Friday, August 15, 2008


The Chinese people have very good reason to celebrate how the Olympic Games have gone so far - and what they mean for the world’s most populous nation.

One week into the XXIX Olympiad, the games have been as good as any in memory. The Opening Ceremony was one of the most extraordinary and moving in Olympic history. The Chinese government and the games organizers banished any fears that the ceremony would be hijacked into some kind of distasteful, jingoistic boastfulness.

The lighting of the Olympic flame by veteran Chinese Olympic gymnast Li Ning - hoisted on wires above the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and then racing while supported on his wires 360 degrees around an unfurling scroll - was the most extraordinary in Olympic history. It was watched by an estimated 2 billion people - almost one-third of the human race.

And the scene of China‘s world-famous flag-bearer, 7-foot-6-inch basketball star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets, walking around the stadium hand in hand with Lin Hao, a 9-year-old boy who not only survived the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake when his school collapsed but had gone back to rescue two of his friends, celebrated the very humanism, generosity of spirit and sheer decency that the Olympic movement is meant to embody.

The games so far remain mercifully unblemished by terrorism, tragedy or scandal. Their first week, as usual, has been dominated by the swimming events, and these already have made it one of the greatest games to remember and cherish.

American swimmer Michael Phelps won six gold medals to add to the six he won in the 2004 Athens Olympics. He already is the winningest gold medalist in Olympic history and still has the opportunity to win two more golds this weekend. That would put him ahead of the immortal Mark Spitz, who won seven swimming golds for the United States and set seven world records in the 1972 Munich Olympics - a record that looked impossible to match, let alone exceed.

Nor has Mr. Phelps been the only golden story of these games. Stephanie Rice of Australia has had a dream Olympiad too: She won three swimming golds and set world records in three events.

Japan’s great swimmer, Kosuke Kitajima, won the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke races for the second Olympics in succession - a feat that has never before been achieved.

And let’s not forget Tuvshinbayar Naidan of Mongolia, who won gold in the 100-kilogram - 220-pound - judo competition: It was the first gold medal the nation of Mongolia has ever won.

The impact of pollution on the outdoor track and field events has yet to be seen.

One widely held fear proved unfounded: While the equestrian events down in Hong Kong are still under way, the most physically grueling one of all, the three-day event, was successfully held without the heat and humidity causing any undue harm or pressure to horses or riders. The superlative air-conditioned facilities especially designed for the games had a lot to do with that.

There was even an Olympic happy-ending story at the Hong Kong equestrian events.

The German team was robbed of the team and individual eventing medals on a vastly inflated technicality in the 2004 games - German Olympic champion Bettina Hoy accidentally crossed a starting line twice.

This time around, Germany won both golds clean and square, with American Gina Miles providing a Cinderella story by surpassing all expectations and taking the silver.

For the Chinese people, the opening ceremony of the games was a cathartic eruption of joy. It was especially timely coming so soon after the tragic Sichuan earthquake this year in which at least 70,000 people, and possibly twice that many, were killed.

However, the games also marked 30 years of peace and unparalleled economic growth in which China mastered the economic, scientific and industrial challenges of modernization that had eluded its previous governments for 200 years.

The spectacular, breathtaking beauty of the Opening Ceremony and the dramatic success of Chinese athletes in the events so far in winning more golds and overall medals than the United States, Russia or any other nation have served notice that China is not only on the world stage as a great power but is a confident and gracious power too.

That last point was displayed in the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium on the opening night when the nations of the world, including the United States, were given generous and rousing waves of applause by the 91,000-strong, overwhelmingly Chinese audience.

The Olympic Games often have been the butt of bitter cynics, who snarl that they do not change human nature or resolve the underlying conflicts of shortage, hunger, hate, fear and war that plague the human race - as if they or anything else could do all that.

But the Olympics do fulfill their primary function of celebrating the best in human athletic achievement and displaying the aspiration of the human family at its most inspiring and hopeful - in peace and unity, with its finest young athletes hosted in hospitality and generosity.

China and its people have been upholding and fulfilling all those admirable ideals in the 29th Olympiad of the modern era. Let us cheer them for doing so.

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