The Beijing Olympics have ended. Next up is London, which will host the games in 2012. To mark the occasion, thousands of Chinese bathed in glowing hues passed the torch to an aging rock-and-roller, an ex-patriot soccer player and a double-decker bus. There will always be an England.
The games just concluded were notable for their majestic opening and closing ceremonies of astonishing human coordination and spectacle punctuated by nearly colorless performances save for Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. A few other Olympians might have impressed but NBC never gave them a chance to show themselves in prime time. Instead, with an always smug Bob Costas serving as host, NBC's delayed broadcasts disproportionately featured beach volleyball with Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who, frankly, became a household joke among many viewers I know. Serve, set, spike. Serve, set, spike. We learned far more than we ever wanted to know about these two than nearly any other athlete and his/her mother. Meanwhile, many traditional Olympic sports of longer-standing pedigree were given short shrift.
The host city looked magnificent in televised images, especially those breathtaking aerial views of a modern city deliberately and effectively sanitized. Nobody does diving, table tennis and limited access better than the Chinese. Still, there was no taking away from the impression that China is ascendant, energetic, efficient, ebullient and determined. The Chinese government may control every aspect of life tightly -- abusing human rights with little or no constraint, displacing hundreds of thousands of inconveniently located citizens, placing barriers in front of unsightly sites -- but they also encourage the pursuit of excellence in many facets of human endeavor while the West, especially the United States, continues to expend enormous energy trying to legislate private morality.
Ever since Nazi Germany the Olympic subtext has been national and racial superiority. Jesse Owens' lonely assault on Arian supremacy was followed by the playing out of the Cold War pitting Soviet collective superiority, the East German sports and doping machine and Cuba's export of revolution against the rugged individualism of America and, to a lesser extent, her allies. By 1968 small portions of the American team itself were in open rebellion and in 1972 terrorism in its now familiar face thrust itself into the middle of the games.
The Chinese are too smart and ambitious to cast the Beijing games in such Manichean terms, but make no mistake they were out to prove the superiority of their system of near cradle to contested teenage years worth of unrelenting regimented training of their athletes. Though the Chinese overall medal count fell short of the Americans, the total of Gold Medals garnered by their Olympians topped all comers by a wide margin.
No one remembers who came in second. England, take note.