August 25, 2008
New Exposure, Still Old Concerns: Beijing Games End
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
It began with low expectations, and it ends with good feelings and questions over whether or not China really benefited to the fullest.
The human rights issues regarding China will not go away, nor will the world's consternation over them. President Bush said that no matter how you perceive the Chinese, we must maintain a dialogue with them. Still, if these Games were meant to cast China in a different light, it's doubtful that much has changed over these last seventeen days. To paraphrase a famous local coaching icon, they are who they are.
That said, the Games by themselves went well. Beijing and its surroundings provided some very nice pictures to look at on your HD flatscreen. Usual sour grapes and controversies aside, the XXIX Olympic Summer Games will go down as memorable and momentous on several fronts. Despite the home Chinese winning the most Gold Medals, the USA managed to grab the most overall.
We thus leave Beijing with these ten most vivid memories of the 2008 Summer Games:
You are all aware of the meltdown suffered by not one, but both USA 4X100 relay teams. Tyson Gay and Lauryn Williams will be labeled as goats by some, as both were involved in the fatal baton drops which doomed both squads in the qualifying rounds. In the case of Williams, this is doubly painful given that she suffered a similar mishap in 2004 at Athens by flubbing a pass from Marion Jones. NBC excoriated the two squads, blaming the leadership of the USA Track and Field team, or lack thereof. With all due respect to the otherwise nice job of broadcasting by Tom Hammond and Ato Boldin, they are way off base. First of all, it was raining out, the batons were slippery, and other teams DQ'ed as well due to bad passes. Second, and most important, even if USA had made the finals in either race, there was no way that they would beat the Jamaicans. Usain Bolt, who looks like Terrell Owens and runs like Randy Moss, culminated one of the most dynamic Olympic performances in recent memory with world records in the 100, 200 and this relay race. The Jamaican women suffered a drop in the final and DQ'ed also, but Veronica Campbell-Brown would have laid any USA woman to rest had she had a chance to finish the race. Like it or not, Jamaica ruled the sprint races in Beijing, and USA perhaps saved themselves greater embarrassment by not having to go against Jamaica head-to-head in the finals. By the way, Lolo Jones and Jeremy Warriner were both lambasted for failing in their finals, but nobody noticed that in those races, the Gold Medal went to Americans (Dawn Harper in the 100-meter hurdles, LaShawn Merritt heading up a sweep for the USA in the 400-meters). All that seemed to matter was that the heavy USA favorites failed, and once again the Track and Field leadership was to blame. The USA led all with seven Golds and 23 total medals in track and field. What's the problem here?
In 2004, you found yourself rooting against the USA men's basketball team because you simply did not like them. To a lesser extent, 2008's version of this was perhaps 400-meter star Sanya Richards, and only if you claim allegiance to the New England Patriots. An otherwise engaging (no pun intended, read on) and very likeable lady, she is engaged to Aaron Ross, defensive back for the New York Giants. For you the Patriot fan, you had to be sick and tired of NBC constantly bringing up her engagement to Ross, a former first-round draft pick out of Texas. Ross, who started Super Bowl XLII for the Giants at left cornerback, had one tackle, one assist and no passes defended in the 17-14 win over the Patriots. Every interview with Richards managed to bring in Ross, and even Bob Neumeier, a well-known Boston media personality, mentioned the Patriots specifically in one chat with Richards. Richards pulled up lame in the 400-meter final and settled for a Bronze Medal, but redeemed herself in the 4X400 relay, anchoring the team in winning a Gold Medal by running down the Russian anchor in an impressive manner at the finish. Where Patriot fans are concerned, here's to many years of happiness for Richards and Ross, but let's hope Sanya's fifteen minutes are over and that Ross fares a little more poorly next time he faces the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Michael Phelps will go down as the most iconic figure of these Games, and the debate has begun as to where he stands in the history of the Olympic Games. Eight Gold Medals in eight races bested Mark Spitz and his bonanza in Munich in 1972 by one. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Phelps was his continued having to answer all the media questions which after a while became variations of much the same thing. What are your emotions right now? How did you do it? It got to the point where you literally ran out of questions to ask him, never mind Phelps running out of answers. NBC did manage to get Spitz and Phelps together (Spitz was via satellite from Detroit) and talk to each other. Even that was difficult, as Bob Costas asked Spitz two incredibly loaded questions which were very hard to answer, and even when they were asked to provide testimonials to each other, both had to measure their words and found it difficult to articulate their feelings without accidentally saying the wrong thing. Sometimes it's better to just let the moment speak for itself, and with Phelps getting his eighth Gold Medal, there wasn't anything new or compelling for Phelps to say. It was a moment that simply needed no embellishing whatsoever.
One area where China scored big in was at beach volleyball. While Kerri Walsh, Misty May-Treanor, Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser were winning Gold Medals for the Americans, the Chinese Bikini Team (take that, Sweden) were winning Gold Medals in keeping the crowd entertained during time outs. Some of you may not be used to seeing Chinese women in this role. Xue Chen, one of the Bronze Medallists, looked perhaps better than anyone in their beach volleyball uniform. But those dancers stole the show. They go down as the most beautiful women in these Olympics. If the NFL ever expands into China some day, getting cheerleaders is so not a problem.
The biggest heart tug happened right at the start of the Games. A random attack by some crazed Chinese worker took the life of Todd Bachman, father-in-law of USA men's volleyball head coach Hugh McCutcheon. McCutcheon, who is married to Elizabeth Bachman, a former USA women's volleyball player, missed the first three matches so he could deal with this tragedy. Bachman's mother, Barbara, was also injured but is expected to recover. In the ultimate of inspirational sports, McCutcheon's charges closed out these Games by defeating Brazil in four sets to claim the first medal of any kind since Seoul in 1988. Usually the focus is on the athletes and not those who coach them, but in this case all attention was focused on McCutcheon, who is still visibly distraught over the loss of his father-in-law when the subject is broached. It won't bring Bachman back, but this Gold Medal, though not the most historic, may have been the sweetest of all the Golds harvested by the Americans in these Olympics.
Both baseball and softball are being dropped from the Olympics, and both will petition to be reinstated for 2016. Dropping softball is totally idiotic; the rationale that the USA is too strong looked pretty silly when they lost the Gold Medal game to Japan, 4-1. Baseball is another story. The World Baseball Classic of 2006 proved that professionals can compete in this kind of forum. You'd have David Ortiz playing for the Dominican Republic, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima playing for Japan, and perhaps Jason Bay playing for Canada. But that's not the problem. To make this happen, MLB would have to take a sabbatical during the season in an Olympic year like the NHL does. But there is too much money and too many egos which would need to be satisfied so that the best baseball talent would make it to the Games. The IOC even proposed to let the USA (and perhaps other teams which feature MLB players) skip pool play and go right to the medal rounds. Don't look for any breakthrough here any time soon, as Donald Fehr and his minions will likely never allow anything like this to happen.
Gee, does NBC miss doing NBA games? During every one of the men's basketball telecasts, you were taken back in time when Michael Jordan ruled the NBA and Marv Albert was more famous for biting women than for yelling "Yessssssss!" You had Mike Breen on loan from ESPN, two months removed from telling the world about the Celtics winning their seventeenth NBA title. You had his last analyst with NBC, former Olympian Doug Collins (Mike "Czar of the Telestrator" Fratello worked mostly with Albert), who was a central figure in the odious 1972 loss to the Soviets in Munich. You even had the NBA on NBC music instead of the tradition Olympic music at commercial breaks. It's nice that the IOC did manage to come up with Gold Medals for the winners instead of another Larry O'Brien Trophy. No shame here for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the victorious Redeem Team, but NBC did its best to make you think it was ten years ago and MJ was ready to bury a J for another NBA title.
Phelps' amazing feat is what it is, but there's another American who deserves our adulation for something really special. Lisa Leslie won her fourth Gold Medal as the USA women defeated Australia in the final. She brought with her to the Gold Medal game all her previous three Gold Medals, the first being the one won in Atlanta, and the game which helped put the WNBA on the map. Leslie, now a married mother of a young daughter, has been the figurehead of women's basketball as long as she has been in it, and is arguably the best woman player in history. She is an erudite and radiant woman who also dabbles in modeling. But she is also an impeccable role model who works especially well with younger up and coming players. Leslie retires from the Olympics with this latest win, and her four Gold Medals puts her in the highest pantheon of Olympic greats in USA history.
Talk about a totally and completely reprehensible act, the reaction of being disqualified by Cuban taekwondo athlete Angel Matos ranks as perhaps as the lowest point of these Games which didn't involve loss of human life. In the Bronze medal match against Arman Chilmanov of Kazakhstan, Matos was leading the match when he was hurt and required a bit of time to address the injury. The injury time limit was one minute, after which the athlete must return to the ring or retire from the match. The minute lapsed, and referee Chakir Chelbat awarded the match to Chilmanov. The Cubans came out to protest, but Matos landed a kick to the mouth of Chelbat. He had to be escorted off the mat by security. Matos and his coach were banned from all future competitions by the ruling taekwondo powers, and his Olympic records were all expunged from the records. The attack on Chelbat, which was shown on television worldwide, was both shocking and disgusting. The punishments handed down to Matos may have been too lenient, as Chelbat could very well seek criminal charges. The Games can evince angry and hostile emotions, but you almost never see it carried to this extreme.
Finally, Beijing did a nice job with these Games, but they didn't come away completely unscathed. Two very timely cloudbursts during the first week took care of any concerns over pollution and high humidity. The marathon runs and bike races which went up to the Great Wall gave us a glimpse of a scenic China we never knew existed. But things are still what they are in China, and you will never be fully assured that those female gymnasts aren't really in some elementary school instead of high school. In a somewhat different vain, why was Yao Ming hailed as the greatest Chinese athlete and allowed to march in with the flag given all the hubbub over the injury to 110-meter hurdle icon Liu Xiang? His Achilles heel injury which took him out of the one event all of China wanted him to see (much like Cathy Freeman in Australia in 2000 and Fany Halkia in Athens in 2004). It was viewed as a national disaster, as opposed to very little made of Yao and his basketball team being waylaid by the USA in the basketball opener. China did run an efficient Games (which IOC president Jacques Rogge called "most exceptional" at the closing ceremony instead of "best ever", like what happened at Atlanta in 1996), but the controversy still rages on over the gymnasts, and at press time, is still an ongoing investigation.
The world bade farewell to Beijing on Sunday night. In four years, the world will descend upon London, and there's a good chance Queen Elizabeth II will still be alive to see these Games as she was in 1948 when her father, King George VI welcomed the Games to the mother country back then. Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, Westminster Abbey and Hyacinth Bucket (you know her only if you watch PBS) will welcome the Games with open arms. From Tianenman Square to Buckingham Palace, it will be a radical shift from one culture to another.
Until then, cheerio, tally ho and pip pip!
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