interlocked by five rings

remembering the 2008 olympics

A few days after this past August 8, I was on my way to attend a conference at the National Convention Center inside Beijing’s Olympic Village. While riding the No. 8 subway line, I passed the Olympic Green station. As the car decelerated, the recorded message from the overhead speakers reminded passengers to get off if they wanted to go to the National Stadium (“Bird’s Nest”), the Aquatics Center (“Water Cube”), or other athletic facilities built specifically for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As I moved to let people near me shuffle across the crowded car to the door, I realized the special occasion being celebrated that week: the 10th anniversary of the 2008 Olympics.

One stop later, I got off the subway to go to the convention center. As I ascended the escalator to arrive at the ground level, the view of the Bird’s Nest slowly emerged in the distance. The intersecting metal rods that shaped the Nest’s exterior were surreal in the misty air. The humidity silenced everything, brewing a sweetness that rose from the wet pavement and dew-covered lawn. Even the wind was too lazy to move.

This silence felt out of place near this breathtaking stadium that brightened the dark night ten years ago. Those footprint-shaped fireworks from the Olympics’ opening ceremony seemed to dance once again in front of me like the lingering afterthoughts that slowly crawl into my mind some sleepy mornings, reminding me of the scattered memories of a distant, fading dream.

My sole visit to the Bird’s Nest was during a trip with my elementary school a few days after the Games began. I can’t remember what games we watched that day—probably a few track events, painfully boring for 9-year-olds—but I do recall walking to my grandpa’s house earlier that summer. It was a breezy afternoon around mid-June. After a strong gust of wind hit my face, I saw my grandpa outside his neighborhood’s gate, striding to grab a big sun umbrella that had nearly been knocked over. He straightened his T-shirt and took off his green cap, one I had never seen before. A few other people, all similar in age and in the same white and green cotton shirt, helped him reset the umbrella. An elderly lady in the group flapped a bamboo fan for herself, delivering a joke that induced a wave of laughter among those near her.

Before I witnessed this scene, I didn’t know that my grandpa had become a community volunteer for the Olympics— helping confused pedestrians with directions. However, I wasn’t surprised. Grandpa’s restlessness made it impossible for him to merely be a spectator during the Games. He joined the many retired people who had the leisure and passion to contribute to the ongoing festivities. The city must have felt the same restless urge. Public clocks that counted down to the opening ceremony and volunteer tents, where smiling multilingual university students handed out maps, mushroomed throughout the city. Everyone was learning English—taxi drivers, eatery owners, newspaper vendors—and the lyrics of the Olympics theme song, “You and Me,” were usually the first sentences people learned after Sarah Brightman mesmerized the stadium with her moving rendition during the opening ceremony.

When I visited my grandparents this past August, I pointed at the ceramic plate on the top rung of my grandpa’s bookshelf. In hopes of starting a conversation, I asked a question the answer to which I already knew: “Grandpa, what’s that?”

All that I got in response was a low-pitched chuckle that painfully snuck out of his throat. Grandpa had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for over a year, barely recognizing me when I entered his room. That maroon plate with gold and white patterns was his souvenir from volunteering during the Olympics, but now it was simply another object whose significance was too abstract and distant for him to recall.

Many details surrounding the Olympics have settled into the background of people’s memories, quieter than the silence I heard standing next to the Bird’s Nest on that misty morning this past August. For me, the connections that appeared and strengthened among people during the Olympic month still linger. After an unexpected snow storm swept southern China and a devastating earthquake shattered the Sichuan Province earlier in 2008, the August Olympics gave many people across the nation an opportunity to heal and feel optimistic.

The pride that flowed through my community during this event has remained with me, constantly pulling me back into its warmth. After moving to a boarding high school in the U.S., even without realizing, I sought as many opportunities as possible to be involved in hosting sports events. I basked in the brainstorming sessions with my classmates during those long nights of organizing the Special Olympics soccer tournament held at my high school. Likewise, my brief conversations with the athletes at the Boston Marathon registration site were the highlight of my day. Even away from home and long after the heat of the Olympics, I was able to relive the connections forged between people at similar events—ones as strong as the links between the five Olympic rings.

Beijing’s restless energy will return in four years, with the city guides and the countdown clocks and the English-learning waves. In 2022, Beijing will become the first city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The Bird’s Nest will once again light up the dark night, this time with a touch of winter festivities. I hope to go back to Beijing for the Winter Olympics right before I graduate from Brown. I might even volunteer, sporting a T-shirt similar to my grandpa’s and sitting in a tent by the street, fondly remembering the scenes surrounding me and hoping the city does, too.