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An Olympic Focus

The 2008 summer games might have come to a close in Beijing on August 24, but traces of the Olympic spirit still reverberate throughout Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Three stories emerging from the campus and community echo the spirit of the Olympics and blend perspectives on sports, culture, and education. This month, the College has welcomed an Olympic coach, exported Chinese language expertise, and has caught up with alumnus and citizen journalist Brian Conley ’96, following his trip to China.

Now We Fence

On August 22, Olympic fencing coach Yuri Gelman arrived on campus after coaching the U.S. team to six medals in Beijing. Fighting jetlag and exhaustion, Gelman, in true Olympic spirit, got right back to the mat. Preparing for a nine-day residency that brought together the next generation of the country’s top fencing students, Gelman transformed the College’s Kilpatrick gymnasium. He rolled out fencing mats, connected scoring devices, lined the walls with mesh uniforms, and in full satisfaction declared: “Now we fence!”

Fence, they did! 200 Olympic fencing hopefuls swarmed onto campus and began training. Suited, determined and fully energized, athletes practiced as College and local community members watched fencers work the narrow mat. Chris Nelson, director of recreation and athletics at the College, considers the visit a success. He says that Gelman and his staff have been thrilled with the facility and are already considering a return next year.

It’s “Beijing,” not “Beijing”

Before the 2008 Olympic Games commenced, faculty member John Weinstein knew there would be some confusion. A Chinese language and culture professor, Weinstein saw the games as a teachable moment. He and colleague Carsey Lee developed Two Chinese Characters, a website that would help visitors with proper Chinese pronunciations. The first lesson taught visitors how to properly pronounce China’s capital city, Beijing. With contradictory pronunciations abound, National Public Radio’s sports program “It’s Only a Game,” called on Weinstein and Yee to set the record straight. So, how exactly do you pronounce Beijing? The question sparked a lively public radio conversation, already ignited on the web after what host Bill Littlefield called “an absolutely viral” interest in Two Chinese Characters.

Filming the Politics of Beijing

Bard College at Simon’s Rock alumnus and citizen journalist Brian Conley ’96 traveled to Beijing not as a sports spectator, but as a documentary filmmaker. Conley—who created and produces the video blog “Alive in Baghdad”—has built a career webcasting stories that are not widely covered by mainstream media outlets. Naturally, he was interested in filming the protests organized by the organization Students for a Free Tibet. On August 19, Conley was arrested by Chinese authorities and held on “administrative detention” for filming the demonstrations. After five days of detention and 22 hours of interrogation, he was released on August 24.

Tracing his career in a recent phone interview, Conley said that the College has helped to influence his work. “The ability to create your own plan rather then follow a standard College experience,” encouraged Conley. Initially interested in pursuing politics and history, the young student discovered an interest in film and studied Arabic with language faculty member Gabriel Asfar. “Like everyone else, I watched the Gulf War in the 1990s, but I don’t know that I would have been committed to these current issues if I hadn’t had an Iraqi professor.” His passion for film, language, and politics continues through his work with “Alive in Baghdad,” which has him immersed in Arabic language, culture, and current events. Conley experience in China did not deter his determination to create his own path and tell the world’s “untold” stories.

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