It's been five days since the Closing Ceremonies in Beijing, and I'm starting my four year withdrawal period (I don't particularly care for the Winter Games.) I love the Olympics, love them to a point that clearly beyond obsessive. The idealism, the pageantry, the grace and the controversies of the Games entertain, emblazon, irritate, and in ravage me. Nothing reduces me to putty more so than hearing the national anthem of whatever country (even the four times they showed a non-US winner.) A sense of national pride and just plain decency plays in my head-- the fact that the Games this year are directly followed by the party conventions makes the transition from elation to bitterness much harsher. The great thing about the Olympics, or the at least the great ideal of the Olympics is that for two weeks every four years, the world chills out, puts bickering (justified or otherwise) on the back burner and comes together-- swims, twirls, runs, etc., all decided by skill and talent, not bullying. Of course these are just ideals, but the grand 29th Olympiad in Beijing came pretty close to a gold standard.
There was a random tragedy-- the day after Chinese bred Zhang Yimou's (director of and House of Flying Daggers and Hero) grand Opening Ceremony in the strangely modern yet beautifully and appropriately epic track and field venue called the Bird's Nest-- where the United States' men's volleyball coach's family was randomly and fatally attacked. That's unsettling, but the unexpected gold medal victory of men's volleyball team proved even more layered and poignant toward the end of the Games because of it-- I was seriously crying my eyes out. Yet besides that and the never ending debate of the real ages of the female Chinese gymnasts (I stand back from that one sense gymnastics is one of my favorite events that never ceases from being the most dramatic of sports-- the judging issues, age concerns, drama, drama, drama-- I love it), the focus of the Beijing Games were squarely where they should have been-- on the Games themselves.
And they were illuminating; the first week of competition in the igloo like Water Cube housed the swimming events as world records fell and Michael Phelps became to most dominant person athlete ever. I got irritated at the never-ending analysis and booty kissing of Phelps, but the accomplishment is still mind-blowing (8 gold medals in 8 days-- eight being the lucky number of the Beijing Games) and the composure and humility exhibited by Phelps made all the human interest stories bearable. However, other swimmers were grand as well, without the fanfare, including Athens mainstays Natalie Coughlan and Aaron Piersol preserving a place in history and Jason Lezaik's triumphant relay swims (that first one left me breathless), and 41-year-old Dara Torres silver medal glory in the 50 meter. The awe factor was huge. Swimming concludes in the first week of competition and about that point the sad fact that the Games, my current obsession were half over lingered til the end, and permeates today.
Also in the Water Cube was the diving competition (one of the favorite), and the Chinese dynasty (as NBC kept referring to) was fully in charge winning seven of the eight gold medals. The only upset was Matthew Mitcham of Australia winning the 10 meter platform in a stunning surprise. Mitcham came into Beijing with much ado since before the Games her come out of the closet, becoming the only opening gay man in these Olympics. NBC received quite a bit of flak for denying him the human interest story (their favorite time filler) on him, and generally ignoring what was an incredible feat-- that last dive of his amazing, where he scored upwards of 100 points, a diving rarity. While I believe more attention should have been paid to his accomplishment, I think the lack of coverage from NBC probably had more to do with him being Australian, not American, not his sexual orientation, but perhaps that's just from the hopeless optimism the Games give me.
The gymnastics this year was compelling for the right reasons mostly, besides a newly instated scoring system that at least to an untrained eye like myself seems unfair to the athletes and a shift from the grace the sport always support to tricks of fancy for a higher score. But pride overcomes all nastiness and tension and the US mens team wins bronze and womens team wins silver-- the Chinese regime won double gold, but after all the analysis of the their treatment of the their gymnasts, I just kind of feel sorry for them, whatever age they really are. The dominant players were Nastia Liukin (that grace, that uneven bars tie, but most importantly and deservedly the all around champion, yay!) and Shawn Johnson (the plucky smiling powerhouse and thrice silver medalist finally got her deserved gold on the balance beam, yay!) and Jonathan Horton (silver medalist on high bar and constant team spirit- yay!) Whatever becomes of the Chinese women, the United States were terrific. (Tears roll down my face-- it's all over.)
Those were favorite highlights, but there was so much to gush about at the Beijing Games-- just tried to soak it all up and I've finally absorbed it all. The minor disappointment of some of the track races (wow Jamaica!), though we rebounded nicely in the 400 meter races and relays, the decathlon champ in Bryan Clay (the first for the US since 1996), the power and dominance of Misty May and Kerri Walsh in beach volleyball (the first team to defend and win at two consecutive Olympics), the great team sports display- triumphing in basketball (men and women), soccer (women), volleyball (men and silver for women), water polo (silver for both-- in amazing upsets.) Wow!
And so now the Games are over, and I have my memories that will soon fade, but this was a spectacular show. All the conflict and worries on China's part (pollution, human rights issues, crazy strain on their athletes) were deflected by the dynamic spectacle they provided. And while I'm writing these five days after the end has likely already put this in the realm of irrelevance, these Games as all of them were special and historic, and I needed to express that in words in order to move on. And that concludes my likely first and last post in the field of sports. See you in London.