It was not about poor air quality, demonstrations or terrorism. It was about purity of competition, and the curiosities of Chinese citizens who wanted to know as much about your world as you wanted to know about theirs.
This was a breathtaking Summer Olympics from the moment Li Ning ran sideways around the upper ring of the Bird's Nest to light the cauldron -- to the moment a tower arose and was swarmed like locusts by gravity-defying acrobatic wonders.
There was baseball one last time, perhaps to return as an event in 2016. It was an eight-nation competition that lived up to the overall magnitude of these Games, with the United States team winning a bronze that helped its country push its final overall medal count to 110, two more than its record for a full-participation Olympiad.
Now it is over, and the Summer Olympics will return in 2012 at London. Baseball will not be an event on the program by virtue of an International Olympic Committee vote nearly seven years ago. It means the World Baseball Classic becomes even more important in 2009, the biggest future gathering for international ball, at least until a possible reinstatement for the 2016 Olympics.
Before boarding a flight back to the other side of the world, to a land of pennant races and at least 80 million baseball fans, here are things a first-time China visitor will remember among a lifetime of memories packed into two weeks:
Michael Phelps times eight.
"One World One Dream" constructed into the side of a mountain at the BaDaLing entrance to the Great Wall, somehow not gaudy but kind of appropriate to the whole unbelievable task of linking more than 4,000 miles of stone fortress. Sitting on one step of the wall and just contemplating how they could have even brought in the materials needed to erect such a continuous miracle as that.
Korea's baseball team tossing its manager high into the air on the pitcher's mound three times, as it celebrated a gold-medal victory over mighty Cuba.
Thousands of volunteers, mostly in the familiar blue shirts, gray khakis and yellow-striped gym shoes, always smiling, eager to point the way and certain to stop any head of state if he or she didn't have the right credential.
"Zhongguo, CHAYO!" It was perhaps the most commonly uttered phrase of the two weeks. The first word is for "China" and is written in two Chinese characters, broken into "Zhong" for "in the middle" and "guo" for "national." China long ago perceived itself as being "in the middle" of the world -- as it was here. "Chayo" basically means "Let's go." It was the crowd chant for much of the Games.
Shawn Johnson's smile and the Japan baseball team's sadness.
"You and Me."
The National Stadium. After the Closing Ceremony, filing out amongst athletes from various nations, you just wanted to keep looking back as it surged with color and style, a true thing of architectural magnificence. You didn't want to say goodbye to the Bird's Nest, nor to the glowing Water Cube next door.
Watching the U.S. baseball team and knowing that you will see so many of them, probably way more than half, one day in the Majors. For some of them, that day will be next week when rosters expand.
Seeing the piles of salt that the Japan team would spread in the opening area of its dugout, for good luck. The U.S. guys would have to kick the salt away with their cleats whenever they took over that dugout on Saturday.
China gold medalists, not only for their dominance (China and most countries rank medals by gold only), but also for their ability to sing folks songs on stage for a live studio audience on CCTV.
The double-decker bus of London circling the Bird's Nest, and then opening its top to bring Jimmy Page's guitar to China along with a big kick from David Beckham. What an amazing segue and contrast of cultures.
The weightlifter who won gold and then held his medal in his right hand and the photograph of his late wife in his left hand.
Just how much of a rock show the Cuban baseball team is. It had an aura throughout the tournament that none of the other seven teams could match here. That was especially evident on Friday night, after its victory over the U.S. to reach the gold-medal game. The Cuba bus sat for a long time outside the clubhouse, and players were sitting on the open luggage stow areas on the outside of the bus, some drinking beer, some signing autographs, relaxed and kind of larger than life in international competition.
China catchers flying everywhere, and then Yang Yang, the son of a Wukesong groundskeeper, crushing a solo homer in the ninth to cut the U.S. team's lead to a mere 9-1. Yang danced around the bases and did a power-stomp on home plate, as if to emphasize that China won't be bullied.
The archers who had to try to hit bulls-eyes in the rain -- and how amazed you were when they somehow did just that.
Fuwa -- everywhere. The good-luck dolls were omnipresent as mascots, including at the baseball competition. There was Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini. Together, they spell out the phrase, "Beijing huanyíng ni" -- which means "Beijing welcomes you."
The sound that a blazing Olympic cauldron makes 24/7 for its two weeks of life. Gas-powered, it sounds like a thousand cymbals crashing.
Mike Hessman's opening-game homer against Korea stopping about 630 feet from the point of contact. It rolled to the warning track of the practice field far away.
The chain of life at Wukesong Main Field for night games. Bugs would be drawn to the light towers. Grasshoppers would then come in to eat the smaller bugs. Then came the coup de resistance, the preying mantis. That large insect would feast on the grasshoppers. One night during the tournament, the first U.S. game against Japan, you would occasionally see a preying mantis jump onto a player, and see the player swatting it away. It is not known who eats the preying mantis.
The dominance of U.S. sports teams. Each one that participated medaled, with the exception of men's soccer and women's field hockey, both of which found success in qualifying for the these Olympics after absences in years past. USA team medals in Beijing were gold for men's and women's basketball, women's soccer and men's volleyball; silver for women's and men's water polo, women's volleyball and softball; and one bronze for a group of 23 Minor Leaguers plus San Diego State junior Stephen Strasburg.
Before the Closing Ceremony, taking it all in on the Olympic Green, and looking down at the pavement at your feet. Suddenly you remembered that when you were a boy, you used to think that you could dig a hole and come out on the other side of the world -- in China. Now here you were. Could you dig there from here?
These lyrics played over the loudspeaker at Wukesong Main Field for the Korea-Cuba crowd on Saturday, after the bottom of the fourth inning:
I can tell you
That my love will still be strong
After the boys of summer
That love will have to be strong.
Watching the U.S. players celebrate amongst themselves, the pressure totally removed, ultimately happy with any kind of medal. They would be teammates for close to a month, and then they would fly before the Closing Ceremony back to Washington, D.C., where they would scatter to their regular Minor League organizations or perhaps to a big league club. People scatter after the Olympics; the memories remain.
It is Olympic history here, an unknown future for America's national pastime as an event in Pierre de Coubertin's reliable worldwide competition. This much we do know: Beijing was beautiful, everyone watched, it's more competitive around the world in sports these days, Phelps can swim and the Great Wall is indeed great.
Meeting athletes or Olympic officials at every turn, especially at the Silk Market, where the world seemed to gather to barter for clothing, silk and accessories. One moment you are chatting with a member of the Sweden women's handball team, the next moment with a Sri Lanka boxing coach, the next a former Soviet athlete whose mission in Games like these was to try to reign supreme over your country.
They were beautiful Games, and there were a million stories to take back to the States. Like the one about the Chinese girl who asked this visitor from America: "What is this song they keep playing that says "one, two, three?" You explain the history of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," and then in that moment you realize that it was all worthwhile and two very different cultures just connected.