By Jennifer Nordin, Staff Writer
The 2008 Beijing Olympics began with a spectacular display at the National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest) in the Opening Ceremonies on Aug. 8 and ended with an equally awe-inspiring Closing Ceremonies on Aug. 24. In between, was a 17-day rollercoaster of emotion and excitement that only happens every four years. There were thrilling victories and crushing defeats by the slimmest of margins. It was a Games which saw China win an astounding 51 gold medals, a young Jamaican become the world’s fastest man, and an American become the all-time winner of Olympic gold medals.
These Games were also a time for China, as host country, to show the world that it is an emerging power in all ways. However, the event was marred by tragedy when Minnesotans Tom Bachman and his wife Barbara were attacked. Bachman, CEO of Bachman’s floral, was killed in the attack and his wife was seriously injured. The attacker then committed suicide. The Bachmans were in Beijing with their daughter Elisabeth Bachman McCutcheon, a 2004 Olympic volleyball player, and their son-in-law Hugh McCutcheon, coach of the gold-medal-winning U.S. men’s volleyball team.
The Olympics also saw its share of disqualifications of athletes who used performance-enhancing banned substances. The International Olympic Committee performed about double the tests it had in Athens. Many athletes were disqualified from competition by their home countries before the Olympics. There were also murmurs about the Chinese women gymnasts, with many doubting that all on the team were the minimum age of 16 because of their very youthful appearance. (At press time there was no substantiation of the rumor that the Chinese gymnasts were younger than 16).
Despite the unfortunate events, there was definitely more to celebrate than lament during the Beijing Olympic Games. Just some of the athletes’ achievements follow.
Chinese men dominated artistic gymnastics in Beijing winning seven gold medals including the team competition (Japan won silver and the United States bronze). The results of the individual events were: Yang Wei – All-Around, Zou Kai – Floor Exercise, Xiao Qin – Pommel Horse, Li Xiaopeng – Parallel Bars, Zou Kai – Horizontal Bar (U.S. gymnast Jonathan Horton won silver), and Chen Yibing – Rings (Yang Wei won silver). The only apparatus that Chinese men did not medal in was the Vault. Leszak Blanik of Poland won that event.
The women’s artistic gymnastics team competition also saw China in to top spot on the medal podium. U.S. women took silver and Romanian women won bronze. Chinese women performed well in the individual events but were out-shined by Americans Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson. In the All-Around competition, the American gymnasts went 1-2, a first in Olympic history, with Liukin winning gold and Johnson silver. China’s Yang Yilin took bronze (Johnson beat her to the silver by 0.075 points).
Nastia Liukin, 18, was born in Moscow to gymnast parents. The family moved to the United States when she was a toddler. Her mother, Anna Kotchneva, was the rhythmic gymnastics world champion in 1987 and her father and coach, Valeri Liukin, won two gold and two silver medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics while competing for the Soviet Union. She surpassed her father by winning 5 medals in Beijing—All-Around (gold), Floor (bronze), Uneven Bars (silver), Beam (silver) and team (silver).
Shawn Johnson, 16, is from West Des Moines, Iowa. Her coach is Chow Liang, former member of China’s men’s gymnastics team. Johnson won four medals in Beijing—All-Around (silver), Floor (silver), Beam (gold) and team (silver). While from different backgrounds, the two are good friends and were roommates in the Olympic Village in Beijing.
The Chinese women medaled on Vault (Cheng Fei—bronze) while America’s Alicia Sacramone placed 4th and was just 0.025 points behind Cheng. In the Uneven Bars, He Kexin of China won gold and Yang Yilin bronze, and on Beam, Cheng Fei of China, bronze. Jiang Yuyuan of China placed 4th in Floor Exercise.
China won seven out of eight gold medals in diving with four gold medals in women’s diving and three golds in men’s diving. Diving is one of the most popular sports in China and beloved diving star Guo Jingjing capped her career with two more gold medals. She won the Synchronized 3m Springboard with Wu Minxia and individual gold in 3m Springboard with Wu Minxia taking bronze. Wang Jin and Chen Ruolin won Synchronized 10m Platform. In 10m Platform, Chen Roulin took the gold and Wang Jin the bronze.
The crowds in the National Aquatics Center were enthusiastically deafening during the diving competitions including the Men’s Synchronized 3m Springboard won by Wang Feng and Qin Kai of China, the Men’s Synchronized 10m Platform won by Lin Yue and Huo Liang, and Men’s 3m Springboard in which He Chong won gold and Qin Kai won bronze. This continued through the end of the Men’s 10m Platform where the crowd, expecting a Chinese sweep of the diving medals, were shocked into silence as Australian Matthew Mitcham won gold over China’s Zhou Luxin who had to settle for silver.
While China dominated diving, the United States was the powerhouse in swimming in Beijing. The story that overshadowed other triumphs in swimming, as well as many great stories of the Beijing Olympics overall, was that of American Michael Phelps. The 23-year-old broke the record for all-time Olympic gold medals (14) when he won an unprecedented 8 gold medals in this Olympics, surpassing Mark Spitz who won seven gold medals in swimming in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany in 1972. He won 6 individual gold medals and 2 team golds in the 4x100 freestyle relay and the 4x100 medley relay. But not only did Phelps win eight golds, he did it in record-breaking fashion. Seven of his eight swims broke world records and the eighth broke an Olympic record. He swam the 100m fly in 50.58 seconds (an Olympic record) just beating Milorad Cavic, a California-born swimmer for Serbia by 0.01 seconds.
Other outstanding American swimmers include 41-year-old Dara Torres who won two silver medals, breaking an American record in the 50m freestyle, a race which she lost to Britta Steffen of Germany by 0.01 seconds. In her fifth Olympic appearance, she is the best she’s ever been. Natalie Coughlin won six medals in Beijing including a gold medal in the 100m back, bringing her career total to 11 Olympic medals just behind Torres and former U.S. swimmer Jenny Thompson who each have 12. Some other U.S. swimmers who took home gold from Beijing included Ryan Lochte, Jason Lezak (who anchored the U.S. men’s 4x100 freestyle relay and the 4x100 medley relay), Cullen Jones (4x100 freestyle), Garrett Weber-Gale (4x100 freestyle), Aaron Piersol (4x100 medley), Brendan Hanson (4x100 medley) and Rebecca Soni.
Track & Field
The United States and China both faced great disappointment on the track in the Bird’s Nest. For China, it was, literally, Liu Xiang’s Achilles’ heel. The defending champion in the 2004 Games in the 110m hurdles got in the starting blocks in his qualifier, but after one false start it was evident that he would be unable to clear the hurdle, and rather then going back, Liu took his lane number off his leg and exited to the astonishment of the crowd.
Liu’s win in Athens was China’s first track and field gold and he is considered a national hero. He cannot go anywhere in China without being recognized. Fans who were anxious to see their hero win at home were devastated, many openly sobbing in the stands.
U.S. track stars steadily underperformed in Beijing. In the qualifier before Liu, Terrence Trammell of the United States, silver medalist in 2000 and 2004, cleared just one hurdle before suffering an injury in his left hamstring. In her final, American star Lolo Jones hit the ninth of ten hurdles with her foot and finished out of the medals.
The U.S. teams won both the men’s and women’s 4x400m relay, but the stand-out in track and field in Beijing was undoubtedly, 6’5”, 21-year-old Usain Bolt of Jamaica. He ran the 100m sprint in 9.69 seconds, a world and Olympic record, despite the fact he started to let up and celebrate some 15m before the end of the race, living up to his nickname, Lightning. Bolt also broke the 12-year Olympic and world record of American Michael Johnson by running the 200m in 19.30 seconds. He was also part of the Jamaican team that won the 4x100m (which included former world record holder and countryman Asafa Powell).
The United States surpassed China in the total medal count with 110 medals (36 gold, 38 silver, 36 bronze), but China won more gold medals than any other country. Of China’s 100 medals, 51 were gold, 21 were silver and 28 were bronze. Third in the medal standings was the Russian Federation with 72 medals overall.
These results follow the trend of past host countries—competing at home gives way to outstanding achievement, such as was the case at the 2004 Olympics in Athens when Greece won more medals than it ever had in previous Olympics.
While comparing medal count adds a bit of fun to those of us at home, it is interesting to gain some perspective. Kenya won a total of 5 gold medals in Beijing—its most ever in an Olympic Games. This was fewer than the 7 gold medals won by Chinese divers or the 6 gold medals won by American swimmer Michael Phelps in individual events. However, it was undoubtedly the most amazing Olympics for Kenya.
The Olympics is not about which country can win the most medals, but athletes performing their best on the world stage where we can all commiserate with their disappointments and celebrate their triumphs.