Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008

Beijing Games chock full of memorable moments


Column, The Japan Times

Many thoughts formed in my head before I left a piece of my heart in China and returned to Tokyo with a lifetime of memories. Here are some of them:

Never underestimate the kindness of strangers in a foreign land. They’ll often be the nicest people you’ll ever meet, helping you take a taxi, order lunch, find a larger T-shirt size for your best friend’s child, etc.

The Chinese have a great capacity for kindness, and this wasn’t just a mandate from the government, or a well-organized tactic to impress the world during the Summer Olympics. Hundreds of smiles greeted me every day while I was in Beijing, and if I return next year, those smiles will still be there.

During my three weeks in Beijing I made friends each day, people of all ages and from all corners of the earth. We all shared a common interest: participation in the XXIX Olympiad in numerous ways — stopping at a souvenir stand to add a pin to the collection, snapping photos of the sparkling Water Cube after dark or conversing with someone who has a strange accent, but only strange from the outset, while waiting in line for the next shuttle bus.

The future of China won’t be about its one-party political system or the old guard of leaders who have clung to power under President Hu Jintao. Its future, rather, will be about those who truly came of age — on a personal level and a unified front — during the Olympics.

Commend the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who worked together for a common goal: to stage a successful Olympics.

This remarkable group worked for seven years to make this happen. For the next seven years, thousands of them will finish college, start families and take simple steps to make China a better nation, and they will do so with a smile on their face and better understanding of the similarities between all people rather than the foolish notion that “Western culture is evil” or “Our way is the only way.”

IOC president Jacques Rogge issued one of the stupidest statements of all time when he scolded the 100-and 200-meter gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt by saying, “That’s not the way we perceive being a champion.”

Rubbish, Jacques.

Bolt shattered two individual world records in the same week. He earned the right to celebrate in his own harmless — and incredibly crowd-pleasing — way. And then he did so with his teammates after Jamaica’s record-breaking 4×100-meter relay.

Second-place finisher Milorad Cavic, who was edged by Michael Phelps by .01 of a second in the men’s 100-meter butterfly final (Phelps’ seventh gold of the Beijing Games) will be remembered by the full room of reporters for his honesty, sense of humor and an ability to articulate his feelings in a way that few athletes can if they faced the same situation.

The decathlon may not be as prestigious as it was in 1912 when Sweden’s King Gustav V proclaimed Jim Thorpe was the world’s greatest athlete, but it’s still a fantastic competition to watch.

Nevertheless, American Bryan Clay performed magnificently over two days at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. He just happened to be overshadowed by Bolt and Phelps and hundreds of Chinese Olympians.

The overwhelming sense of joy the Olympics brought to Chinese people will be the driving force for a better future in the country. That much is certain.

The world has a new favorite diva: Gao Jingjing, China’s glamorous gold medalist diver. Her effort was nothing short of superb at the Water Cube. Play back her dives in slow motion and you’ll see the closest thing to pure poetry in motion since Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s string of perfect 10s at the 1976 Montreal Games.

After his tearful exit from the 2008 Summer Games, Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang’s comeback will be followed more closely than any athlete’s in the history of mankind. Only Muhammad Ali’s return to the ring in the 1970s attracted similar attention.

Kobe Bryant’s transformation is complete. In China, the oft-despised basketball superstar earned millions of new admirers. He didn’t play second fiddle to LeBron James in Beijing, but he didn’t hog the spotlight, either. Kobe bought into Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team-first approach, and by doing so he set the right example.

Kobe made the Olympic experience look like the best days of his life.

Tyson Gay, Michael Phelps and others shared stories about their joy in meeting Kobe and the simple pleasure of talking to another elite athlete.

Finally, Kobe gets it.

There are moments when the power of love transcends the mundane events of our daily lives. This we witnessed when German super-heavyweight lifter Matthias Steiner held his gold medal in his right hand and a photograph of his late wife, Susann, who died in a car crash in 2007, in his left hand.

The pure emotion in that photograph cannot be duplicated. It’ll stand the test of time as one of sports’ iconic images.

I also can’t stop thinking about the rush of adrenaline more than 90,000 humans shared on Aug. 8, when we left the Bird’s Nest. There was a magical buzz in the air as we looked forward to the next day’s competitions after the stunning Opening Ceremony.

Furthermore, insomnia has never been as common on the same day; we stayed awake counting down the minutes until the action began on Aug. 9. And then it began.

Phelps gave us eight extraordinary performances in the 17-day extravaganza and Lightning Bolt gave us three more.

Here are three more:

China’s men’s gymnasts, led by Yang Wei (individual all-around gold) captured the gold medal in the team competition, displayed incredible pride in their country and their athletic ability and delighted the crowd with their feats on the rings, pommel horse, etc.

South Korea’s baseball team proved again that upsets occur in every Olympiad. Cuba, Japan and the United States all had their chances, but none of them played with more heart, hustle and smarts than the South Koreans.

Mongolian judoka Tuvshinbayar Naidan received his nation’s first-ever gold medal in the Summer Olympics. Other nations, big and small, celebrated similar historic feats in Beijing, and each time it was a pleasure to hear about the planned parties in the winners’ homelands or to see the impromptu dancing in the streets, as well as to share the celebratory toasts of Tsingtao beer (or champagne) with strangers at Beijing’s nightspots after another day of sensational sports.

Three thousands more images and memories will swirl in my mind’s eye before the day is over, far too many for a single column, but a grand collection for any yearlong conversation. (Pull up a seat and the chat can begin.)

And by the way, the one-hour wait for Peking duck was well worth it.