China Journal #9

by August 21, 2008

by Nick Rotunno

What’s up SLAMonline? Greetings from the five-ring circus of the Far East, Beijing. In case you missed my last journal, you can read it right here.

The Olympics have been amazing thus far, with countless world records set, unprecedented feats accomplished, and gold medals won. It’s hard to believe that I’ll be leaving on September 1st.

Beijing has been my home for the past two months, and even though the accommodations have been cramped and the weather stifling, I’m going to miss this place. The food, the people, the sights, and of course the Games have all been spectacular. I’ll also miss playing ball out here – but I admit, shooting around in an air-conditioned gym back home will be a welcome relief from the dust of Tsinghua.

My Olympic News Service duties at the Olympic Green Tennis Center have now concluded. Rafael Nadal won the Men’s Singles gold medal, beating Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, while Russian underdog Elena Dementieva took home Women’s Singles gold.

I was on hand for the last point of the Nadal match, when the pirate-haired Spaniard collapsed in the middle of center court, flat on his back and gazing skyward, exhausted and victorious. The cameras popped and the crowd erupted; it was all very exciting.

I picked up flash quotes from Dementieva after her final match. She was beaming, of course, sputtering sentences in fast-paced Russian and slower, choppier English. She’s really a sweet girl. I thrust my tape recorder over the bulging mass of television cameras and picked up a few useable quotes. Mostly the usual stuff: “I’m just so thrilled, this is amazing, I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little girl,” etc. Definitely the most crowded mixed zone (the area where the athletes are interviewed after their matches) that I had been a part of all week. Of course, the Nadal mixed zone was even bigger, but I didn’t get the chance to record his quotes.

While those matches were climactic, James Blake was the player we volunteers all pulled for. With little more than a puncher’s shot at winning a medal, Blake was an inspiration that week, an American hope. His quarterfinal victory over Roger Federer was an upset of monumental proportions, and when he lost to Gonzalez in the semifinals the following day every red, white and blue heart at the tennis venue was irreparably shattered. I personally felt like crying. With Blake out my journalistic motivation disappeared, and I stumbled through the rest of that dismal day in a funereal daze of disbelief. Sad times.

Luckily, even though Blake fell just short of an American tennis medal, Michael Phelps won enough golds to go around. His performance in these Games was just unreal, and while I never saw him swim live I could turn on the TV every morning and watch him stroke his way into immortality. He made me proud to be an American.

Now, before I give you my meager analysis of Team USA and our ever-increasing chances of basketball glory, bear with me for one more digression. This, like all the stories I tell, is a story that needs to be told (not really, but I’m going to write about it anyway). On Saturday night, I was at the Bird’s Nest for the men’s 100 meter final.

BOCOG pulled some strings and got us tickets for the biggest event in track and field. While I had seen the exterior of the Nest countless times, the interior is a sight to behold. We walked through Gate A, a narrow opening in the stadium’s spindly exoskeleton, and took our seats on the western edge of the arena. I stared at a colossal scene – a massive green infield, the red curves of the track, the shifting brightness of a billboard-sized jumbotron. Fans filled row upon row of seats, thousands of murmuring voices blended together in a monochromatic roar.

We watched Usain Bolt casually sprint a new world record, 9.69. When the starting gun fired a million flashes burst from the grandstands, like a burning line of firecrackers on the Fourth of July. It was over in a hurry. The race ended far from where we were sitting, on the other side of the infield, but it was easy to tell who won. Bolt didn’t look like he was trying all that hard, blowing past the field and pumping his chest before crossing the line. I was thoroughly impressed. The fastest man in the whole world – now that’s a prestigious title.

On to basketball, finally. Team USA, what can I say? They’re looking pretty damn good.

We’ve been rolling everyone, and the games haven’t even been close. I thought Greece and Spain would be tougher challenges; I thought Dirk would never let Germany go so quietly into the night; I thought Australia might figure out a way to keep things close. I thought wrong. This team is simply too good, and when it comes down to it, no matter how much you might prepare to stop these guys – no matter what you practice, what your tactics are, what kinds of schemes you have in the playbook – no matter what you do, the Americans are just better. At every position. More athletic, more skilled, more polished on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. I love what I’m seeing.

Last night was close for a quarter or two, and then we blew it wide open. The perimeter shooting has improved (Kobe figured out it’s better to shoot when he’s open), the defense is rock-solid, and our big men have been rebounding like fiends. LeBron gets to the rim whenever he wants. Coach K barely needs to coach, he can just watch. All good. The only thing I fear now is complacency. I fear that perhaps this tournament has gone a little too well, that we have never been truly tested. Maybe we never will be. But Argentina will bring it tomorrow, and whoever we play for gold won’t roll over and die. This is the Olympics, after all. Hopefully our guys will stay focused and keep their hands hot. If they do, it’s all over but the cryin.’

Unfortunately I won’t be in Beijing for the last two games. I’m going on a little side trip to Inner Mongolia for a few days. A Chinese autonomous region, like Tibet, Inner Mongolia is a land of grasslands and deserts, nomads and wild horses. I’m pumped to visit a new place – Beijing is great, but it’s gotten a little stale. I plan on still tuning in for the Olympics, though, especially the basketball. I imagine the scene will go thusly: I’ll sit in a smoke-filled bar somewhere amidst the wilds of Mongolia, watch Team USA win a resounding gold-medal victory on a scratchy TV, then fiendishly high-five the dark and swarthy descendants of Genghis Khan. Ah, Mongolia. Here I come.

Enjoy the rest of the Games everyone, and go USA!