BEIJING — In Beijing’s Silk Street Market, under a huge billboard that cries, “Shop with Confidence!”, foreigners mill through a disproportionately Western mob of shoppers who look mostly dazed and confused. “This is too overwhelming!” one young western woman cries with a loony chuckle as she races through the narrow aisle. A nearby shop owner tries to soothe her, “Excuse me lady? Try handbag: Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Burberry.” Another man in the corner looks with disbelief at the offer punched in a calculator: “420 for those pants? Is that in Euro?”
For Ivy League students spending their Augusts in China, scenes such as these were not uncommon. While the opening ceremony this summer boasted a record television audience of up to one billion, rising flight, food, accommodation and Olympic ticket prices — combined with the poor U.S. economy — made attending the show live a privilege. But many Yalies bound for Beijing this summer found a way to make it happen by being resourceful: by maximizing connections and minimizing costs.
Jonathan Gordon ’10, who joined nine other friends at the Beijing apartment of fellow Bulldog Lisa Sun ’10, said his friends at Yale made his trip to the Olympics possible.
“We’d be paying for airfare and get a fabulous experience,” he said. “A bunch of us took her up on the offer.”
Once they arrived, Gordon said he and his friends reached out to other Yalies they knew would be in town, and sometimes met others by coincidence.
“There were some Yale people who we knew were going to be in Beijing, doing study-abroad programs,” he said. “Other times, for example, in Silk Street, we ran into people with Yale crew T-shirts. On the Great Wall, we also ran into two girls who were from Yale.”
Yale students were not the only Ivy Leaguers hitching a near-free ride to the Olympics.
Charlie Melvoin, a rising junior from Harvard, said he looked for summer jobs coinciding with the 2008 Olympics starting four years ago, just after the games in Athens. Melvoin said he pursued contacts until he landed an interview for NBC’s Client Hospitality Program, which hires college students to escort and interact with important guests, from NBC executives and sponsors to celebrities like Michelle Kwan and Vince Vaughn.
“I left the whole summer open, banking to get this job,” Melvoin said. “I wanted to get there, front and center, in the Olympics.”
Having all expenses paid for the minute he landed, Melvoin enjoyed free tickets to the games by accompanying clients, along with meals, housing, laundry service and Nike gear. To fill up the summer months leading up to the Olympics, Melvoin said he searched for something to do around China. He found Rustic Pathways, a high-school travel company that employed him as a guide in China and Vietnam — again, with all expenses paid.
“Basically from the moment I left L.A. at the end of June until I got back … I didn’t have to pay for anything except for souvenirs and going out,” he said.
For some Yalies in Beijing this summer, the Olympics provided an opportunity to network with some of the thousands of other students and alumni who descended on the city at a key moment in its development.
Robert Li ’10 said while he did not have the chance to see any games, he did attend the Yale Global Business Leadership Program during his short stay in Beijing on the way home from Hong Kong. The Yale School of Management intended these conferences to gather discussion leaders, presenters and scholars with renowned intellectual reputations and managerial expertise.
The conference, which took place during the first week of the Games, included “smart casual” dinners, panel discussions and group organized sightseeing trips — as well as subsidized tickets for certain Olympic events. According to SOM professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the conference was intended to explore these organizational strategies in a wider societal context, and included speakers such as billionaire businessman Steven Schwartzman ’69 and Dick Pound of the IOC.
Other students, including Michael Chao ’10, said they did not plan their summers in Beijing with the purpose of watching the Olympics. Chao said he was there to participate in Chinese language classes through the Light Fellowship and only began searching for Olympic tickets online in mid-August, when he finished his finals.
Although the Olympic Games are traditionally seen as a method to unite peoples across the globe who share a love for atheleticism, Ivy Leaguers are finding new reasons to appreciate the Games.
“Different people go to the Olympics for different reasons,” Li said.