Reflecting ON BEIJING

Games, marked by triumphs and tragedy, are truly memorable

August 24, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com"

Editor's Note: In the spirit of the From Baltimore to Beijing blog, Rick and Kevin dialogued about their Olympic experiences:

Rick Maese: Until a few years ago, tradition called for the Olympics to close with a grandiose and dramatic pronouncement. The top boss would proclaim for all of the gathered nations and athletes that these particular Games were undoubtedly the best ever.

As these Beijing Games draw to a close today, there's no need to jump into the deep end of the hyperbole pool. Without a doubt, though, these Olympics have produced moments and memories I'll never forget.

Michael Phelps certainly dominated the headlines, and while history will show him as a central figure of these Games, there were plenty of others, those who won medals, those who didn't and those for whom simply being here was more than enough.

Kevin Van Valkenburg: For better or worse, you can't tell the story of these Olympics without mentioning the soupy pollution that draped over the city of Beijing like it was my crazy neighbors' dirty curtains. It dominated the news the first week of the Games, even penetrating the breathable plastic walls of the Water Cube. It was also like something out of George Orwell's 1984. When the U.S. cycling team showed up at the airport wearing masks, the U.S. Olympic Committee freaked, worried China would be insulted. China was claiming the pollution wasn't bad, so even though it felt like we were all breathing brown cotton candy, Team USA had to declare that they had made a mistake and that the air really was quite lovely.

I guess if I had to pick a favorite memory from Week 1, it would be seeing Phelps on the medal stand for the first time after the 400-meter individual medley. He wanted to sing along with the lyrics to the national anthem, but he was so emotional, he couldn't do it. And when Bob Bowman saw him crying, one of the toughest coaches in all of sports started crying, too. Michael isn't typically emotional, but I think in that moment, he knew that despite all the worry over his broken wrist, he was poised to do something special.

RM: Phelps provided countless memorable moments that first week, but all Olympic headlines weren't as positive.

The motto of these Games is plastered all over town, "One World, One Dream," and because we're all living together in this temporary Olympic city - the mayor of which, based on crowd reaction, seems to be Kobe Bryant - there was one story that immediately touched us all. The father-in-law of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon was fatally stabbed and his mother-in-law seriously injured.

You couldn't help but pay special attention to the U.S. team, which somehow played its way into the gold-medal game. That's the Olympics, though. You can be simultaneously awed by the athletic achievement and inspired by the personal stories. If you don't walk out of here, Kevin, having felt chills go down your spine from some "Olympic moment," then I think the smog might've gone straight to your head.

KVV: As you know, Maese, it's hard to truly enjoy events when you're writing about them, especially when there is a tight deadline involved. You just want to be accurate, fast and eloquent. So when Jason Lezak reeled in Alain Bernard in the 400 freestyle relay, or when Phelps out-touched Milorad Cavic by .01 of a second to win the 100 butterfly, my hands were shaking - but I didn't really get chills. I was just stressed.

I did have one Olympic moment, though, that I'll remember forever. The one night there were no preliminaries to cover at the Water Cube, some friends and I wandered over to the Bird's Nest to watch Usain Bolt in the 100-meter track final. We weren't journalists that night; we were just fans. It was humid, we were sweaty, crammed into tiny seats, and the beer we purchased tasted like warm spit. We were all cranky and, in some sense, wishing we were in bed. Or at the bar.

Then Bolt exploded from the starting blocks. I've seen a lot of amazing feats as a sportswriter, but few have ever blown me away like Bolt's world record. When he started celebrating with 30 meters to go, slapping his chest and extending his arms, it was electric. I realized I would have waited three hours for that moment. On the walk home, I got a big laugh by running down the street, arms extended, thumping my chest. Later, I realized little kids all over Jamaica were running barefoot down dirt roads, extending their arms and doing the same thing I was: dreaming of being the fastest man in the world.

RM: It's funny how these moments sneak up on you. I was watching weightlifting one day with one eye tuned to the actual competition and the other studying the rules. Pardon the cheesy admission, but I was blindsided by Olympic spirit. And it had nothing to do with a gold medal.

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