TEH ENG KOON  /  AFP/Getty Images
Journalists work in the Beijing Games' Main Press Center.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/8/2008 5:18:01 AM ET 2008-08-08T09:18:01

This is an ongoing series of Olympics cultural reports Sunny Wu is filing from Beijing. Check back twice a day for 'The Buzz' and 'Nightlife.'

The ambulance stands ready, parked at one of the entrances just in case someone passes out or falls ill.

Are the emergency services for the thousands of eager Olympic volunteers or the security guards who stoically stand guard in the heat and humidity? Nope, they're for journalists working at the new, slick and expansive Main Press Center (MPC), the largest media work space in Olympic history. Perhaps it's a not-so-subtle sign to journalists who were taking a smoke break — don't work yourself to death (they've seemed to ignore the evil effects of smoking).

"I'm not working now!" laughed freelance writer Carmel-Charles Camenzuli of Malta in between drags of his cigar. He was relaxing outside the MPC, sitting on a ledge, enjoying the clam before the storm with a dozen other smokers.

The Opening Ceremony on Friday night is not only a spectacular kickoff to the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, it's also the start of 17 days of endurance, competition and toil for the thousands of journalists who have descended here. Thirteen hours before the ceremony, which was scheduled for 8:08 p.m. local time, photographers were already staking their spots outside the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. They were prepared for a 20-hour work day, hoping for that one iconic image of the ceremony.

The MPC, home to 5,600 journalists, was already teeming with reporters, volunteers, press officials and athletes early Friday morning. The main work room was filled to capacity as the tap-tap-tap of keyboard strokes filled the air.

Upstairs, more reporters, cameramen and photographers had congregated around the press conference area. The room for England's diving team was standing-room only. At the end of the hall, reporters were grilling officials on the air and environment. Earlier, in the same room, cameras swarmed around Lopez Lomong, the U.S. flag bearer. One cameraman displayed his paparazzi-like agility by hopping from chair to chair to get a clear shot of Lomong, causing one reporter to emit a curse. There is no "One World, One Dream" when you're on deadline.

And in the auditorium, the U.S. basketball team was the press conference of the day for many reporters — and volunteers who were breaking the rules by asking for autographs and posing for pictures with their favorite NBA stars.

For all the commotion and nervous energy (the patio bar has been a popular hangout), many journalists have been waiting years — and for Chinese journos, a lifetime — for this day. This was Day 1 of an arduous, but rewarding, journey.

"Once you've covered one Olympics, it becomes like a drug," said Camenzuli, who's worked at seven Olympics.

New Jersey-based freelance photographer Ron Wyatt, who's working for Kodak, has been waiting a quadrennium for this moment, ever since he experienced his first Olympic assignment in Athens.

"I can't think of any place better than this," Wyatt said as he munched on a hamburger and fries in the building's food court. The pristine cafeteria, staffed by a regiment of cooks and servers, is open 24 hours for late-night runs of pizza, sandwiches and rice porridge.

"The best photographers in the world are here. You think to yourself, do I really belong here?" Wyatt said. "But you have to tell yourself you're here and it's time to lock down."

Thousands of journalists will be locking down to produce around-the-clock, blanket coverage (surely, you've experienced some of it already). But for some — a handful have been in Beijing a month already — they're already dreaming of August 25, the day after the Closing Ceremony, when they'll slip into a hot tub, unburdened by deadlines and editors.

"At Athens," Wyatt said, "it took me a month to decompress."

Sunny Wu will be writing for msnbc.com throughout the Beijing Olympics. He can be reached at sunny.k.wu@gmail.com. You can follow more of his exploits at http://meiguoren.wordpress.com/.


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