The Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube, and a Brand-New Table-Tennis Gym

A view of the Water Cube. Click image to expand.
A view of the Water Cube

BEIJING, Oct. 24— Once more to the Olympic grounds, once more running late. This time is really not my fault. I’ve been asking the Olympic media center for a closer look at the main venues since last winter.

Making a request with the media center is like making a wish with a perverse and absent-minded genie: Sometimes, eventually, you get a result, but it’s never quite what you had in mind.

This week, the genie has semispontaneously invited me to attach myself to a group of foreign journalists who are in town for the week: a white-haired French sportswriter in sandals, an aristocratic Argentine-American who runs some sort of publishing concern, a volleyball player (Belgian, I think he said) turned Olympic sports columnist, a Russian TV crew of two slouchy young men in jeans shepherded by a manager with her hair in a glossy bun. And now me. Together, we’re supposed to be taking a venue tour.

But while I was skipping the official group lunch, I got a text message announcing that the departure for the tour had been moved up from 2 p.m. to 1 p.m. Alakazam! So, now I’m trying to intercept the tour bus at the Olympic Exhibition Center.

Morning rain and drizzle have given way to honey-colored sunlight, filtered by the smog. Over time, through some variety of learned helplessness or Stockholm syndrome, I’ve grown almost fond of this dirty afternoon glow, diffuse and shadowless. Along the Second Ring Road, apartment towers are getting a touch up—a thin surface of new concrete, covered with bright paint. Some combination of climate, construction material, and air quality has been brutal to Beijing’s last generation of buildings; facades from the ‘90s and even the early ‘00s show various blotches, scabs, and weeping rust stains. The resurfaced ones do look better, at least for now. The light is kind to them.

I beat the bus to the site by a few minutes. The Exhibition Center is not far from the main Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest, on East Pole Star Road, set off behind the construction zone’s ubiquitous aqua-colored corrugated-metal construction fencing. I’ve been to this spot a few times before, with one local assistant or another, trying to get an unofficial look at the construction. Once, we wandered to a secondary fence line around the half-built Bird’s Nest, maybe 100 yards in from the road. Another trip ended up in the Exhibition Center’s lobby, where they told us there were no unscheduled tours allowed.

Today, with media center staffers guiding us, the group wends through an aqua-metal maze to the Exhibition Center’s front door. The Russians step through a gap in the fence to shoot an unobstructed view of the stadium. The latticework is finished, and a translucent membrane is being installed in the gaps in the upper reaches. At dinner last night, the ex-volleyball player declared it the most beautiful stadium ever built.

I might want to visit the Colosseum before signing off on that. But the Bird’s Nest has been more impressive, at every stage of construction, than anything I’ve seen in the United States. It’s huge—the capacity is supposed to be 91,000—and the intricacy of the steelwork emphasizes that hugeness: The overall bulk dwarfs the longest ribs, the long ribs dwarf the medium ones, the medium ones dwarf the shorter sections, and those smallest segments still loom over the tiny, laboring backhoes and itty-bitty people on the ground.

Even against the bare expanse of the building site, it’s impossible to lose the sense of scale. Inside the Exhibition Center—which has, perhaps in tribute to the dust, a shoe buffer beside the reception desk—humans can salve their diminished sense of self by contemplating a meticulous, glowing model replica of the National Stadium. That is followed by a model of the bubble-walled Aquatics Center, known as the Water Cube, then individual models of the National Indoor Stadium, the basketball arena, the table-tennis gym, the wrestling gym …

A model of the Olympic grounds. Click image to expand.
A model of the Olympic grounds

These sorts of models are a Chinese specialty. Downtown, in a big room at the planning museum, there’s a building-by-building replica of more or less the whole urban center circa 2008: everything inside the Second Ring, most of the Third Ring, and the arm of the Olympic complex stretching north past the Fourth Ring. The toy city seemed fanciful when I saw it a year and a half ago, with its clusters of glowing prospective buildings; now those landmarks, in different stages of completion, are on the real skyline. The future is arriving all at once.

Here, in the Exhibition Center hall, there’s a similar layout, showing the venues in place on the Olympic grounds, connected by model roads, model lawns, and model trees. I pick out East Pole Star Road. Where the Exhibition Center would be, there’s a clump of trees. I double-check with a staffer, who confirms what the model says. By early next year, this building itself should be demolished.

The Russians ask me if I’ll give them an interview, speaking as a resident journalist. I like the Russians. The woman in charge of the crew has been diligently working the phone, trying to get the Olympic Village added to our itinerary. The Village is to be converted to private housing after the games, though, and access to it is controlled by the real-estate developer, who wants no press. With the twinkling lights of the model as backdrop, I try to answer the Russians’ Olympic questions. They ask something about what is most striking to me. The scale and pace of the changes, I tell them, I think.

We board the bus for a trip around to the interior of the construction site. Out on the Fourth Ring Road, people are standing on top of the roadside barriers, snapping pictures of the Bird’s Nest over the top of the fence. This is typical. We drive into the compound, down construction-site roads, around and behind the Indoor Stadium. Through another gateway or two, we reach a parking lot and a raised observation platform.

Behind the platform is a half-installed stone plaza, planted with skinny trees. Facing forward, the Bird’s Nest is to the left, the Water Cube to the right. Farther around to the right are the dark gray Indoor Stadium and the darker gray, microchip-inspired Digital Beijing information center—which, taken together, were much less ominous as models. What else am I learning through proximity? Till now, the bubble-covered surface of the Water Cube has always looked like a mildly quirky graphic design. From the platform, for the first time, the building has depth. I can see the curve of each individual bubble.

The Russians go looking for a worker to talk to. Just outside the platform parking lot, a small forklift is offloading paving stones from a container trailer. The driver takes a break and tells the TV crew, through an interpreter, that he’s glad to be working on the Olympic project. How does he get to work, they ask. He takes a bus.

The forklift zips up into the truck, brings out another load of stones—for the camera, and also to unload some stones. Up and back. Pallets of stones are all over the place. The stones are from Zhejiang province, someone says. The trees between the stones are gingkoes, brought in from Suzhou.

The smog and the lateness have reduced the sun to a dim circle behind the Water Cube. Within a week, the viewing platform will be dismantled for more construction. We get on the bus and go north, past the off-limits village, to the tennis, archery, and field-hockey venues.

Field hockey comes first. This is one of the temporary complexes: a 12,000-seat arena and a 5,000-seat one, built of lightweight steel and designed with a five-year lifespan. After that? Our guide says he does not know the plan.

With permission, I go down inside the building and into the arena, through the player entrance. The field is covered in International Hockey Federation-approved artificial turf. I walk out onto the ground where Olympic medals will be contested. Stray tufts of colored fake grass have migrated from the sideline onto the green playing field, and there are puddles from the rain. A cloud of flying insects flits all around me—gnats or midges, I’m thinking.

They aren’t gnats. They’re mosquitoes. I get off the field, the cloud trailing me. Tennis and archery, I’ve already seen. I wave goodbye to the tour group. The mosquitoes pace me, like a wing of fighter planes escorting a blundering jetliner through restricted airspace.