The closing ceremonies haven't been broadcast over here yet, but the Beijing Games are over. The Chinese and the Americans can both boast, the host country claiming the most gold medals, the U.S. the most medals of all kinds. Some overcompetitive Americans won't even concede the one victory to China, arguing that, since the U.S. won more team events, more American athletes won gold medals than did Chinese athletes.
In America the biggest story has been the success of the swimmer Michael Phelps. For now, patriotism has probably muffled the otherwise inevitable question of whether Phelps was doping in order to accomplish his record-setting feats. Phelps reportedly submits voluntarily to extra testing on top of what the International Olympic Committee or his own government requires, but a skeptical mind might well wonder whether he's being too cooperative. That time will come, but for now he has a window of time to wallow in commercial endorsements.
Other highlights for Americans included the success of the basketball "Redeem Team," which reclaimed dominance in the sport America invented, and the deeds of our leading female gymnasts. Suspicions remain over whether the Chinese allowed underage gymnasts to compete, but the facts as I saw them suggested that the Americans would have beaten a team of Chinese eight year olds in the team competition if an American girl hadn't fallen on her butt during the floor exercise.
Sports reporters have lamented the failures of American sprinters and the perhaps irreversible decline in American amateur boxing. In the first instance, I wonder whether the truly best sprinters are avoiding competition to dodge doping charges, leaving screw-ups like Tyson Gay to stumble around Beijing. As for boxing, the American failure, with only one fighter getting as far as a semi-finial, may be a sign of social progress. Boxing is the only available route to fame and fortune, or out of the streets, for ever fewer Americans. Anyone big enough to have been a heavyweight boxer can try out for football and probably make more money with a better retirement plan. If so, it follows that Americans who do end up going out for boxing are the bottom of the barrel athletically. When pitted against opponents fighting for national pride above all, the Americans were almost inevitably doomed.
At the risk of dating myself, my first memory of any sporting event was of the Munich Olympics of 1972. I was aware of the hostage crisis and the killings, but my main interest was in the success stories of people like Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut. A great thing about ABC's old Olympic coverage was their willingness to make stars out of foreign athletes, even Communist bloc people if their deeds merited it. That cosmopolitan feel seems gone from NBC's modern coverage, especially when the broadcasters whine about biased judging wherever they think they find it. On top of that, the novelty of the once-in-four-years spectacle gradually wore off as I grew older and had seen more of them. The end of the Cold War may have taken the edge off as well, as we lost the artificial element of portraying athletes as exemplars of competing ideologies and social systems. The Games have become less exotic, especially as they've strayed from their original focus on track and field into trivialities like beach volleyball and BMX bike racing. I expected to have little interest in the Beijing Games, except to see if terrorism broke out, and what you see here probably sums up what I considered noteworthy in 2008. It isn't much.