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Crazy eight: A very busy day in the life of your Olympic correspondent

South Africa's Natalie du Toit removes her artificial leg at the starting line of today's Olympic women's marathon 10-kilometer swimming competition.
REUTERS/Toby Melville
South Africa’s Natalie du Toit removes her artificial leg at the starting line of today’s Olympic women’s marathon 10-kilometer swimming competition.

IN, THROUGH AND AROUND BEIJING — Today broke sunny and sultry, a sky of bluish gray with the water a greenish gray. Olympic history was about to be made, and your correspondent was there.

By day’s end, I was virtually everywhere. The task at hand: attend as many Olympic events as possible. Goal: eight different sports. Methods of transport: official Beijing Olympic buses and human feet.

Event One
The first event was easy to choose — and turned out to be historic. With a 9 a.m. start, it was a no-brainer. With its distance from central Beijing — about an hour — it provided the perfect get- outta-town option early.

For the first time, marathon swimming is an event at the Summer Games. Wednesday’s 10-kilometer (or six-mile) swim was for women. Swimmers were to do laps around the Olympic rowing course.

What made this special was the participation of Natalie duToit of South Africa. Her countryman, Oscar Pistorius, had campaigned to compete in these Games. Pistorius is the double-amputee sprinter who uses springlike prostheses to run. He didn’t get here.

But duToit did. She’s the first disabled athlete to compete in the Olympics. She has an artificial left leg, but takes it off before she enters the water. That’s what she did Wednesday about a minute before the race started. On the edge of the little dock that the swimmers dived from, she sat on the edge and removed her left leg.

As the competitors lined up to dive in, duToit’s stump was obvious; her leg had been amputated below the knee in 2001 after a motorcycle accident.

A smattering of fans sat in the bleachers that lined the artificial lake as duToit and the others jumped in and were to swim for the next three hours.

Me, I couldn’t wait that long. Tae kwon do awaited me back in town.

DuTuit wound up 16th among 25 competitors. I would have given her a medal. She’ll get some anyway. She’s going to compete at the Paralympics here in a couple of weeks.

Combat sports
The bus from the swimming event was on time and empty. As the lone person on it, I contributed mightily to Beijing’s pollution. But carbon footprints do not matter to a man on a mission.

The University of Science and Technology arena had that boxing din about it, a sort of restless waiting-for-blood mood, not the bucolic let’s-take-a-long-swim feel of the first event.

Beijing’s colleges have some terrifically compact gyms, and this is one of them. Mexican and German flags waved. An Afghan player defeated a German. Afghanistan’s coach is from Korea. We are the world.

Exactly how points are scored in tae kwon do is a deep mystery — some kicks count, others don’t. But I didn’t have time to master the Korean martial art. Seeing two matches was enough.

Onto another bus and team handball.

This is a sport that isn’t played very much in the United States. It’s played on a basketball-like court, with a soccer-like goal and hockey-like physicality. It uses a ball somewhat smaller than a volleyball.

It’s a quarterfinal match between France and Russia at the Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium, across the Fourth Ring Road from the Bird’s Nest, the track stadium.

France has a large contingent of fans, jumping up and down and singing. French flags wave. NBA-looking athletes run up and down the court, sometimes dribbling the ball and then throwing it baseball style toward the soccer goal, with a goalie trying to stop the thing. Bodies fly all over the place.

The airplane hangar of a gym is about 80 percent filled as Russia tries to make a comeback, but fails. France wins, 27-24. They are marching toward a medal, and the French press corps is out in force. They are covering this team like the U.S. media cover men’s basketball.

But when the game ends, I experience the most second-hand smoke of my three weeks here. French smoke, not Chinese smoke.

On to another bus and one of the more criticized sports of the Olympics: synchronized swimming.

Arts and sport
Welcome back to the Water Cube, The House That Michael Phelps Built. Now, at 3 p.m., six hours after our first event, we are preparing for the most theatrical sport of the Olympics.

Besides twirling and spinning and leg kicking under water, synchro swimmers now begin their routines on the pool deck with some sort of team mime shtick. Smiles a plenty. Once in the hallowed pool where Phelps won his medals, the women hold their breath for a really long time.

It’s sort of figure skating in water. So, there is controversy at the pool.

The Spanish team of Gemma Mengual and Andrea Fuentes wanted to place light bulbs on their swim suits to add another entertainment dimension to their performance. But officials of the world swimming federation, FINA, ruled against this. Only sequins, they said. No bulbs. (Does the NFL have this problem?)

I can take two routines, including one by the Dutch team of Van Der Velden and Van Der Velden, who are synchronized to the max.

Across the street, there is a gymnastics event. I walk quickly to it. But it’s not a competition. It’s a post-medals “gala” at the National Indoor Stadium. The arena is packed to watch newly crowned champions perform easy show routines.

American star Nastia Luikin turns in a beam routine that wouldn’t have won her the silver she did, but the audience loved it.

One venue of synchro, one venue of faux gymnastics. I need a real sport, fast.

Diving and running
By 7, after a brief nap, I’m back at the Water Cube, this time for 10-meter women’s diving.

What I notice more and more — from tae kwon do to diving — is how the Olympics are pretty noisy. Diving is, essentially, a quiet sport. The quieter, the better. When a woman acrobatically twists and spins and tumbles from 33 feet in the air and enters the pool with a light splash, it’s soothing and impressive.

But then the music blares, some soft rock schlock, and the concentration is destroyed. Why ruin such a pretty sport after every dive with loud music?

One other question emerges during diving observation: Why do we respect diving more than synchronized swimming? Because it’s more traditional? Because men do it, too? Both are judged. Both are performance. Synchro simply has more hair gel.

No time for thinking. Time for track and field, a 200-yard walk across the massive plaza and through thousands of locals without tickets just inhaling the Olympic vibe, taking pictures, promenading with their children.

As a credentialed journalist, I get into all these events for free. But ticket pricing here in the former Communist nation was quite populist.

The gymnastics gala shindig was the highest priced event of the day. If you lived in China and bought the ticket months ago, it would have cost you $43.

The swim marathon? $4.50. Team handball: $6. For my entire day of what will become eight events, if I were able to buy the cheapest tickets, I would have paid about $120. That’s a pretty cheap date.

Perfect finale
Walking from diving to the Bird’s Nest, the architectural icon of the Games, I hear the crowd roar. When 90,000 people groan or cheer in reactive unison, it can be heard for a distance. U.S. track marketers are always looking for ways to reinvent and invigorate the sport domestically. But in other parts of the world, it continues as a significant property on the sports landscape.

There’s very little subjectivity here. The fastest runner wins. The longest thrower or jumper wins.

In many ways, the track meet is a reflection of these Games and its host city. Massive in scale. Pro-Chinese when a home-country athlete excels, but appreciative of others. With women’s hammer throw and the men’s 800 meters going on at once and everyone readying for Usain Bolt to break another world record, there are many moving parts to the event.

Just like China.

I won’t see Bolt bolt for his 200-meter record because another event is starting a half hour away at the Capital Gymnasium. The U.S. men’s volleyball team is to face Serbia. These are all big men with mean volleyball shots.

Maybe because it’s the last, maybe because this team has been through a lot — Coach Hugh McCutcheon’s father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was murdered on the Games first Saturday — I’m finding this the most compelling and exciting event of the day. I have some time to enjoy it, some time to relax, even with the palpable tension in the match.

A chanting, singing contingent of hundreds of Serbs gets the atmosphere going early. They jeer the Americans. It’s countered with choruses of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Men in cutoff T-shirts and shorts, jumping, diving, ramming the ball down each other’s throats. A sport that we in the United States simply don’t appreciate enough because it’s not one of “the majors.” And yet just about every member of the U.S. Olympic volleyball team spends six months a year in Europe, pulling down $500,000 or more to play for pro teams. This is a sport that deserves more.

The match is nail-biting. It goes to the final and fifth game. The U.S. team prevails and heads into the medal round. It is terrific athleticism and competition. It is a perfect way to end my own Olympic marathon.

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Comments (2)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/20/2008 - 05:05 pm.

    Not to diminish Natalie du Toit’s accomplishments, but she is not “the first disabled athlete to compete in the Olympics,” to use the writer’s phrase. Neither is she the first disabled athlete to compete at Beijing. Natalia Partyka, a congenital amputee from Poland, competed several days prior to du Toit.

    Du Toit’s publicity machine is certainly superior, no question about that.

    The first amputee known to have competed in the Olympics was George Eyser of the United States, who lost his leg in a train accident. He won six medals in gymnastics, including three gold, in the 1904 Olympics, despite competing with a wooden leg.

  2. Submitted by Jay Weiner on 08/20/2008 - 10:09 pm.

    Thanks for the comment. You are right about me using the term “disabled.” The IOC – not her “publicity machine” – calls her the first amputee to qualify for an Olympics. I don’t know the circumstances of Eyser’s participation. Partyka, according to the IOC was born without an arm.

    Correction noted.

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