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Ten years on: Remembering Beijing Olympics

By Gilbert Van Kerckhove | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2018-08-08 11:03
Gilbert Van Kerckhove poses as work on the Bird’s Nest continues behind him, October 25, 2006. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

I first became involved in the preparation of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in early 2002 when I was asked to find solutions to fund the construction of the major venues and to launch the public bidding process.

Later on I focused on the selection of the design for the National Aquatics Center, resulting in the choice of the Water Cube. I also had to study the technology used for the external wall of the Water Cube. The Bird’s Nest was another major challenge, involving the renegotiation of the contract with the Swiss architect, the launch of the final bidding for construction, and the contract negotiation.

Obviously all members of the large team working on the preparation of this major world event were anxiously waiting for the historical moment: The official opening ceremony in the Bird’s Nest on the evening of Aug 8, 2008.

The fireworks at the Bird’s Nest light up Beijing skyline on Aug 8, 2008. The image was captured from Pangu Plaza. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn by Gilbert Van Kerckhove]

That afternoon I took part in the live coverage by Belgian TV RTBF, with the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube prominently displayed on the screen during the many interviews with experts. The view, however, was rather foggy, due to the fact that early August in Beijing is known for its oppressive and humid weather, with regular torrential downpours.

On the evening of July 30 I had joined the rehearsal of the opening ceremony in the Bird’s Nest, carried out under strict secrecy for obvious reasons. Near the end of the rehearsal a fierce thunderstorm with heavy rain lashed the stadium, leaving the “athletes” and performers soaking wet.

Of course panic ensued with the organizers, who decided to take no chances. Ten thousand raincoats were stored in the stadium, just in case a similar downpour happened on the opening night.

The weather on Aug 8 was menacing. The heat was nearly unbearable. It was obvious a thunderstorm was in the air.

But our Chinese friends had the solution. They fired a volley of cloud-seeding rockets into the dark clouds approaching Beijing. And it worked; it did not rain a drop on the stadium. So, the raincoats were never used!

Our TV crew left its original position on the east side of Olympic Green to set up operations in Pangu Plaza. That move was a major challenge due to the severe traffic and security restrictions in the area. The Pangu building was not yet officially opened. Many media studios were based on the higher floors, with a gorgeous view of the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest.

The delegation leader of the Belgian Olympic Delegation, Philippe Rogge, the son of Jacques Rogge (at that time IOC president) joined us, arriving from the Bird’s Nest. The makeup team had a major problem preparing Philippe for the interview as he was constantly sweating, ruining the makeup.

It was a very long night as we could not leave the building due to security and heavy traffic. But it was a fantastic experience, looking at the colorful scenery in front of us and watching the real fireworks at the Bird’s Nest. Indeed, TV viewers actually saw a version that made it look like the fireworks were all over the area. That clever move also helped in reducing possible air pollution caused by the fireworks.

We were all so excited to witness the launch of a wonderful Beijing Olympic Games. Despite some earlier negative comments in the international press, once it started on Aug 8, it turned out to be a success and we all felt proud to have been part of that historic event.

I was fortunate I could at least participate in some of the major events, such as the athletic competitions, where I was to see with my own eyes Belgium win a medal on Aug 21.

One should not forget that the Olympics is not just any competition. On Aug 11, I was on the Olympic Green where impressive performances were being held.

Gilbert Van Kerckhove (center, last row) and his wife (center) pose with the then-Belgian ambassador and the paralympic team, Aug 21, 2008. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn by Gilbert Van Kerckhove]

I was also honored to meet the Belgian paralympic team at the Belgian embassy, in the presence of Belgian Princess Astrid and her husband, Prince Lorenz, on Sept 5.

Ten years have passed but the memories of a great Beijing Olympics will always stay with us.

Gilbert Van Kerckhove is from Belgium and is a permanent resident with a Green Card in Beijing. He is a businessman, author, blogger and speaker on economy, politics, environment and society, in China since 1980.

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