At brunch time on Aug. 9, less than a day into the Olympics, China was off to a bad start. This was before the murder, even. Outside the 24-hour dim sum restaurant, the air was filthy, as it had been, more often than not, for two weeks. The roadway in front—south of Ditan Park, the ancient Altar of Earth—was being cordoned off for a road-cycling race, in the glare of sunlight through dirty white haze.
The authorities had been blowing smog of their own; local environmental officials and the International Olympic Committee declared that the measured air quality was acceptable and that the press was mistaking normal humid mist for pollution—an old lie, publicly retired by the Chinese government in 2006 and now pressed back into emergency service. Tourism was down, thanks to harassing visa-application procedures, but the Tibet folks had still been able to show up, protest, and get themselves arrested.
And now—a text message arrived from a reporter out at the shooting range—2004 gold medalist Du Li had been beaten in the morning’s air-rifle competition. Du had been favored to win the first gold medal of 2008, so much so that China had assigned special identical-twin attendants to the ceremony, for maximum aesthetic value.
The restaurant’s televisions were tuned to women’s weight lifting, another event where China was favored. But the competitors on the screen were from Canada and Japan. Outside, the peloton of road racers went whizzing by, trailed by little silver station wagons with spare bikes on their roofs. More than a third of the riders would quit before the end of the race (though the majority of post-race quotes seemed to blame the humidity rather than pollution—this after the United States team had been rebuked for wearing filter masks when they got off the airplane).
The weight lifters dropped out, one by one. A contestant from Taiwan lifted 112 kilograms to take the lead in the clean-and-jerk round.
Only then did the Chinese lifter, Chen Xiexia, appear on the screen.
The event was for women up to 48 kilos in weight—a little under 106 pounds. Many of the early-round lifters had been almost slim. Ms. Chen was shorter and wider. She faced a 113-kilo barbell, her first of the day. And she lifted it. Applause filled the room. Then Ms. Chen—shouting “Jia you!” to herself, the all-purpose Chinese cheer—lifted 115.
The Taiwanese lifter tried 115, staggered and fell. No one else was left. The bar was loaded to 117, and Ms. Chen lifted that, too, to close out the scoring. Then she skipped off the stage. She hugged her coach, her broad back to the camera, a pink scrunchy in her hair.
The next morning, Aug. 10, a cleansing downpour began to fall. Ms. Chen’s picture took up the top of the front page of the China Daily.
Below the fold, a yellow box carried the news that Beijing’s Weather Modification Office had successfully intercepted and suppressed oncoming rainstorms on the night of Aug. 8, to keep the opening ceremony dry. The new rainfall, an official told me at a press conference, was completely natural.