BEIJING – After nearly 1,000 medals were handed out here, someone needed to provide a Cliffs Notes version on the real winners (and losers) of the 2008 Summer Olympics. We’re here to oblige, and yes, readers from around the world, this is an American-centric list. Deal with it.
With eight gold medals, seven world records, a possible $100 million in endorsements – and reports he’s hanging out with Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice – Phelps has redefined Olympic success.
Perhaps most impressive, he made Americans care about swimming. His race was appointment television at night and coffee-shop talk in the morning. The likelihood the Baltimore native achieves the goal of making swimming “more than a once-every-four-year sport” remains a long shot, although who wants to bet against him now?
LOSER – NBC
Because I was in China, I didn’t watch NBC’s coverage. I can only say from the flood of angry emails it hasn’t improved since the last time I was home for the games. Tape-delayed races, plausibly live coverage and covering up Chinese special effects for the Opening Ceremony, NBC is like the China Daily – a state-run propaganda newspaper – of American television.
If only everyone could get the feed for the Canadian Broadcast Company, which anyone in select American markets can attest does an exponentially better job of television coverage of the Olympics.
WINNER – Kobe Bryant
The two biggest surprises to come out of the redemption men’s basketball team was 1) the ease in which the U.S. dominated the competition to win gold and 2) the immense popularity of Kobe in China. Everywhere he went, he found adoring crowds, huge ovations and general rock-star treatment that not only dwarfed his teammates but also was at least the equal of national hero Yao Ming.
Not even in Los Angeles is Bryant this well received. Said Carmelo Anthony: “He ought to move here.”
LOSER – Liu Xiang
The Chinese hero was under enormous pressure to repeat gold in the 110-meter hurdles, an event he no longer dominates. He never even competed, pulling out due to injury before the preliminaries in an announcement that caused television reporters to cry on the air.
It was a devastating turn for Liu, whose likeness adorns advertisements across the country. While sympathetic Chinese journalists felt for Liu’s injury, many skeptical western ones questioned if it was just a face-saving measure. While only Liu knows for sure, it’s one of those clear cultural divisions in the world. Either way, the Olympics of Liu’s dreams turned into a nightmare.
WINNER – Hope Solo
A year ago, after she was benched in a Women’s World Cup game against Brazil, the U.S. goalkeeper ripped the decision, a move that tore apart her team and caused her temporarily to be separated from it. At the Olympics, she let her play do the talking, making a number of critical saves in a shutout of Brazil for the gold medal.
The entire U.S. women’s soccer team looked like it had entered a new era under positive coach Pia Sundhage. Solo is just the most obvious example.
LOSER – Ronaldinho
Soccer fans here were excited by the inclusion of the veteran superstar on the Brazilian men’s team, which, per Olympic rules, is mostly under 23. Once considered the best player in the world, Ronaldinho showed just how out of shape he is and looked a shell of his former self in a sad vision of how far and fast he has fallen. Very disappointing.
WINNER – Alicia Sacramone
Yes, she famously fell off the beam in the women’s gymnastics team finals and failed to medal in her only individual event final, the vault. She wasn’t too happy leaving Beijing.
However, the 20-year-old Brown University sophomore may wind up one of the breakout stars of the games. Even more than gold medalist teammates Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson. At least among male fans who help make her one of the most searched athletes of the Olympics.
Or as Deadspin.com put it: “Is Alicia Sacramone the New Anna Kournikova?”
Anna never won, either. She made a lot of money anyway.
LOSER – Softball
In losing the gold to Japan, the U.S. may have made the best case for softball to be saved from elimination from future Olympics. That’s an awfully big price to pay for something that may not even be enough.
WINNER – Usain Bolt
Track seemed all but dead a couple weeks ago. Then along came this flamboyant speedster out of Jamaica.
He won three gold medals and set three world records, all while electrifying fans around the globe. He wasn’t just fast; he was flashy, a personality, a 6-foot-5 game changer who simply gobbled up track with each stride.
There hadn’t been anything in track like him in years, and coming off an era of extreme doping, he couldn’t have come at a better time.
LOSER – Jacques Rogge
If you wonder why everyone calls the International Olympic Committee out of touch, consider that while most of the world was celebrating Bolt, the organization’s president decided he should use his considerable bully pulpit to rip him for supposed showboating.
Rogge is a classic stiff-collared bureaucrat. His organization has made billions off athletes such as Bolt for years, yet he has to find someone to pick on.
He’s deathly frightened of criticizing any major nation – such as China, which broke a hundred promises to him in staging these games. He wouldn’t dare mention any of the dozens of athletes from big countries whose celebrations were just as bold.
A single sprinter from a small, impoverished, powerless island nation? Sure, hammer away.
Fortunately, Bolt came back and didn’t change his act at all in winning his third gold in the 4×100 relay. Rogge will soon fade into obscurity for a while.
LOSER – Smog
In a beat down worse than the one the U.S. laid on Germany in men’s hoops, the Chinese government all but eliminated smog from Beijing during the games. Trees were planted, factories shuttered, construction sites quieted and cars removed from the streets in an effort to produce blue skies.
It was a slow start to the process. Early on, the clouds of pollution were almost incomprehensible. The Chinese originally tried to claim it wasn’t smog but that it was just “mist.” Only the China Daily, and perhaps NBC, would believe this.
“We got absolutely snuffed out,” said a spokesperson for the Smog Olympic Committee. “It was a tough games for us. We just couldn’t get the carbons together to form a cancerous cloud, trap heat and sear eyeballs.”
WINNER – Smog
Guess what, it’s coming back. How depressing will it be to a Beijing resident the next couple of weeks? The smoke stacks will be relit, the coal plants fired up, the cars will return. Slowly, the reverse of the above picture will occur.
One older Beijing resident claimed the city hadn’t looked this good in a decade. Newer arrivals remarked the town was actually pretty. Yeah, not for long.
China has claimed it will curb the problem, but how? And Western corporations, all too pleased to take advantage of lax environmental laws, are part of the problem, too.
China gets routinely and deservedly hammered for its human rights issues in Tibet and Darfur. The biggest human rights issue may be the cancer in the air that its own citizens must breathe.
On the beach, the Americans swept the men’s and women’s competitions. Indoor, the men won gold and the women won silver. Both did so while dealing with some level of tragedy from the stabbings of Todd and Barbara Bachman, the parents of former women’s player Elisabeth Bachman and the in-laws of men’s coach Hugh McCutcheon.
In the pool, the men surprisingly took silver and the women also won silver in a last-second loss.
WINNER – Cigarette smoke
Veteran readers of this column will note past criticism of Greek and Italian smokers, two medal contenders in the worldwide tobacco competition. At dinner, the Greeks smoke between bites. The Italians just never take it out of their mouths. (Smoking would be one of the more intriguing Summer Games events, although not as good as Russian Roulette, where gold really is the only option. Then there’s haggling at the Beijing silk market, where I’d have a shot to medal.)
Anyway, the Chinese appear to be far behind on cigarettes. It was mostly clean breathing (so to speak) around here.
LOSER – Chinese coffee
Good tea here. Coffee, not so much. I’m dying for a Dunkin’ Donuts large black. Not four ounces of warm, darkened water. The Big One.
WINNER – Ara Abrahamian
Yes, sportsmanship and all declares that protesting a scoring decision by throwing your bronze medal down and storming off isn’t good form. Then again, who hasn’t wished they could do the same on occasion. The Swedish Greco-Roman wrestler inspired every take-this-job-and-shove-it wannabe around the world.
That’s a winner enough for us. And that was before an arbitration court ruled in his favor.
LOSER – Angel Matos
The Cuban taekwondo athlete was so angered at his disqualification from a bronze medal match, he deliberately booted the referee in the face. Yeah, that’s a little much. Matos and his coach were banned for life. Not sure how there could be an appeal.
WINNER – Beijing organization
Considering the ability of the government to relocate people, build whatever infrastructure was necessary and control everything from private industry to dinner menus to traffic, there will probably never be a better tactically run games than these.
As long as you didn’t consider how it got done, working in Beijing was a breeze. The venues were modern and close, and the organization was sophisticated and smart. On this point, London and everyone else has its work cut out for it.
WINNER – Living in Beijing
Once the smog cleared, Beijing was tremendous. One of the best parts of covering an Olympics is you don’t see the host city as a tourist. You come here to live and work for a month, and while you’re obviously never a real local, you tend to get a little deeper into the place.
You learn how the subway works. You figure out a bus route. You have regular restaurants. We lived at Beijing Normal University, on the near northwest side of town, between Second and Third Ring Roads. It is surrounded by a real neighborhood, and over the course of nearly a month we met store owners, waiters, bartenders, cooks, security guards and local residents. We’d see them on the street and stop and chat.
The food was incredible and beyond cheap. The service was impeccable. And this neighborhood near “Bay-Shoe-Dah” was a tremendous place to live for a stretch.
WINNER – Chinese People
Nowhere in the world have I encountered friendlier people. Nowhere. Perhaps it was Olympic pride. Perhaps I was just an easily identifiable American with a press badge. It didn’t matter. The Chinese people wanted me to think well of them and their emerging country, and it is quite clear that this nation’s greatest resource is its citizens.
From the woman in the earthquake refugee camp who, despite having nothing, offered me a small, simple glass of water as a sign of hospitality. To the army of volunteers, forever smiling even when given the lowest of tasks such as sorting garbage in the cafeteria. The lasting memory for me from these games will be the Chinese people.
Their government has issues (as do all governments). It didn’t live up to what it said it would here. There is a great fear of China in the western world because people here will work for wages unlivable anywhere else and because of a natural suspicion of the Communist party.
No doubt, the challenges here are immense. If allowed, the Chinese people might be good enough to solve them.