It is gold medal mania here, and now that we are halfway through The Games of the XXIX Olympiad, it is perhaps fitting that the baseball competition resumes with USA vs. China at 7:00 p.m. local time Monday on the Wukesong Main Field. These Olympics became USA vs. China in a hurry, at least from an overall competitive standpoint. Far more than that, these Games became world-binding.
The Chinese love their own athletes here, and they love to ask you about Michael Phelps. Past the halfway point of a daylong climb through the miraculous Great Wall, a Chinese man wearing a Yankees T-shirt spots a Westerner and asks him to autograph his arm, because he represents some kind of connection to the Americans' great thing called Major League Baseball. The Chinese show the medal standings by ranking of gold medal, and the Americans show the medal standings by overall ranking.
It is asking a lot, a Wukesong miracle, for China to add yet another gold to its panoply by winning baseball. Only four of eight teams advance to the semifinals, and that will be determined after they all play three more games. The U.S. is 2-2, clawing along while Cuba, Japan and Korea are already making strong cases. China, which basically just learned baseball in the past four years, upset Chinese Taipei in an extra-inning game that caused one Taiwanese journalist to write that their local players should "walk into the sea." That is how catastrophically embarrassing he viewed losing to China.
Miracles can happen in baseball, and maybe one is taking shape even back in the Majors this summer with the Cubs still on top and the Rays not going away. Over here, it feels that way as well, at least to those who have lived long enough to remember when China was distant in the figurative sense. Several locals in the first week asked me who is going to win our presidential election in the U.S. this November. One-fifth of the world lives in this nation, and it is hard to know what the rest of them think, but the people of Beijing generally seem interested in seizing this moment to reach out and make "One World One Dream" seem like more than a slogan.
U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr said it best with the first clause in this quote about Phelps: "It is fitting that at one of the most significant events of our generation, we have witnessed one of the greatest performances in Olympic history. Michael's record-breaking performance during these Games will inspire millions of people around the world to reach for their goals and aspire to greatness. He is an example of the very best values of the Olympic Movement and our country."
Americans have watched Phelps' record run of eight gold medals and have sent NBC's ratings through the stratosphere. Meanwhile, the Chinese equivalent, CCTV, has a distinctive approach all its own that has people here transfixed around the clock. Gold medalists aren't just brought to their studio for an interview with the host. It is a live audience, all slapping their Thundersticks together the way Angels fans did back in the 2002 World Series, and first the gold medalists begin to recount their journeys and their glory. Then they are taken over to a spot where they mash their hand down into a foam gold star, which is then mounted on a board filled with other gold stars that are all piling up now. Then, the amazing part: They start to sing.
One heavyweight woman who won judo gold goes into a rendition of a Chinese folk song, the crowd sings along and suddenly the woman is hitting high octaves at the top of her lungs, and you are thinking: Is this really happening? This is more than an Olympics. This is a national party, and we are all invited. They already threw the greatest Opening Ceremony there ever was and probably ever will be, and they are going for the one-nation record in golds, and you just know that right now young Chinese are being taught how Phelps swims and trains. Those little curly designs you see in venue signage and logos everywhere represent "auspicious clouds" -- and those auspicious clouds have brought more than anyone here probably could have hoped for so far.
Will China have a baseball team in the semifinal round? At 1-3, the chances are not good. Will China suddenly absorb baseball the way Yao Ming has made it absorb basketball? The removal of baseball from the next Olympics will not help, but the World Baseball Classic probably will to some extent. Either way, Wukesong on Monday will be the scene of many bright red flags with the yellow stars, and many flags with the Stars and Stripes. These two teams played exhibitions against each other twice before the competition began, and President George Bush addressed both clubs in a memorable scene that further showed what it means to have these two nations engaged in sport.
It feels like the world is changing in these two weeks, right before your eyes. On the Great Wall, locals ask to have their picture taken with you because you are an American. You reach one of the 12 Watchtowers at BaDaLing and there you meet a man wearing a "RUSSIA" warmup, and you find that he used to compete against your nation in these Games back when there was a Cold War. You meet a few athletes from Estonia, then a crew from Brazil, and four members of a delegation from Central Africa. They are here for Boxing and Athletics. You shake hands with one of the men, a coach, and he says, "Good luck to your country and to ours."
It is supposed to be that simple on one big planet, and that is how it feels in China at the halfway point of this fabulous fortnight. You want it to go on forever, but it never does. Baseball will move closer now toward deciding its gold medalist, with the semifinals on Friday and the two medal games on Saturday. Then it will be the Closing Ceremony on Sunday back at the Bird's Nest, where a man from Jamaica just set a world record in the 100-meter dash and celebrated even before crossing the finish line.
It will be hard to leave, just as it was in saying goodbye to the Great Wall. It is impossible to fathom how dynasty after dynasty, workers after workers, could haul the materials to construct something that snakes along mountain terrain, knowing that only one day after they have lived that some people would make use of it, to spot invaders and to traverse while visiting for sport among nations.
You go into a lounge at the BaDaLink gates and ask for "bing pee jo" and communicate as best you can over a cold Yan Jing Beer or two, and then you get back onto the 919 bus that will take you the one-hour drive back into the city near the Olympic Green. Along the way, the highlights will be shown over and over as locals get on and off your bus, and you don't even have to speak Mandarin to know how they are feeling, because you look at each other and you just know.
Now it's USA vs. China, baseball style.
These are the Games of Beijing. So far, so gold