Michael Nakagawa is overlooking a ski slope in Yanqing, a resort north of Beijing that is one of the venues for the 2022 Winter Olympics. He wishes he could try out the snow beneath him.
“It’s tough, you can see they’ve put so much work into it, and the snow looks great,” he said. “But for me, it’s strictly business this time around.”
Also known as DJ Naka G, Nakagawa is from Aspen, Colo., and had spent much of this year snowboarding, introducing his children to the sport, before he boarded a plane to China early this month. He’s an Olympic veteran: Beijing is his fifth Games.
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DJs are among the thousands of people working behind the scenes at an Olympics, doing jobs that are often invisible but whose absence would be instantly noticeable, both to spectators at the events and those watching on TV at home.
Since arriving in China, Nakagawa has spent most of his days inside a makeshift studio – about 10-metres long by two-metres wide – crammed with equipment and people looking out over the Yanqing alpine speed slope 10-storeys below.
When The Globe and Mail meets him, he’s just wrapped for the day, and as he’s packing his laptop up, workers rush in to restock water and other refreshments. Outside, technicians are repairing an escalator and equipment is being brought down from the top of the slope.
There’s a distinct after-hours feel at the venue, even though its only around 4 p.m. local time. Most people went home with the athletes and spectators, including the People’s Liberation Army soldier who stands at attention outside Nakagawa’s studio every day during events. (It’s “definitely the most guarded” he’s ever been, Nakagawa notes.)
For those who haven’t thought much about how music at a sporting event is handled – so, most people – flying someone to Beijing from Aspen might seem strange, but DJing at competitions like this is a specific skill, and Nakagawa is one of the best: he’s been the in-house DJ for the X-Games since 2002.
“It’s not like DJing a nightclub or a wedding, where the point is to get people to dance,” he said. “What we do is try to provide a soundtrack to the story that’s unfolding in front of us.”
Sometimes that means choosing tracks to ramp up the tension, or to signify to spectators – who often can’t see the entirety of a course, especially at winter events – when a big moment is about to take place.
“Once they’re at the start gate, we bring the music down so you can hear them do the countdown, and the second they drop through that gate, boom, there’s a new track and it’s got a ton of energy,” he said.
Up at Zhangjiakou, the mountain resort 150 kilometres from Beijing where most of the ski and snowboard events are being held, Aaron Markham, stage name DJ Trizz, is working the half-pipe.
“You want to have excitement, but don’t want to go too hard too soon, need to save enough tracks to put that cherry on top at the end,” he said. “If we do our job right, we shouldn’t really be noticed.”
People should be getting pumped without necessarily realizing why.
The right music is even more important at these Games, where there are only a few dozen spectators at any given event, and the atmosphere is often not exactly bursting with energy.
Plans to allow the public to attend the Beijing Olympics were dropped in January after a series of COVID-19 outbreaks across China, and only small numbers of guests have been invited from outside the bubble.
Markham said he feels for the athletes, “because there might not be as big a crowd reaction when they land a big trick or put down a big score, no thunderous roar that echoes around the venue.” But he tries to make up for this as much as he can.
Originally from Carbondale, Colo., Markham was brought into Olympic DJing by Nakagawa. He was working the bar and club scene in Aspen when the older DJ invited him to do some work for the X-Games.
“He kind of vouched for me and brought me into that world,” Markham said. Eventually the opportunity came up to do an Olympics and, “I said, hell yeah, I want to come.”
He started with the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016, which was “super different” to Beijing. Markham was working a “hellacious schedule,” waking up early to do music for the swimming, “but some of my colleagues were down in Copacabana every day, full-on party atmosphere.”
That isn’t the case this year. Like everyone else, Markham and Nakagawa are inside the “closed loop system,” the tightly policed anti-COVID bubble surrounding the Games, confined largely to their respective stadiums and hotels.
Up in the mountains, hours away from Beijing itself, neither DJ has even been able to visit the Bird’s Nest, the iconic stadium where the opening ceremony was held. They went straight to Yanqing and Zhangjiakou from the plane, and like the athletes, once their events wrap up, the DJs are expected to fly home immediately.
“From our spot we can see part of the Great Wall that’s lit up, right there within grasp, but can’t check it out,” Markham said. But neither DJ felt bitter about the arrangements; they knew what they were getting into with a pandemic-era Olympics.
“It’s fine, we’re here to do a job,” Markham said of the paid gig. “It’s always cool to experience culture and meet new people, but I wasn’t expecting that on this trip.”
And they haven’t been completely cut off from China. Nakagawa said he appreciated working with the local staff in Yanqing, squeezed into the booth with him above the ski slopes, even if they can often only communicate through translators.
“I’m working with some really amazing and talented Chinese people, and they’re really keen to learn from me, so it feels pretty good to, you know, get to leave a stamp like that,” he said.
He was especially appreciative that the local DJ is taking care of the most stressful part of all international sporting events: the victory ceremonies. “Knock on wood, it’s never happened to me, but the one thing you don’t ever want to screw up is to play the wrong national anthem,” Nakagawa said. “You might as well just pack your stuff up and leave if you do that.”
Markham said that it’s “been a great experience on my end with our local DJ. Super eager to learn the style and very helpful with what Chinese music the crowds will respond to.”
Not being able to hit the slopes is “definitely painful” though, he said. While at other winter events, DJs and other workers might use their off days to get some runs in. But only a few people other than the athletes are allowed to go down the competition slopes, which have man-made snow and are maintained at high cost.
“I almost brought my board,” Markham said. “Now I’m glad I didn’t, because if it was just sitting in the corner of my room, that would probably be even more painful.”
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