Part One: The Human Drama
--Jim Murray, who showed me how a professional sports columnist is supposed to do his job with his incomparable column in the LA Times;
--Jim McKay, who left us this year after gracing many Olympic Games with his knowledge, professionalism, and love of sports in general;
--and my father, who helped to kindle a lifelong love of sports by putting up with the seven year old who kept asking, "Was that a home run, Dad?" every time a batter fouled a ball over our seats in the blue deck behind home plate at Dodger Stadium. Thanks, Dad--I finally figured it out.
Technical note: I'm not going to hyperlink all of the events referenced here--the NBC Olympics site is here if anyone wants more specifics on the events I mention (or the ones I don't).
If I'd had a vote, I'd have sent the 2008 Summer Olympics somewhere else--maybe almost anywhere else that could have plausibly staged the Games without suffering a financial disaster of the kind that Montreal went through. I've still got issues with the Chinese government: big ones. If the balloon ever goes up in a war between China and Taiwan, I know whose side I'll be on, and it won't be Beijing's. On the other hand, I've got nothing against the Chinese people as a whole, and--speaking strictly from the Olympic angle--I have warm feelings towards the Chinese Olympic movement for helping to thwart the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles: an act that broke the string of failed Olympics that had started with the Munich Games in 1972 and which re-kindled the fire of the Olympic movement that has burned strong to this day. I'm less thrilled that the Chinese resorted to hiring unemployed East German coaches for their swimming program in the early 1990's to squeeze out some dubious medals at the Olympics and World Championships, but eh, bygones. The bottom line? Boycotts of the Olympics don't accomplish anything but harming athletes--like communism, one would think that people would get a clue after repeated, catastrophic failure. Ultimately, the Olympics will end, and the fact that several thousand athletes will perform before billions on TV won't keep critics of Chinese human rights policies from continuing to perform their good works. The Chinese government will find--as the Nazis ultimately did--that putting on a magnificent Olympic Games will not make any difference in the long run if they undertake courses of action that belie the beauty of their efforts during the Olympics.
OK, enough with the politics for the moment--on with the show.
The opening ceremonies were every bit the fantastic show most expected them to be--the Chinese outdid themselves in the now-traditional practice of the host nation telling the story of its history with performances and displays from its talented artists. After it was done, the athletes began to file into the stadium, and I settled down to watch. I almost titled this article "Pictogram Soup," because of the seemingly random order of the opening parade of nations (except for Greece in the traditional first position and China coming last as the host nation) produced by organizing them by the number of strokes used in the Chinese pictograms for each nation. The Chinese chose NBA star Yao Ming to carry their flag at the head of the huge Chinese Olympic team, and walking with him was a remarkable young man with a story that probably had even some of the most grizzled "get on with the sports" curmudgeons straightening up and listening.
When the athletes were all gathered in the infield of the stadium, the final part of the torch run began, and the progression was more or less normal (a procession of Chinese sports legends from the past and present) until the torch was passed to the final bearer--the legendary Chinese gymnast Li Ning. He was standing on a platform that was nowhere near any obvious lighting point or staircase, and I found myself wondering, "OK--what next?" The answer came quickly, as Li Ning took to the air on wires and began a journey around the upper rim of the stadium toward a huge torch that had--according to the NBC crew--not been there but half an hour before. Li Ning is almost 45 years old, and he was having to exert some considerable physical effort to stay upright and to not drop the torch as he zipped along--the man is obviously in great shape. Also, if word had leaked out to individuals who wanted to make some sort of point by disrupting the ceremony, he was pretty much a sitting duck to anyone who wanted to take a potshot at him and managed to get in position to do so. A brave man, and one who has my respect.
With the torch lit, the Games were opened--and the US woke up Saturday morning to terrible news from Beijing. It is sad to realize that if Todd Bachman and his wife had chosen to show no interest in the country that was hosting the Games--staying in the hotel when the actual events he was there to see weren't going on--he'd be alive and well today. With the death of the murderer by his own hand, we may never know what motives--if any coherent ones existed--were involved. It is important to realize that the Chinese certainly didn't want this to happen, and that Athens wasn't immune the actions of random lunatics either, as the attack on Brazilian marathon runner Vanderlei de Lima when he was in the lead late in the race proved. The Chinese--and Todd Bachman--were less lucky, and we should not dishonor the Bachman's choice to explore their host's nation by excessive criticism of the Chinese for the tragedy.
While some events--such as team sports--extend from the beginning of the Games to their end, the most notable division in the Summer Olymics is the staging of virtually all the swimming events in the first half of the competition, while the track and field events are staged in the second half, with the middle weekend serving as the transition between the two. While the swimming preliminaries moved along on Saturday, the early events in other sports began to play out--the US swept the women's saber event for its first three medals of the Games, and the cycling events began with a gold medal for Germany.
Sunday dawned, and the swimming finals--scheduled in the morning to accommodate US TV to the dismay of Janet Evans, among others--began with the first rung in Michael Phelps' quest for eight gold medals at these Games, the 400m individual medley. This was widely considered to be Phelps most challenging individual race, as his teammate Ryan Lochte had pressed him hard in the Olympic trials before finishing second, and Lochte was considered to be markedly superior to Phelps in the breaststroke--one of the four swimming disciplines required to complete the medley. This proved to be a mistaken assumption, as Phelps actually *gained* time on Lochte during the breaststroke leg as he powered on to a world record, with Laszlo Cseh of Hungary sneaking past Lochte for the silver medal. Later that morning, Park Tae-Hwan of South Korea gave his countrymen a moment of pride as he won the 400 meter freestyle to give South Korea its first swimming gold medal, Dara Torres continued her remarkable story by winning a silver medal in the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay at age 41, and Katie Hoff's effort to emulate Michael Phelps' versatility on the women's side of the competition got off to a solid start with a bronze medal in the 400m individual medley, finishing behind Stephanie Rice of traditional swimming powerhouse Australia and Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe (whose citizens could probably use a bit of good news right now). Finally, on Sunday night the Chinese faced up against the US in men's basketball and fought valiantly for the first two quarters before being overwhelmed 101-70 in what was almost certainly the most widely watched basketball game in history.
By the time Monday dawned in Beijing, the US was leading in the total medal count, but China--as is traditional for host nations--was outperforming its already formidable standard performance by scoring golds in sports they haven't been traditionally strong in along with their now-legendary dominance in the diving events. The swimming finals continued, with two being particularly memorable (not to slight Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, who became the first man to win the 100 meter breaststroke in consecutive Olympics--in world record time). The first of these was the women's 400 meter freestyle, which featured three swimmers who had beaten the existing Olympic record in the event set by Janet Evans in 1988 during the prelims. One of those swimmers was Katie Hoff, competing in her second individual event and going for her first gold. She was leading in the last moments of the race, but a last effort by Rebecca Adlington of the United Kingdom forced her to settle for the silver, with Joanne Jackson adding the bronze to the daily medal count for the Brits. The finish was close enough that the announcers thought Hoff had won the race until the electronic sensors confirmed the result--and the replay showed Adlington just edging out Hoff at the very last instant. It was a hint of what was to come later in the morning.
The signature event of the day was to be the men's 4 x 100 meter freestyle race--which had been traditionally dominated by the United States until the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney--when a powerful Australian team beat the US soundly, and an upstart South African team repeated the feat in 2004 in Athens. The expert view seemed to be that the US would taste defeat yet again this year: the French team contained three of the world's greatest 100 meter freestylers, and one of the members of the French team was indiscreet enough to say they would "smash" the Americans in the relay. Big mistake, pal.
Michael Phelps--who would need a gold in this event to keep his chances of eight golds in these Olympics alive--swam the first leg for the US, and while he broke the US record for the 100 meter freestyle with a time of 47.51 (only opening legs of a relay are eligible for unit distance records), he was well behind Eamon Sullivan of Australia--who shattered the 100 meter world record with a time of 47.24 seconds--when he handed off the swimming duties to Garrett Weber-Gale for the second leg. Weber-Gale gained considerable ground, passing the slower second leg swimmer for Australia by the end of his 100 meters to hand third leg US swimmer Cullen Jones a narrow lead.
Unfortunately for Jones, the faster French swimmers were in the back two legs, and in spite of Jones' valiant efforts the French were in the lead by almost a full body length when Alain Bernard--the man who had held the world record in the 100 meters only two minutes before and who had been the one foolish enough to brag about smashing the Americans--was freed to start the final leg of the relay, with veteran US swimmer Jason Lezak given the grim task of trying to take him down from behind.
The task looked hopeless, and Rowdy Gaines--doing color commentary for NBC--made it clear that he viewed it as such, as Lezak moved up against the lane marker and tried to keep up with Bernard as he churned along in the next lane. For the first fifty meters, the distance remained much the same. . .but after the turn--as the swimmers continued to leave the moving green "world record line" far behind them--Lezak gradually began to gain ground. Gaines noticed it about thirty meters from the finish and began shouting in excitement as the swimmers blazed along at world record pace. As the finish line appeared on the screen, Lezak was visibly pulling up beside Bernard. As with the women's 400 meter race, there was an instant of doubt at the moment the two swimmers touched the wall--both fully four seconds ahead of the existing world record in the event. The screen lit up: USA 1st, France 2nd. . .and after a moment, Australia 3rd. Gaines and his partner in the NBC booth erupted in shouts of joy, and even the most nitpicky professional broadcaster might have had trouble finding fault with them for it at that moment. Jason Lezak--faced with chasing down the world's greatest 100 meter swimmer with a full body length to make up--had completed his 100 meter swim in 46.06 seconds, the fastest 100 meter relay leg in history. Michael Phelps' quest for eight golds was alive and well, and the 4 x 100 meter freestyle gold had come home to the United States after eight years in exile.
The scary thing to realize is that for Michael Phelps, the hard part is over: the remaining events are ones in which he is a clear favorite as an individual, or which the US is expected to win with reasonable ease in the relays. Things can still go wrong, but if someone offers you even money to bet that Phelps pulls off the eight golds, it ain't a sucker bet. If he pulls it off, these will be remembered as his Olympics, but Jason Lezak will go down in history with Bullet Bob Hayes as someone who took over a relay with his team losing, and pulled off a miraculous individual performance to drag his team to victory--people will be watching the footage of that relay finish a century from now, if civilization persists.
Next time: swimming continues, along with gymnastics.