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.
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.