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By nearly every measure, Beijing Olympics very good, except …

Workers wasted no time taking down some Olympic signage following the conclusion of the Games.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Workers wasted no time taking down some Olympic signage following the conclusion of the Games.

How Minnesota Olympians did

BEIJING — A Chinese journalist approached Saturday and asked for an opinion.

“Please assess these Olympics,” she requested, “in one sentence.”

Tough task.

But how’s this?

It was a very good Olympics, except for the senseless murder, the inexplicable arrests, the useless protest zones and the thin-skinned public spokesman.

The outside events, the political backdrop and the old-school bureaucracy didn’t derail the Beijing Games. No, it wasn’t exactly, “Except for that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

But in order to honestly praise the Games operations and on-field performances, they must be placed in that larger context. Otherwise, we will gush irresponsibly.

These Olympics, in many ways, did exactly what the Chinese government and people wanted, what the International Olympic Committee hoped for and what an Olympics is supposed to do.

Hundreds of thousands of athletes, sports and corporate leaders, journalists and plain old tourists came here and learned the buses run on time, the Chinese can build facilities that are breathtaking in scale and function, the food is good, the traffic is bad, people are friendly, the technology is superb and Beijing is among the world’s most modern and exciting cities.

Early on, a contractor who worked on the Games said what he came away with was comprehending the “awesome people power.” That power was manifested in the ubiquitous and helpful volunteers, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies — with their casts of thousands — and in a walk down a Central Business District Street, where Beijingers hurried everywhere.

The Chinese people’s commitment to a common goal is impressive.

Olympics a successful feel-good ad for China
Within the parameters of an Olympics, the Chinese message of jaw-dropping creativity and friendly competency, was successfully transmitted. The Games were a $40 billion feel-good advertisement for a nation.

These Games functioned, too, on another, deeper level, for internal consumption. An entire capital city, to be sure, and much of this nation, presumably, woke up today with a profound sense of accomplishment. And morning TV on CCTV is but an ode to the Games and people-on-the-street interviews are off international guests praising the Games.

We’d heard of the pride Chinese people felt for this event. But for the first days of the Games, we couldn’t tell. Because of security concerns, because of their tendency to shut down rather than open up, Olympic organizers and government officials kept the Olympic Green area restricted. Only ticketholders to Games events were permitted in this marvelous park of sports facilities, shooting fountains and corporate exhibitions.

Then, after corporate sponsors complained and some media wrote about the ghost-town-like nature of this zone, organizers allowed freer access to non-ticketholders.

Families, with the cutest little kids you’ll ever see, flocked to the Olympic Green just to wander, to wave their red flags, to take photos with the Bird’s Nest in the background, to shop at the souvenir store, and to say, “We are there. This is ours, too.”

Internally and externally, lots of smiles
Internally, these Games played very well.

Externally, we know that the corporate sponsors were pleased. Those who calculated and executed their sponsorships wisely have established the business contacts in China they sought. There were risks, to be sure. But, now that the dust has settled, the rewards will be gifts that keep on giving.

Look at GE. Its Olympics marketing leader said that company generated $700 million worth of business because of the relationships kicked off by its $70 million or so sponsorship fee. Return on investment? High.

Externally, we know that TV ratings were robust worldwide. The Olympic brand scored big-time. It was joined at the hip by the Chinese “brand.” The guess here is that both entities have higher approval ratings today than a month ago.

But we must not be pacified by the Olympic cocoon. That’s easy to do, to say, “Great Olympics,” but forget they are a show within a political framework wherever they are held.

Around the sports, there were promises broken. The major Catch-22 was the so-called protest zones. Those alone are not unusual. At the U.S. political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, similar zones for demonstrations have been set aside. They were established in Athens and Sydney, too, for previous Games.

But here, it’s been reported in the Western media, if a Chinese citizen applied for a protest permit, they instead were arrested.

IOC President Jacques Rogge told reporters Sunday that 77 protest-zone applications in a city of 16 million  and a nation of 1.3 billion were received.

“We found that unusual that none of these applications have come through with a protest,” he said, adding that officials told him the protests didn’t occur by “mutual agreement.”

That’s wrong. Perhaps once the Paralympic Games are completed in September, Rogge will more forcefully speak out. There was some Internet blockage, though not much. There was a reluctance to openness at formal news conferences and a certain thin-skin to probing questions.

The Games’ chief spokesman, Wang Wei, was a real piece of work. He could tell you the exact number what attendance allegedly was the day before, but questions about human rights, about protests, about roughed-up journalists, garnered answers like, “I have answered that before” or his finest performance during the first week: “There are a few people who have come here to peek, to be critical, to dig into the small details and find fault,” he added. “This does not mean that we are not fulfilling our promises [to the IOC].”

As for Darfur and Tibet, they were distant shouts amid the festive din. The only news was that visas were denied to Darfur advocates. It’s too bad there was such a news blackout.

On other matters:

Drugs: No major scandal … yet.

Transit: Subways are terrific. Official buses were always on time.

Sanitation: As clean a big city as you’ll see. Toilet paper still an issue in some instances.

Pollution: In the end, a non-story. The air is awful. The humidity is worse. But it didn’t seem to affect performance on the field and only make clothing sweaty off the field.

Security: Appropriate and not overbearing at all, compared with other recent Games in the post-9/11-era.

Nationalism: Did not rear its ugly head and was less apparent here than in places like Sydney or Athens, frankly.

Oh, sports. The sports were terrific, special, historic.

We know about Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, and Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter. They alone made their centerpiece sports memorable.

But why men’s volleyball hasn’t caught on as a commercially successful sport in the United States is baffling. The game is powerful and tenacious.

The performance of the U.S. men’s basketball team shored up the NBA’s status and the reputation of star players. Kobe Bryant’s pronouncement Sunday was a talking point for the league.

“What you saw today was a team,” Bryant said, somewhat defiantly. “Everybody wants to talk abut NBA players being selfish, being arrogant, being individuals.  What you saw today was a team binding together, facing adversity and coming out of here with a big win.”

Flashes: Women’s fencing in a neat setting … Open-water marathon swimming, on a pretty, blue-skied morning … the Lopez siblings winning three medals in taekwondo … the U.S. women’s soccer team overcoming the loss of its star player and grinding out a gold medal … 41-year-old Dara Torres winning medals … cyclists headed to the Great Wall and Kristin Armstrong, who in June won Minnesota’s Nature Valley Grand Prix, winning a gold here … the passion for table tennis … a record 43 percent of the athletes were women, a rising tide even as softball is being eliminated … how a tiny mistake in wrestling, like one made by Anoka’s Jake Deitchler, can mean instant elimination … the scale of popularity for homegrown NBA star Yao Ming and even more so for Bryant … two rowers from St. Paul getting a bronze medal …  Phelps times eight.

The best Olympics? Today, the Beijing Games are getting there. In a year, after time and reflection, they could move into that position of among my favorites among the seven Summer Games I’ve now covered.

Still, Sunday morning, 12 hours before Closing Ceremonies, an email arrived. It detailed the funeral arrangements for Todd Bachman, the Twin Cities business leader who was murdered in an aberrant, senseless attack on Aug. 9. He was the father-in-law of U.S. men’s volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, who emerged as, perhaps, these Games’ classiest personality.

Yes, they were a very good Olympics, except …

Volleyball gold medal, Bachman aftermath overwhelm coach McCutcheon

BEIJING — Volleyball players hug a lot. Seems like after every point they’re high-fivin’ and embracing as if a cataclysmic victory has been won.

But this time, they really meant it. This time wasn’t your automatic group hug because someone had delivered a solid spike.

This time, the emotions were raw, the moment was golden. This time, Hugh McCutcheon could only shake hands and then get away.

While his players hugged and cried together on the court at Capital Gymnasium, as they celebrated an improbable gold-medal victory at the Olympics, their coach, McCutcheon, escaped to a corridor at Capital Gymnasium.

He needed some time by himself.

The U.S. men’s volleyball team beat Brazil Sunday in a spectacular display of athleticism and determination, a game of much machismo on both sides of the net. For a volleyball coach, the Olympic gold medal is among the greatest career highs.

But two weeks ago, when these Olympics began, McCutcheon tumbled to a horrific low. His father-in-law, Todd Bachman, of Lakeville, CEO of Bachman’s floral and garden stores, was murdered at a Beijing tourist spot. McCutcheon missed his team’s first three games.

Sunday, minutes after the U.S. men edged No. 1-ranked Brazil, McCutcheon, shook the hands of his assistant coaches and, “It became a little bit too much. It all started to sink in. I had to take a step out and collect my thoughts.”

So, he spent some time by himself. After a while, he borrowed a cell phone to talk briefly with his wife, Elisabath “Wiz” Bachman, a former Minnesota high school volleyball great and 2004 Olympian.

“Obviously, this is the best of times and worst of times,” McCutcheon said, “and I’m going to delve into both emotions and embrace them.”

His team stood on the Olympic medal stand. The “Star Spangled Banner” played. And then McCutcheon hopped on a flight to the Twin Cities. Todd Bachman’s funeral is scheduled for Friday. — Jay Weiner

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Marc Kotsonas on 08/25/2008 - 05:16 pm.

    I was wondering if Jay could elaboarte on his comment of Nationalism at the Sydney and Athens Olympics. Was he referring to the host countries, a certain group of fans from a particular country, or Americans in attendance? Thank you.

  2. Submitted by Jay Weiner on 08/27/2008 - 09:56 am.


    In both Sydney and Athens fans were more boisterous and flag-waving than in China.

    “Aus-sie, Aus-sie, oy,oy oy,” was a constant refrain from the stands. (Granted, Australian fans are bit more hyped with a few Fosters than the Chinese fans were!)

    The track meet in Athens was especially Greek-focused.

    “Nationalism” may have been the wrong word. Fervent fans for their home team . . . might have been a better description.

    I wrote before I left that there were some fears that the Chinese nationalism – in the wake of the Tibet crackdown and the earthquake – might be particularly heightened.

    I think – like the pollution – it became a non-issue.

    Hope that clarifies it for you. Thanks.

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