A Golden Olympics, According to Beijing

Down at the bottom of the page, just above the box with the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Paralympics (27 days), there was a small headline:

“US tourist killed in Beijing attack.” It pointed readers to page five, where a short 13-paragraph story said that a Chinese man had stabbed two American tourists, one fatally, and then jumped to his death from the Drum Tower. “Local authorities are investigating the case,” it said. (The final three paragraphs began: “In another development, Chinese people condemned and protested against five foreigners for fomenting ‘Tibetan independence’ at Tian’anmen Square yesterday noon.”)

In the hours after the attack, as text messages and wire stories flew, it seemed something drastic and irrevocable had happened. A knife attack on foreigners? At the Drum Tower? Most days, if you leap from the Drum Tower, you are likely to land in a foreign correspondent’s coffee mug.

But the story was already withering, as a story. On the American side, it quickly developed into a story about tragedy striking the extended family of the national volleyball team—that sort of tragedy that forces athletes to play valiantly through their tears. Not, unfortunately, a bad sort of tragedy, as far as the Olympics are concerned. And on the Chinese side, the moment of madness and horror was obscured by the procedural and detail-free announcements of the local authorities, as they investigated.

Whatever happened at the Drum Tower was very probably captured by a security camera. Everything is. I watched the opening ceremony and parade of nations on a pair of giant video screens at Ditan Park, with a few thousand other people. There were cheers for Hu Jintao and Juan Antonio Samaranch—the sainted old fascist who helped shepherd Beijing’s bid through the IOC—as well as Pakistan, Israel and Roger Federer. All evening, at the top of a pole, a camera scanned the crowd, pivoting this way and that with lurching, robotic purpose. The People’s Armed Police were posted out on the streets, one after another, wearing uniform jackets buttoned up in the heat, leaving scrawny security guards to control the masses at Ditan. Still, with security stretched to its thinnest, the machines were at work.

Who wants to know what the machinery might know? An unfortunate incident happened, and now it’s over. Also on Aug. 10, the China Daily printed two separate tables of medal standings, both saying the same thing: first place, China, with 2 gold medals, 1 silver and 1 bronze; second place, the United States, with 1 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze.

American media, at the same point, had the U.S. in first, with 3 medals to China’s 2. There is no official correct way of scoring the medal count, because officially the medal count is a regrettable jingoistic overlay on the pure athletic spirit of the Olympics.

Especially if you’re losing.

Pick your premise: China maintains that silver and bronze don’t count; the United States maintains that third place is as good as first. China’s scoring system is not the traditional one—but if Americans really believe a medal is a medal, let’s see what happens if LeBron James or Michael Phelps comes home with a bronze.

By Tuesday, local time, the philosophical split had become more pronounced. The public-address announcer at Workers’ Stadium during the women’s soccer preliminaries recited the medal standings—the “gold medal standings”—with China comfortably in front. At day’s end, China led 13 to 7. Or, if you prefer, it trailed, 22 to 20.

tscocca@observer.com