The University of Iowa

IP Students Travel to the Beijing Olympics

July 31st, 2009

Emily Doolittle seriously considered not returning to Beijing when she completed her volunteer work at a “Good Luck Beijing” tennis tournament in October 2007. Fed up with the horrible venue food, Doolittle lived on peanut butter sandwiches through almost the entire 12-day trip. With limited Chinese skill, she could neither communicate well with the venue supervisor nor navigate much of the city. “For me, the first time I go anywhere, it’s kinda difficult. I need help with adjusting.” Doolittle says. “When I travel, I often feel disoriented, like I don’t have good footing.”

But the 21-year-old senior international studies major nonetheless landed at the Beijing International Airport for the second time on June 22, 2008. Doolittle knew that she could not pass such an epic event.

Doolittle was going to cover the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, as part of a group of 24 Iowa students transplanted to China for the event. Thanks to a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the UI, Tsinghua University, a partner school in Beijing, and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG), the students had the opportunity to work as media volunteers at the 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

The students-most of them majoring in journalism, international studies and/or health and sport studies-had been preparing for the Beijing experience through coursework and self-study before their trip. Although all of them had attained at least basic-level Mandarin before their summer trip, for many, their knowledge about Beijing was no more than the Great Wall or the Forbidden City. “To broaden their horizon,” was thus the expectation of Judy Polumbaum, professor in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication in CLAS and initiator and facilitator of the Iowa Olympic Ambassadors Project. “For them, to know about China and make friends is more important than the event itself,” Polumbaum said before the students set out for their Beijing adventure.

The Iowa group did exactly the same as Polumbaum had anticipated during the orientation week. Tsinghua University organized a series of lectures for the Iowa guests, from Chinese calligraphy to the economy, from China’s environmental issues to Tibetan culture and lifestyle. Depending on their distinctive backgrounds, many students found certain topics more intriguing than others. Justin Guan, a 20-year-old pre-med junior who immigrated to the U.S. from China when he was 7, was fascinated by the Chinese writing as a record of Chinese history. “Through time, the society’s history has been truly integrated into the lives and culture of its people,” Guan says. “By learning the writing system…, a person can understand so much [about] China’s history and traditions.” While Kevin Lu, also a 20-year-old pre-med junior and a Chinese-American born in the U.S., was intrigued by a presentation of a Tibetan-origin scholar in Beijing. The fact that Tibetans and other minority groups in China receive certain benefits from the central government was a novelty for Lu. “This is the first time I’ve heard this kind of things,” Lu says. “It’s not something that they would publicize in the Western media.”

Although Lu had visited Beijing several times, he would constantly catch things that astonished him last summer, many a time brand-new cultural experiences. He was surprised to see lots of Chinese girls holding hands or crossing shoulders while walking down the streets. Doolittle was also shocked one night when she found out that a little kid was peeing in the shower room next to hers. But her reaction was way less stronger than it could have been back in October 2007. “If that happened to me in October, I would have been like: ‘I hate this! I wanna go home now!’” Doolittle says. “But now I think it’s not a China thing. That can happen anywhere.”

Compared to the experience in Beijing in 2007, the two-month stay this past summer granted Doolittle much more opportunities to explore the city and to interact with the local people.

Food was a completely different story from 2007. Doolittle loved the large variety of eggplant dishes she ran into in Beijing. As a big fan of mushrooms, she was thrilled to taste many types that she had never seen in the U.S. She had had Peking duck many times, a Beijing specialty that she related to a dish in Spain-conchinillo. A suckling pig roasted in the same way as the Peking duck, conchinillo does not come with tortillas and sauce served with the duck. Doolittle likes the duck better because it is more flavorful, and affordable.

“Affordable,” was why Doolittle bought three pearl necklaces, two pairs of pearl earrings, a gold-dipped leaf necklace, a neon pink and sparkly fish necklace and a long lacy peach-colored shirt within one day. She spent $35 for all of them. Doolittle says that she got ripped off the first time she bought a necklace, which cost $15. But soon her haggling skill grew so much that she could bargain a “jade” Buddha down from $350 to $10.

Doolittle’s tennis knowledge also grew exponentially, thanks to the intensive training at the tennis venue on the competition format and rules, tennis terms and athletes. Doolittle was among the 14 Iowa students working as flash-quote reporters at the tennis and wrestling venues, who were primarily responsible for interviewing athletes and collecting short, sharp quotes relating to the competition after each event.

Sandra Harwitt, an experienced freelance sports writer who writes regular columns for and contributes stories frequently for The Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Miami Herald, was the international manager at the tennis venue. To prepare the Iowa students for the Games-time work, Harwitt designed a bunch of exercises for training them to think and act like real journalists. Students gained profound knowledge about world-class tennis players through the “Name that Player” games. While watching practices of the athletes and listening to Harwitt’s comments, students learned to catch the key points during the matches so as to generate questions for later interviews.  In role plays, students practiced interviewing the hard-to-deal-with athletes, such as the “outrageous Jelena Jankovic” played by Harwitt. Harwitt’s point was: the training should be not only helpful, but also fun.

“It was a lot of fun,” Lu says. “I looked forward to going every day.” Toward the end of the tennis event, Guan realized that flash-quote reporting had helped him improve on one of his weaknesses. “I’m really quiet and introverted,” Guan says. “[My work] has given me more assertiveness. We have to force ourselves to go to the athletes and talk to them.”

“I thought that it’s tough to take kids and put them into a position as journalists. But they far exceeded what I had anticipated.” Harwitt said after the completion of the tennis event. “They all put their best forward. No one was afraid. They all acted mature and handled themselves in a professional manner. I think for the amount of training they had, they all got a 10.”

Dr. Jane Hanson, faculty director for the Iowa Olympic Ambassadors Project, also gave the students high evaluation regarding their experience in Beijing. “I’ve been impressed about their ability to adapt, … and how they reach out, try to connect. It’s pretty adept for early 20′s.” Hanson says, citing an example of Marcus Schulz.

A 21-year-old UI senior journalism and international studies major, Schulz had his first encounter with China in August 2007 when he volunteered at an Olympic test event in Beijing. Before joining the rest of the Iowa group in Beijing in late June last year, Schulz studied a semester at China’s Nanjing University. From Nanjing to Beijing, Schulz took every opportunity to absorb and digest different aspects of the Chinese society encountered while reflecting on his own.

During his multiple trips around China, Schulz noticed how lots of Chinese people were suffering from the same problem that vexed Americans-rising gas prices. In Nanjing, Schulz was once told by a taxi driver that given the shortage of gas, many gas stations were saving gas until the prices rose. Traveling by car in late June last year on a two-hour drive from Kunming to the Stone Forests in Yunnan Province, he was shocked that none of the gas stations, which were placed every several miles along the rural highways, was open. In Beijing, he learned that the comparatively low gas price was a combined result of the high priority status the city held due to the Olympics and the heavy subsidies from the central government. “While gas price may be steep in the U.S., it might be a relief to know that we don’t have it the worst,” Schulz says.

But Schulz does admire the public transportation system in China. “It put ours to shame,” he says. There were no taxis in Schulz’s hometown. Buses were rarities too. “I couldn’t even take a train anywhere from near me. I’d have to drive two hours to any train station to go long distance.” Schulz says. “There’s no way you can live without a car in the U.S.”

Hanson called Schulz’s growing process “Chinafication.” “It means essentially that you live with the culture, you understand that it has so much meaning to you that you begin to question not only the things you see with the Chinese people around you, but you question your own culture within.” Hanson says. “I do think that coming somewhere else and comparing with your own culture, your own country and your own government is invaluable for making you think about what’s important for you, and how you want to be governed, and how you want to live your life.”

One distinction between China and the U.S., which struck the Iowa students upon their arrival in Beijing, was the air pollution. July 6 was the first clear day since the Iowa group arrived in late June last year. Pan Yue, vice minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration , once said that “One-third of the population breathe severely-polluted air.” According to the statistics from the United Nations Environment Programme, in 2007, only 44% of the cities in China met Chinese National level II air quality standard.

In a lecture on China’s environmental issues given to the Iowa students by Xiong Lei, a journalist from China’s Xinhua News Agency, she mentioned that it is crucial for China to balance development and preservation. Official Chinese government figures indicate that China’s economy grew at an 11.9 percent annual rate in 2007. For decades, China has followed the principle of “pollute first and clean up later” during its development process. But hosting the 29th Olympic Games has given the Chinese government and the people an opportunity to seriously consider the significance of sustainable development.

According to the Beijing 2008 Games Environmental Performance Evaluation conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Chinese government had spent US$17 billion on a large-scale green drive ahead of the Games, including a series of long-term environmental improvements for the city, such as upgrading industrial technology and relocating factories, raising vehicle emission standards, reforming energy structure, and encouraging public transportation by adding more bus and subway lines.

A city-wide vehicle restriction was implemented in Beijing from July 20 to Sept. 20 last year, which limited circulation of vehicles based on their odd or even license plate numbers. The restriction was said to have reduced two million vehicles per day from the traffic.

The traffic restrictions, together with other green initiatives taken by the Beijing Municipal government, had contributed to the improvement of the air quality during the Olympics. In a news release published on Aug. 24, 2008, the International Olympic Committee stated that the air quality in Beijing during Games-time met the standards of the World Health Organization and the IOC, with eight days rating Grade II and nine days reaching Grade I, a “decade-long record” for Beijing.

The Games also set a series of records in the Olympic history, according to IOC President Jacques Rogge’s remarks to the 120th IOC Session on Aug. 24, 2008, including most National Olympic Committees (204) and most women athletes (45 percent of the athletes) participating the Games, and “more broadcast coverage to more people, in more places than ever.”

“The Games are not just a showcase for the world’s best competitions and athletes. They help break barriers and overcome differences.” Rogge said at the session. “These Games were historic because they were held in the world’s most populous nation for the first time. One-fifth of the world’s population was exposed to Olympic values in a way that they never had experienced before.”

According to The Olympic Values by Steven Maass in the April-June 2007 Issue of the Olympic Review, when Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin set out to revive the Olympic Games in 1894, he had an ambitious goal to promote an integrated culture of athleticism and education, which was based on a set of moral principles, including non-discrimination, respect for rules and others, unselfish activity, and striving for a better world.

Today, inspired by Coubertin’s original guidelines for “athletic pedagogy,” the IOC has clarified the meaning of the Olympic values focusing on three core expressions-excellence, friendship and respect, with the primary goals of “reaching one’s personal objectives,” “building a peaceful and better world through sport” and “[developing] respect for ourselves, for one another, for the rules, for fair play and for the environment” respectively.

Mutual respect was one of the key results of the Beijing Olympics as Hanson interpreted. “I think this encounter between China and the rest of the world, China will probably never be the same again,” she says. “And the rest of the world is to allow themselves to really interact with the Chinese at a warm level.”

Cameron Coker, one of the Iowa volunteers who worked at the tennis venue during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, acknowledged that China is expecting acceptance from the world and trying to get the message across-”‘We are the same people; we just want to get along.’” Coker says. “If we try to understand each other, maybe we can reach the goal of ‘One World, One Dream.’”

For Doolittle, her gain was more on the personal level. As Pico Iyer (2000) writes in his essay “Why We Travel,” “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” As an international studies major, Doolittle likes to explore different cultures by travelling abroad. But while she is on the road, she constantly feels the urge to return home. “Whenever I travel, I find that I love coming back to Iowa,” Doolittle says. When she came back from her study-abroad trip in Spain, Doolittle was reluctant to leave her grandmother’s farm house, which seemed so peaceful compared to Madrid. When she returned from China in October 2007, she loved seeing the patchwork quilt of farms as the plane landed in Cedar Rapids. “The older I get, the more I appreciate Iowa and the more I just want to become a horticulturalist.” Doolittle says. “I think I travel so that I can appreciate Iowa more.”

Lini Ge volunteered at the Main Press Center of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. For her Master’s Professional Journalism Project, she also tracked four University of Iowa students as they ventured to Beijing as Olympic media volunteers, and explored the nuances and shadings of their engagements with China during those memorable moments. Through their experiences, Lini saw China in her own upside-down, topsy-turvy way: through the eyes of foreigners from her adopted homeland of Iowa, in the city of Beijing, a place that she had been quite familiar with and was now strange territory. Their interwoven stories make up the multi-hued fabric of those two months. Lini received her master’s degree in journalism from the UI’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2008.