These Games were unprecedented – but what was real and what was illusion?

[23 August 2008]

By Joe Posnanski

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

BEIJING - There’s a famous Chinese saying, first spoken by the old revolutionary Deng Xiaoping, that people here repeat all the time. It goes like this: “Whether the cat is black or white makes no difference. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.”

Deng was, at the time, referring to China’s economic policy, but years later it serves as the perfect quote to sum up the Beijing Olympic Games. Nobody is quite sure if these Olympics have been a black or white cat. Nobody is quite sure what’s real, what’s make believe, what’s inspirational, what’s computer generated, what’s a triumph of the human spirit and what’s a testament to the capacity of human deception. These have been a wonderful and baffling Olympics, all at the same time.

One thing we do know: These Olympics caught mice. More people across the world watched these Olympics than ever before. And never before has a nation put on such a show. From a gravity-bending Opening Ceremony to Michael Phelps’ dramatic effort to win eight golds to Usain Bolt’s stunning and light-hearted show of speed to the astounding dominance of Chinese athletes, these Olympics flowed with the sort of precision and force usually associated with military invasions.

The largest band of volunteers in Olympic history - estimates ranged from the official 100,000 to speculation of more than one million - scattered throughout the city, doing everything from holding umbrellas over people’s heads to standing in front of trash receptacles and collecting garbage to lingering outside of rest rooms so they could spray after each user. Soldiers stood at rapt attention on almost every street corner. Busses crisscrossed Beijing in a frightening but perfectly timed square dance.

Friendliness reigned. Then again, friendliness was law. Spitting was outlawed. Dissenters were silenced. There were flashing signs at Tiananmen Square that read: “The Police Reminds You To Smile.”

What was real? Make believe? Show business? It was never easy to tell. The heart-grabbing highlight of the Opening Ceremonies may have been when a beautiful 9-year-old girl named Lin Miaoke sang “Ode to the Motherland.” Tears streamed down people’s faces at the Bird’s Nest Stadium as Lin sang. A few days later, it was revealed that she did not actually sing, she mimed the words, and another girl, 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, had actually provided the voice. The music director said Yang’s appearance had been ruled out because of her crooked teeth.

During those stirring ceremonies, 56 children representing the 56 ethnic groups of China marched out, a heartwarming show of unity, a symbol of the way the world’s largest nation came together for the Olympics Games. Later, it was announced, that the 56 children were not, in fact, from 56 ethnic groups. They were mostly from the biggest ethnic group, Han Chinese. The official statement was that this was no big deal, that they were merely REPRESENTING the different ethnic groups, they did not have to actually be PART of those different ethnic groups.

Was this a black cat or white?

The sports themselves provided little clarity. When the Chinese women’s gymnasts won their first-ever team gold, there were immediate and angry accusations and allegations that they were too young. To be eligible, a gymnast must turn at least 16 in the Olympic year. There was worldwide speculation - but especially in the United States, which had won silver - that some of the Chinese gymnasts (especially a very young-looking He Kexin) were at least two years underage. This led to indignant responses from the Chinese, who produced passports that, they said, proved their point. The International Olympic Committee, having let the argument rage unchecked for more than a week, finally ordered an investigation that nobody expects to settle anything.

There was Jamaican sprinter Bolt, the most startling athlete of these or perhaps any other Games. He not only won the 100 and 200 meters and anchored the winning 4x100 relay, but he set world records in all three, the first time that has ever happened. And even that was not the most amazing part - half the time he seemed to be coasting and dancing (IOC president and stick-in-the-mud Jacques Rogge admonished him for his exuberant celebrations).

What a story. Bolt very clearly checked up near the finish line in his 100-meter dash and he still set the world record. This would be like hitting a 500-foot homer on a check swing. Then, his father gave credit for Usain’s speed to the yams he ate in Jamaica. It was all quite literally unbelievable, and within minutes of his first astonishing race, rumors raged about an unchecked steroid program running rampant in Jamaica, a rumor made louder when the Jamaican women swept gold, silver and bronze in their 100-meter dash. Of course, there was no real proof, and no positive drug tests, and little more than cynicism driving the doubts. Then, it is hard not to be cynical in today’s sports world.

“It is very painful to be asked this,” Ukranian Lyudmila Blonska said softly after she won her silver medal in the heptathlon. A reporter was asking about her previous two-year suspension for steroid use. She looked genuinely hurt by the question.

“I don’t think you have to ask it at this moment,” she said through sadness and a translator. “Now everything is in the past. I’m not ashamed and those who think I should not be here should look at themselves. It was a mistake in my life, and I have managed to prove that I can compete again. And I am competing.”

Six days later, Blonska had her medal stripped and was kicked out of the Olympics for testing steroid positive again. Blonska promptly blamed her husband.

What to believe? What to mistrust? A German reporter walked over one day to ask how Americans view the story of Baltimore’s Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals. I said that people are generally in awe of Phelps’ dolphin-like skill in the water, his 12,000 calorie a day diet, his preposterous work ethic, his almost superhuman ability to recover, his single mother who made it all possible and so on. The reporter nodded and said, “In Germany, everyone believes he is on drugs.”

“Everyone?” I asked.

“Of course. How is this possible otherwise? How can one man be so good?”

This is the weary sports world we have created. We crave the unprecedented and doubt it when we see it. This is the new formula. Michael Phelps took part in “Project Believe,” in which he took even more drug tests than required. Then he won a record eight gold medals, one more than swimmer Mark Spitz in 1972.

He won five individual races, and in four of those he set world records (in the fifth, he merely set an Olympic record). He was part of three Olympic relay golds, including the incredible 400-meter relay when relay anchor Jason Lezak chased down France’s Alain Bernard - soon to be the Olympic champion - and beat him to the wall. All three of those relays were world-record times too.

It wasn’t just Phelps breaking records either - swimming world records kept falling, seemingly every race, 24 of them in all, by far the most ever for a single Olympics. This may have been part illusion, too. Most swimmers used the new, technologically advanced Speedo LZR suit, which is supposed to offer less resistance under water than any other swimsuit. And the pool at the Water Cube was deeper than most and was proudly called “the fastest pool in the world,” by Olympic organizers.

As Mark Spitz told ESPNews: “Did anybody measure the pool?”

So, was this a black cat or white? There were inspirational stories, of course. Every Olympics has them. There was 33-year-old gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, who became the oldest in a half-century to win a gymnastics medal when she took silver in the vault. She had stayed competitive as a gymnast to pay the medical bills of her son, Alisher, who had been diagnosed with leukemia. “This medal is for my son,” she said.

South African swimmer Natalie du Toit competed in the open water 10k swim marathon. Anyone willing to swim six miles in open water, with all the flailing around, is already pretty impressive. Du Toit also had her left leg amputated after a motorcycle accident seven years ago. She finished 16th. “I am not a campaigner,” she told reporters. “It’s just my personal dream.”

Japanese softball pitcher Yukiko Ueno had thrown more than 300 pitches in the day leading up to her gold-medal matchup against the seemingly unbeatable United States team. She had thrown nine innings against the United States and 12 innings against Australia, and there seemed no way she could hold up against an American team that had set the Olympic record for home runs. Instead, she dominated, allowing only one run as Japan stunned the U.S. team in what may be the last Olympic softball game.

Three years ago, American boxer Deontay Wilder quit school to support his daughter, who had been born with spina bifida. He walked into a boxing gymnasium, and three years later he won a bronze medal in the heavyweight class - the only American boxing medal of the Olympics. “Just remember me,” he said. “I’m going to be heavyweight champion of the world someday.”

There were some lousy stories too; every Olympics also has those. A Cuban taekwondo athlete named Angel Matos was banned for life after he responded to his disqualification by kicking a referee in the face, perhaps a bit of an overreaction. American boxer Demetrius Andrade rushed out of the ring before the referee could even lift the arm of the victor. Here’s a strange one: Four show horses were suspended because a derivative of chili peppers was applied to their skin to treat injuries.

And here’s an even stranger one: Chinese hurdler, Liu Xiang - whose face is plastered on Nike billboards all over Beijing - pulled out of his event with an injury and without clearing even one hurdle. There was something fishy about it all; Xiang had not competed in months, he had not made many public appearances, he did not even appear in the press conference after he pulled out.

This led to perhaps the strangest story of the Games. Shortly after Xiang’s non-race, an anonymous web-poster alleged that Nike - which has a huge investment tied up in Xiang - prompted him to pull out because they felt he was going to lose, and they wanted to protect their star.

Well, the Nike people went crazy. They immediately announced that they had asked the Chinese government to “investigate those that started the rumor.” In other words, Nike seemed to be working with a government that has a long history of suppression and censorship (and has been promising to break away from that past) to find someone who wrote a nasty rumor. Later, Nike seemingly backed off a little bit. But the Liu Xiang story remains as baffling as anything else at these Games.

Finally, of course, there’s the story of China, perhaps the cloudiest story of all. There’s no doubt that the hope was to use the Olympic Games to introduce a new China to the world. And they have done that. These Olympics have drawn raves from all over the world.

Of course, that all came at a price: The government spent more than $40 billion to build new stadiums, arenas and infrastructure. Dissidents were moved out. Visas were refused to those who might cause trouble. Everything had to be perfect. The world had to be impressed. Protests were shoved into out-of-the-way “Protest parks,” where almost no one would see them. Certain Internet sites were blocked or delayed. The smog that blocked the sky the first few days of the Olympics was officially called “haze.”

“This is a political question,” an English interpreter said in a panicked voice when we wanted to ask the volleyball players “Geor” and “Gia” if they had talked with family and friends back in Georgia after the skirmish with Russia began. “I don’t want to ask this.”

On the other hand, surely some good came of it, too. China opened its country like never before, showed off its beauty and history and the warmth of the people. A lasting memory will be of standing on top of the Great Wall of China with Steven Zeng, a tour guide, and hearing him talk about his 3-year old daughter. He said he taught her to memorize quotes from Confucious. And he promised to take her to Disneyland.

In the end, China put on the most impressive Olympic Games of them all. Nobody knows what will happen here once the world leaves and the nation must deal with the debts owed after the horrible earthquake in Sichuan province, and the water and food issues that are always at the surface for a nation of more than 1.3 billion.

And nobody can say if it these Olympics are a black cat or white. One final story: I was reading the newspaper “China Daily,” which is published by the government and, as such, gives the government’s opinion. Early in the Olympics, five people protested for Tibetan Independence in Tiananmen Square. As you might imagine, that’s not how the paper reported it. Instead the story went like so: “Chinese people condemned and protested against five foreigners for formenting ‘Tibetan Independence’ at Tiananmen Square yesterday noon.”

The story went on to say all five were arrested and taken away. The story ended with the line: “Tiananmen Square returned to normal soon afterwards.”

Returned to normal. That seemed like one way to sum up China. But nothing is that simple. I showed the story to a young woman from China and asked her what she thought of it. She smiled and said: “Nobody believes this. These are new days.”

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