola. That could be the first shutout in the history of basketball.

But it's still pretty cool for me to be able to go to stuff like this.....just another week and then it gets serious. Medal round begins, and we'll see if the USA has what it takes to get back to gold.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Basketball has begun in Beijing

Finally. Basketball is what I've been waiting for here in Beijing, and the men start on Sunday. The game between the U.S. and China is so much bigger here than it is in the States, I'm sure. Front page of the China Daily today....on one side, Kobe Bryant. On the other side...Yao Ming. Huge headline. Game on. It's probably page 5 in the United States, the opening game for Team USA, but here, it's national pride on the line. This game is a big deal here, and I hope that the U.S. understands that.

Saturday was a strange day in Beijing. You had the horrible story of the father in law of the head men's volleyball coach. If you didn't hear, some nut job stabbed the mother and father in law of US Head Men's Volleyball Coach Hugh McCutcheon while they were touring one of Beijing's landmarks, then threw himself to his death. Awful story, and a shocking story, because random violence like that is very rare in Beijing. I can say this....I've been here for over a week, and have been all over the city. I've never once felt in danger, even at night while walking around in a Chinese neighborhood, looking for a hole in the wall neighborhood restaurant.

One other strange note from Saturday, and a much lighter note. President Bush sat about three rows behind me at the U.S. Women's basketball game on Saturday. He's obviously enjoying this trip very much, looking relaxed and comfy. Even slipping on a team USA baseball cap while he sat and watched. But there's just something disconcerting about watching the leader of the free world do the wave. Yes, President Bush was a part of one of the worst things in sport, the wave. It started in the upper deck of Wukesong Stadium, and kept going and going. I watched the President and thought, "I hope he doesn't do this..." but then, he did. Stood up and did the wave. Why, oh why, Mr. President, would you perpetuate something that needs to disappear from the sports landscape?

More from China soon.....Game on!

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Racers reunion in Beijing

For those of you that know me, you know that I used to work for the Omaha Racers as their radio voice. For those that don't know me, now you know that I used to work for the Omaha Racers as their radio voice.

During the time of the Racers, Mike Thibault was the coach. Coach T was a very well known and, as far as I know, well liked Omaha sports figure. He and his wife Nanci were kind enough to serve as the host couple at our wedding.

Well, today in Beijing of all places, we got the chance to catch up a little bit. Coach T is now the head coach of the Connecticut Sun of the WNBA, and is an assistant with the USA Women's Basketball team. I went to their practice earlier today and spent a little time with Coach T, who is doing quite well.

On the way back from women's basketball practice today, I also got the chance to learn how to say, "Sorry" to our cab driver. You see, there's not much English being spoken in Beijing, despite the campaign to teach English. The cab driver had no idea how to find the International Broadcast Center, despite our Chinese instructions. So, I figured with the signs, I could direct him to the IBC. Boy was I wrong. I told him the wrong way to go and all of a sudden we were going the wrong way in Opening Ceremonies traffic.

After a heated exchange with a policeman that resulted in our cabbie getting out of the cab to yell at the cop, we made our way in the right direction. Now, I've not picked up much Chinese in my first week, but I think I understand enough to know that he was cursing me out the entire way to the IBC. My response was, of course, to explain politely that a cabbie should know where the IBC was, but again, that whole language thing kept him from getting the point.

So, I called our Chinese speaking person, Allen, who told me that sorry was pronounced "doy-boo-chee." Yes, it was me who said I'm sorry, averting a likely international incident between the U.S. and China. When our country is safe tomorrow, you can thank me for being man enough to apologize.

Incidentally, he just laughed at me when I said "doy-boo-chee" and drove off, so we may not be out of the woods just yet.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

USA Basketball huge in Beijing

Today was the first day for Team USA to practice in Beijing after several exhibitions in Macau. Watching the reaction by Beijing residents to the team's arrival reminded me of the videos of the Beatles arriving on U.S. soil decades ago, young girls swooning at the sight of the Fab Four.

I arrived at Beijing Normal University today at the same time as the "Redeem Team." It was interesting to watch the crowd. A small gathering was waiting around the gate of the University as the bus turned in to the gate. Now, there was no stop by the bus, and in fact, barely even slowed down as it turned. But there were two young Chinese girls positioned outside the gate, and they apparently were able to catch a glimpse of Lebron James at the window of the bus. They began jumping up and down, screaming and hugging each other. All at a glimpse of Lebron James through a moving bus window. Maybe China won't have such a home court advantage when they take on the U.S. on Sunday night.

Practice was extremely relaxed today, although I have nothing to compare it to when it comes to USA basketball. Basically, they opened the door to the gym, where the American team was waiting for practice to begin, and we could go and talk with whomever we wanted. No restrictions, no questions asked. Very easy. I had the chance to sit down and talk with Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, and Coach K. Sure, it was difficult to do as I was jumping up and down and screaming much like the Chinese girls, but I muddled through the interviews.

One day until the opening ceremonies. Huge day for China and for the Chinese people. Can they pull it off? 24 hours from now we will know!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Bad air day in Beijing

I've not been one to complain about the air here in Beijing. Heck, when I arrived on Friday, the air was great. Sky was blue, air was clear, and the story was the same through most of the weekend.

Not the case today, however. Just a low, grey haze hanging over the city and seemingly clinging to every part of your body as you walk through the streets. For the first time today, I could actually smell the air....a pungent odor that just wafts over you as you wind through the crowded streets of Beijing. Definitely not something I'd want to be competing in as a world class athlete.

We ventured out today to the largest electronics store I have ever seen. 14 floors packed with everything from laptops to wireless internet cards. You want it? They probably have it in this 14 story market. Strangely, laptops in China are pricier than in the states. Most of the consumer goods, it seems, are cheaper here, but laptops that normally cost 1500 in the states can run upwards of 3000 USD here.

Consider this blog, though, a plea. If there's one thing we NEED in the Omaha/Lincoln area, it's a 14 story electronics superstore. Who will be the brave Nebraskan to step up and provide our state with a necessity like that?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Beijing I've seen

Contrary to popular belief, there is internet access in China. Obviously, I'm logging on pretty regularly to write this blog. I've been in country for almost a week now, and as strange as this may seem, I feel the need to defend China a little bit here.

Reading Jay Mariotti's column today in the Chicago Sun Times, I think I can add a little to the picture of Beijing that he's trying to paint prior to his arrival. Now, granted, my concern with the Games has been a bit more personal, like trying to avoid strange foods, and hoping to be able to get over jet lag. But I've also gone out into Beijing each and every day, preferring to get a taste of the city as opposed to being holed up in the media compound. Yeah, really. Me, going out in the city. Strange, I know.

What I've seen is a city that is trying extremely hard to be open and welcoming. Whether it's on the subway (which I've been on at least twice a day) or in the grocery store, or in the Silk Market, it's a country that is doing it's best to put on a great face for the Olympics and the crush of visitors it will see in the next couple of weeks. Sure, I ate at Papa John's, but I also ate in a small hole in the wall restaurant deep in the heart of a Chinese neighborhood that served a terrific roast duck meal. I've enjoyed mingling in the markets, and have been told that I have to get a Chinese finger press massage before I leave. No, there's not a happy ending involved in this procedure.

China is a fascinating place....a country that seems to have plenty of issues, for sure. But a country that seems to be filled with people who have an unabashed pride in their country. It's certainly been more than I expected on my first trip here, and I imagine most foreign journalists will feel the same way if they venture off the media road here in Beijing.

Visiting venues and the Silk Market

We've spent Monday and Tuesday checking out broadcast positions for the various venues in Beijing. Monday was spent at the Water Cube, which is just as cool as everyone says that it fact, most of these new buildings are very well done. The Bird's Nest, which is the site of the Opening Ceremonies, is strange to look at, but a compelling building.

The Water Cube is startling when seen up close at night. It glows. I've not been inside at night yet, but they say that it gives you the feeling of being underwater when you're in the building at night.

My other exciting experience came earlier today, when we went downtown to the Beijing Silk Market. Picture a 6 story building, filled with allegedly name brand merchandise, and small Chinese women trying to push this merchandise on you at an aggressive rate. That's the Silk Market.

You walk down narrow hallways, surrounded by merchandise. Girls reach out and grab at your arms every few feet, trying to pull you into their little area. Then, the fun really begins. Say you are looking at a sweater, as I was earlier today. You get pulled into the booth, and she pulls out a calculator. "Now, this...this is price I give others...but I like you, so here is price for you." Then, she quotes some ridiculous price for this sweater, like 1520 yuan, roughly 220 USD. You laugh, and the game begins. You finally work your way down to garage sale prices. Long sleeve "Polo" shirt? 6 bucks. Sweater? 10 bucks. That's how the game is played. It is extremely addictive, kind of like going to an auction.
You can find almost anything in the world at this Silk Market, and usually very cheap. Great experience in Beijing.
Tomorrow, more preparation for the start of the Olympics....the US swimming press conference. Yeah! I hear Michael Phelps may get a question or two directed his way.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Great Wall and me

Sunday was our day to visit the Great Wall. Not that we have a designated day or anything, but the work begins on Monday, so Sunday was the last chance to visit with any extended time.

It's about a 45 minute ride from Beijing, for which we commandeered a taxi. For the day, the taxi ride, all 6 hours of driving and waiting for us, cost us 600 yuan, which is roughly 85 bucks American. That's about the worst deal we've gotten in China. Again, Coke Zero is 27 cents, and bottles of water will run you about 14 cents, while beer is much pricier at 47 cents per can.

Anyway, the visit to the wall. My observations about one of the 7 wonders of the world? It's much more narrow than I expected. And man, was it crowded with people and umbrellas. Not for any rain, but for the sun. Umbrellas are big here. It's also extremely steep. You are climbing at about a 45 degree angle to get to some of the higher elevations on the wall.

It is an extremely impressive structure, winding its way through the hills as far as the eye can see.

One other story from the's interesting to me the reaction the Chinese people, especially the young people, have given to us Americans. We were asked to pose three different times with Chinese teenagers for pictures. I turned them down at first, because I thought they were asking for money, but they just love taking pictures with Americans. Very fun, and nice to see that the world doesn't hate Americans as the media loves to sell to us all.

Then, after the time at the wall, we adjourned back to Beijing, where I ate my first American food in China....Papa John's!!! The shrimp pizza and breadsticks might be the best thing I've ever eaten, and it included nothing from the rice family of products.

Monday, though, is officially the start of work in China. More on the international broadcast center and the Olympic work experience later....

Saturday, August 2, 2008

China's team

One observation about the sports landscape in China after being here for a couple of days. I'm not sure how or why, but Yankees baseball is the thing here.

There can be some debate about America's team, whether it's the Cowboys, the Braves, the Yankees, or even the Cubs. But there is apparently no debate in China. I've been here for parts of three days now, and in each day, I've seen Yankees baseball live on the China version of ESPN.

The Chinese pick up the Yankee broadcasts and air them here live. Whether it is the local Yankees broadcast or the FOX television version, as it was early Sunday morning, the Yankees are the only team broadcast on Chinese television.

I've yet to see any kind of Yankees gear around the city, but there's definitely a big dose of Yankees love on the TV every day.

They like their rice in China

I have now been in Beijing for about 24 hours. I've also eaten more rice in the last 24 hours then in about the last 2 months before I arrived in China.

Friday night for dinner....rice with chicken. Saturday afternoon at lunch, rice with spicy pork. Large bowls, too. Not so much of the small portion of rice that I might have at home.

Saturday is bright, sunny and blazing hot in Beijing, much like the forecast for Saturday back home. We spent the morning touring one of the many markets in Beijing. Very interesting. Apparently, I'm all about scoping out the American stuff that has made it's way over to Beijing. These I found on display at the market:

If you can't see the picture, it's a collection of the old cartoon character cups from the States....let me know if you want me to pick some up, and for a price, I'll run back and grab them.

Then, right before lunch, we stopped by the grocery store. Awesome! I could have spent an hour there, just wandering around. For those that want a taste of home, you can find it here, for a price:

The smallest box of "Frosties" translates to about $2.70 American, which is a better deal than some of the imports. But for the most part, the dollar goes a long way here in Beijing. The can of Coke Zero I'm drinking as I type this set me back .27!

No more shopping for today. We'll visit the Temple of Heaven here in a little while. The Great Wall is on schedule for tomorrow, as well as checking into the media village to begin the official Olympic part of the trip. I'm still going to squeeze in a trip through the Forbidden City before the trip ends in a few weeks.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Arrived in China

This is a first for me....actually, two firsts. Blogging and traveling to China.

The trip was extremely uneventful, which I would say is a good thing. The flight departed Chicago exactly as expected....and lasted just as long. Although I didn't expect the route over the top of the world. We flew directly over the North Pole, across Siberia and then into China. Pretty cool route, I thought.

Beijing has really poured a lot of resources into the Olympics. That is obvious the minute you get off the plane into the brand new Terminal at the airport, all the way through the city of Beijing, where the only advertisements are for the Olympics. The Olympic brand is everywhere throughout the city, from the largest banner on the side of the buildings (think the Mutual of Omaha swimming banner, but more Olympic based) to the garbage can lids throughout the city.

Having just arrived in Beijing, I haven't seen much yet. Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Chinese markets are all on the docket for the weekend.
But first on the docket is sleep. I've been up pretty much two days straight, hoping to thwart the jet lag issue. We'll see if it works!