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Friday, March 14, 2008

Hong Kong: Homeward Bound

Yesterday was our horse-free day. We were treated like the VIPs most of us definitely feel we aren’t, being whisked past line ups to see the many wonders of Ocean Park. For me it was all about the pandas, which put on a great show while we were there. Their play put to rest any suspicion that they are the sad little Eeyores their eye patches lead some of us to think. We spent the afternoon and some dollars at Stanley Market; before quitting for the day we knocked off one more tourist ‘must’ and checked out the view from the Peak. Fog and haziness are common enough up there that an enterprising young photographer stationed at the viewing platform offers to take your picture and then superimpose you onto a photo of the panorama taken on a clear day or night. We finished up with one more sociable dinner, this time at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Hong Kong may no longer belong to Britain, but many of the habits and influences of those days remain very much alive. It’s one of the many characteristics that make it a fascinating place – physically, historically and culturally.

Today our group will scatter back to our homes, several of us to continue the hunt for information about spectator tickets for our respective countries. The company responsible for ticket sales for all events (not just equestrian) in Canada has not bothered responding to my email from several days ago. According to their website, all tickets for all events in Beijing are sold out. I don’t know about the other sports, but I am certain the eventing dressage is not sold out. It never sells out. The ticketing problem is the one thing that could stand in the way of complete success this summer, and unfortunately for the team of organizers here in Hong Kong, there seems to be little they can do about it, since it is out of their hands.

Any tickets allocated to foreign countries that don’t sell by a certain date will return to Hong Kong for local sales. There has been a huge initiative to raise interest in equestrian sports among the local population; I don’t think a host city of any major equestrian championship has ever invested so much in promoting the sport to its population. Horses are everywhere here, and not just in a specifically Olympic way; yesterday in a shop I saw a jumper on an advertisement for feminine sanitary products. I don’t doubt the stands will be full, at least on medal days, no matter how unavailable tickets are to people around the world. (If you are reading this and you have successfully procured tickets to the equestrian events, please get in touch with me – I would like to know how and when you managed it.) But it sure would be nice if the teams had some good cheering sections from their own countries.

So home again, home again, jiggity-jig. A big thanks and bigger tip of the hat to our hosts here in the land of vertical growth. It’s been a great week and I can’t wait to come back. Watch this space, and join me again in August, when I will return to this unique and vibrant city for the equestrian events of the 2008 Olympic Games (oops, I mentioned it).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hong Kong: Lucky 13

In Chinese culture, the number thirteen is considered lucky. All of the journalists on this trip are in rooms numbered 13, so we are all on different floors, piled directly on top of one another. I’m in room 1413, but I guess if I were really lucky I’d be in 1313. The unlucky bit is that the internet stopped working, but with only two days left before heading home to YVR, I decided not to whine about it. Some in the group haven’t had internet yet – at least I had a one day honeymoon. And speaking of connectivity, internet on site at the games will cost a whopping 7800 HK dollars, which is almost exactly $1000 CAD. Since that is roughly how much I intend to pay for my sleeps, and since those sleeps (today IS my lucky day because I’ve found a guesthouse at the university right across the river from the venue) include free internet, I will not be buying into the games internet plan, thank you very much.

We had some good luck yesterday too. Toward the end of our from-the-sidelines tour of the cross country course at Beas River, Michael Etherington-Smith (the course designer for those of you not-in-the-eventing-know) turned up fresh off the plane. The course is being built while the golf course is in continuous use by some impressively bad golfers, and our tour guides were concerned for our safety – not to mention the happiness of the club members, who have already been reluctant to share their golfing haven with the course builders. Mike pshawed the risk of our getting beaned by stray golf balls and led us to one of the two water complexes. One journalist from Norway got so giddy about her proximity to Mike that we nearly had to drag her away by the feet (but not before the rest of us had pumped him for as many sound bites as we could get).

The course is not very near completion, but because the golf course (one of three at the country club) will be in continued use until shortly before the games, course builder Dave Evans told us he is assembling many obstacles in the work yard, to be moved or reassembled on the course much closer to the date. We watched Dave wielding his chain saw as he created a wooden dragon (whose exact use on the course Dave cagily avoided divulging) and I learned that a pre-requisite to being a top notch course designer these days is a Master’s degree in chain saw art. The course may not be ready, but the footing has been in place for at least a year, and passed with flying colours at last year’s test event, which was a test in a very important respect: there was a typhoon before the cross country. The setting at Beas River is bucolic and doesn’t lack for shade, which will come in handy in August. From what we have been told, it seems nothing logistical has been forgotten in the planning, including ease of transport for the 20,000 spectators who will be able to attend on the big day.

Continuing to Impress

I don’t remember exactly in what way the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) is the biggest in the world, but it probably has something to do with the fact that every race meeting is worth around a billion Hong Kong Dollars (that’s about 128 million CAD – or USD, take your pick). They run an incredibly tight ship, from the quality of the turf on the track to the care of their 1200 horses. I don’t think most of the people who have been invited to tour the facilities and see how these games are being organized (a treat for us, and unprecedented for equestrian journalists), could possibly have appreciated beforehand the degree to which the HKJC is equipped to do this. We’ve been spending a lot of time over the past two days with the JC’s Manager of Equestrian Affairs, Soenke Lauterbach. His background is with Aachen, and his future is with the German Federation. “When I came here about a year and a half ago, I spent a lot of time explaining to people that no, racing is not an Olympic discipline,” he told us. Where HK has lacked the expertise, they haven’t been shy about importing it from Europe or elsewhere; Soenke is living proof of that.

And They’re Off!

We were treated to an evening at the races last night, which was an opportunity for me to rediscover that I do not have the gambling itch – the same could not be said for a couple of people in the group, but no one lost their shirts. For the second-to-last race we were taken down to the starting gate for an up-close look at that terrifying moment in every race horse’s day. British photographer Kit Houghton got some fantastic shots of the finish, which made me nearly want to take out a loan to buy a camera like he has. We continue to be fed like Hansel and Gretel, and I must say that one of the main reasons I would return to Hong Kong (other than for the events of this summer) is the food. And notwithstanding the indifferent service regarding internet at this hotel (I know, I know I should just shut up about it), I have found the people to be hospitable and friendly – no small feat for a city that packs 7 million people onto a postage stamp.

The HOG?

If my blogs this week have seemed a little more tame and polite than usual, or if you’ve noticed the scarcity of the word ‘Olympic’, here is the reason: the IOC has issued a set of blogging guidelines for accredited media. It’s the first time such a set of guidelines has been imposed, because of course blogging barely existed a few years ago. The guidelines are written in a kind of legalese, instilling fear but not understanding in this lowly Canadian journalist. What is not ambiguous is the threat that if any accredited journalists are found to be writing things that are deemed contrary to the spirit of the games they will be stripped of their accreditation and sent home lickity-split. I don’t believe I lack a proper degree of the right spirit. I am very excited about spending my August writing about all the athletic wonders that will take place in Hong Kong; I also hope to recognize in print (and virtual print) the performances of a lifetime for some of our Canadians. I do not want to become a media casualty, so I am thinking about avoiding the use of the trademarked terms in my blogs, Olympic being the primary one. Don’t be confused if, come this summer, I am reporting to you from an event called the HOG, which is, I think, a good amalgamation of the name of the host city and you-know-what. And as far as I know, it is not a trademarked term, or at least not for the greatest sporting event on earth.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hong Kong: Wow and Wow!

For those naysayers out there who think that the Hong Kong equestrian events will be anything but top notch, let me disabuse you of that notion right now. The gang of journalists was nothing short of blown away by the incredible skill which the Hong Kong Jockey Club (not to mention astronomical investment of HK dollars) has invested in preparations for this summer. From drug testing to veterinary hospitals, footing to stabling, the facilities and logistics may set a new standard for future hosts of major equestrian events.

If the previous day’s parade of heads of this, that and the other left us slightly stupefied with blather, yesterday’s extensive tour of the drug lab, vet hospital, and venue left us all wishing the Olympics were next week and not in five months. Not that everything is finished yet; there are still many facilities to be completed, including the grand stands, media centre and other indoor amenities. There are so many training arenas (all with fantastic and identical sand-fibre mix footing) that if everyone in every discipline decides to train at 6 am, crowding won’t be a problem. And they will want to train in the early morning if they are smart. The head of racing operations at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, John Ridley, says that of course weather will be a factor. No one here is denying that it will be hot and humid and that there will be some rain. But holy crap Batman, have they got it covered. The footing has undergone percolation tests that show it can drain 130 millimetres of rainfall in a single hour. Oh, to have footing like THAT in our ring at home in Vancouver!

Contrary to reports I heard that the area of Sha Tin around the venue is gray and dreary, I found it refreshingly green compared with the concrete, glass and steel madness of Hong Kong and Kowloon. The pace is more leisurely, and green mountains peek up behind the buildings in almost every direction. Personally I think that these Games will be an incredible experience, both for the athletes and the spectators.

Today we tour the cross country course at Beas River Country Club, a 20 kilometre drive from the main venue. The jumps are not all built yet, but we will get a good look at some of Michael Etherington-Smith’s creativity, as well as the track – which has been designed to facilitate shortening should the weather be too extreme. Tonight we are off to the races at Sha Tin. I am a lousy gambler, so will probably stick to cheering, and leave the betting to those who know what they are doing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hong Kong: First Impression

This place is even more crazy and urban than imagination would allow me to expect. One thing that struck me the first night was that many of these skyscrapers crowded together outside my 14th floor window were in almost complete darkness. It is a contrast to North American cities, where city lights never seem to go out, at least in the downtown core. I asked our main tour guide Bob Howlett about it and he replied that many of the buildings are apartments and people economize on energy costs. He then told me that when they were filming the newest Batman movie here, people were asked to keep their lights on at night during the film shoot to make the skyline more spectacular. The general response was "you pay for it, and we will do it.” The food so far is outstanding. In the block around the hotel are more restaurants than in all of the Dunbar neighbourhood in Vancouver where I live.

More tomorrow from the venue!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hong Kong: Talky Talky

You are reading these first two blogs well past the fact, due to the internet at our hotel being down. They have promised it will be operational by some time tomorrow, so don’t be surprised if you see three days’ worth of blogs at once. Today was word-packed rather than action-packed – on and off the shuttle bus to meet all the important heads of the various bodies involved in the logistics and promotion of the equestrian events. I managed to get some clarity on why people aren’t able to buy tickets to any of the equestrian – apparently Olympic tickets are dished out to each NOC (that is the committee responsible in each country) so availability and ease of purchase varies from one country to the next. I wasn’t alone in saying that unless tickets become more the games will be.

One topic on the mind of all the organizers we met yesterday was the withdrawal of Silvia Ikle which precipitated the subsequent announcement that Switzerland would not be sending a dressage team to Hong Kong. It seems to have stung the folks here quite hard, though several of us mentioned that Silvia has also backed out of two World Cups, because she doesn’t want to fly her horse. A young Swiss journalist in our group said that the Swiss are in two camps over the withdrawal: some people think Silvia is courageous to put her horses first, and others think she is selfish. I have to go back and read through her official announcement on the web (when the internet is back up!), but I’m pretty sure she didn’t really say it was Hong Kong’s heat that governed her decision anyway – it was the concern over the stress of travel.

Had confirmation that although Hong Kong will not have official opening ceremonies (that is for Beijing to do, since it is the real host city), there will be celebrations of some kind. Knowing Hong Kong and its love of fireworks, I expect pyrotechnics will play a part. We also saw an ad promoting equestrian events that starred Jackie Chan riding a horse. I’m looking forward to seeing the venue tomorrow, and all the space aged technology that is going into making sure the horses are comfortable despite the heat and humidity. Mr. Timothy Fok, the president of the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong said with a smile to us: “There is more going into ensuring the well being of the horses than of us” (meaning the humans of course).

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Greetings from the flight to Hong Kong!

As we took off from YVR it seemed weird to fly due west from Vancouver – I’ve never done that before. It’s 14 hours of flapping and we will almost keep up with the sun; when we arrive in Hong Kong at 7 pm (tomorrow, having lost a day to the clock) the sun will have just gone down.

Compliments of the Hong Kong Olympic organizers, I’m flying in that treasured part of the aircraft with enough leg room to swing a cat. Also on this flight is Spruce Meadows’ broadcast media man, Ian Allison. My ticket cost the kind folks of Hong Kong enough to fund my entire Olympic trip two times over, but I’m doing my best not to think about that as I choose the smoked salmon appetizer and ask for the Pinot Gris. Just like Hong Kong, I guess Biz Class is one of those things that should be done once in a lifetime at the very least.

I’m going to Hong Kong to tour the facilities of the most controversial Olympics of the recent past, and I’m looking forward to it. Some one told me that Hong Kongers really know how to stage an event, even at short notice. Heat and possible typhoons aside, all the reports so far suggest this will be a fantastic event, and with equestrian a stand-alone in Hong Kong, will more closely resemble a WEG in terms of atmosphere.