Chief Sports writer Kevin McCallum says despite its poor human rights record, China is still allowed to host major sporting events. EPA/HOW HWEE YOUNG

The news that the president wants South African kids to learn Mandarin in school has come at the wrong time for both the kids and for those of us who went to Beijing to cover the 2008 Olympics. We had but a few words with which to negotiate the streets of the city before reaching the language safety zone that was the Olympic precinct.

At the entrance to the MPC (the Main Press Centre – “MPC” is a universal word across all languages at the Olympics), journalists were greeted by volunteers whose sole job seemed to be to bid them welcome. “Hello. How are you?” was an innocent enough question, but perhaps not the best question to foreigners who had just sweated their way through the smog and humidity. If you were in the mood for some fun, you would stop, smile and tell the welcomer exactly how you were and watch them nod in confusion as they looked around desperately for someone to help them. “Hello. How are you?” was the extent of their knowledge of English.

It was part of the PR campaign, the reason Beijing worked so hard to host what is believed to be the most expensive Olympic Games yet, and, possibly, ever will be. We may never know the full cost of the 2008 Games. Beijing kept that mum, as they did many things. The internet was restricted, searches for dissident parties blocked. The 2008 Games were before Twitter exploded and so escaped the rapid-fire reporting and comment of that social medium. The Chinese learnt, though, and have since blocked access to Twitter and Google.

The Chinese went to great pains to make us love China. The volunteers were dedicated to an extraordinary degree. We were welcomed on the way out of the MPC on the precinct side of the building just before the short walk to the Bird’s Nest. The official Olympic stadium was described by Marina Hyde of The Guardian as “basically the Death Star with a superior percussion section”. To say it rose from the Olympic Park would be wrong. It looked like it had landed with a thump, made of the heaviest metal in the universe by scientists from Krypton, a criss-cross metal basket that would survive a nuclear bomb.

It was stinking hot inside. There was little the Chinese could do about that. Not a breath of air. Indeed, the rain that fell during some of the days of the Paralympics was almost a relief. The lack of wind inside the stadium did not stop the organisers from getting the flags raised during medal ceremonies to blow furiously, thanks to air pumped through vents at the top of the flagpoles.

Both the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics felt awkward. There was an awareness by journalists of being part of an attempt to engineer a good story about China, to overlook the human rights track record. No normal sport in an abnormal society may be the greatest gift of a slogan that South Africa has given the world. And, yet, South Africa seeks closer relations with China and Russia, and other nations where societal conditions are abnormal. Perhaps these are the times of compromise, where the right thing is not considered the good thing. Perhaps there is a need to work from within, but that seems a cop out and merely hollow words.

These are the days where Russia can host a World Cup despite passing laws on homosexuality that bear more than just a passing resemblance to those of Apartheid. It gives me great personal pride to travel the world as a South African with a constitution that grants us freedoms others – so-called first world countries – are still waiting for.

The athletics World Champs are on TV as I type this, taking place at the Bird’s Nest. The world’s best athletes are on show there. Justin Gatlin, the convicted doper, has been beaten by Usain Bolt, the sprinter the world loves. South Africa has a strong team in Beijing with the welcome return of Caster Semenya, who, according to what I read yesterday in the papers, has found her happy space. According to Owen Gibson of The Guardian, there is a sense a bubble has been put up around the Bird’s Nest with Twitter and Google available, which may cause some to overlook the stories that around 200 human rights activists have been rounded up recently.

Mandarin in South African schools is a strange concept. It may be “gat kruiping” as Professor Jonathan Jansen said recently, but perhaps it will allow some of our future SA journalists to be able to speak to those Chinese whose voice is not being heard. It may just have the opposite reaction the president is hoping for.