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Steve Kelley: At the Olympics

Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.

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August 23, 2008 8:32 PM

The Great Wall

Posted by Steve Kelley

At mid-morning Saturday, I was sitting on The Great Wall talking on my cell, doing a radio show back to Seattle on KJR and thinking how absolutely trippy this was. I was talking about Brandon Morrow and LeBron James on one of the most famous sites in the world. It was one of those moments when I realized how lucky I am.

It was affirming. I did, after all, make the right decision to leave the world of washer repair (which I was lousy at) to pursue a life as a sportswriter. (Insert your own joke here.)

I would have kicked myself all the way back to Seattle if I hadn't come here, to the Wall.

Once again, it was getting late in the Olympics and there was so much of Beijing I hadn't seen. That's the nature of the Olympics. It is consuming. The morning events are followed by the evening events, which are followed by a brief sleep and then the process is repeated. It happens like that for most of three weeks.

Let me make it clear, I'm not complaining. During the Atlanta Olympics, I didn't feel a compelling need to get out and about and away from the Olympics. But this is China. Who knows if I'll be back? And there is so much to see. How could I leave Beijing without a trip to the Wall?

Here's the good news. I have a friend, Karen Howard, who has cut my hair for more than 20 years. (The job is getting easier, as the hairline continues its rapid recession). She has a nephew named John Tracy, who is living in Beijing, learning the investment banking world. Like so many late-20-year-olds living over here, he is adventurous and full of energy.

We met at the Kerry Center Hotel, hired a cab for the day and went to the Wall.

I don't know what to say about it that hasn't been written about or said a thousand times, but it truly is remarkable, snaking along the mountain ridges for as far as the eye can see.

It is one of those ancient sights that, as hard as you strain to figure how this was constructed, it is impossible to envision. It's like the pyramids, or the hanging gardens, or the Space Needle.

"They say that the Wall wasn't built with stone, but with the bones of the Chinese workers, because so many of them died up here," John tells me.

Hundreds of thousands of workers built the wall. Many of the workers were prisoners sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for their crimes. Building the wall must have felt like a death sentence. Beijing's weather is so severe, workers died from the searing heat. They died from the bitter cold. And they died from the grueling and dangerous work.

Construction began 2,000 years ago. Separate walls were built and connected to protect China from "mauauders." Standing on the wall and looking at the rugged, lush, green mountains on the other side, however, the Wall seems almost superfluous. Just getting through the mountains should have been daunting enough. I was thinking they could have built a few lookout posts and saved a lot of lives and stone.

But then they wouldn't have this great place for tourists to come, just a little more than a half hour from the heart of Beijing.

The fact is, the Wall didn't work. Guards could be bribed. They could change sides, like baseball free agents. The Wall's most effective purpose turned out to be as a highway above the mountains that transported people and goods smoothly. It was a better freeway than a fortress. Or at least that's what I've been told.

Now it just transports tourists. Thousands and thousands of tourists. It attracts vendors who hawk goods, food, drinks and trinkets at the base of the Wall.

Still, you can get a moment of space in the sea of people and stare in either direction at the roller-coastering ribbon of stone, and just appreciate the Wall for the scale of the project that it was and the spectacular piece of architecture that it is. We got lucky. The day was clear and sunny and we could see forever.

John and I went to the Mutianyu portion of the wall. It is made of granite and dates back to the Ming Dynasty. (I can read a guide book with the best of them). The views are especially good here, and the Ming Dynasty towers really make you feel like you're at the part of the wall that you've seen so many times in pictures.

A cable car can take you to the top, but John, being young and in shape, insisted we climb. And me, not wanting him to think I'm some kind of wuss, agreed. (I tried to use the excuse that I broke my ankle just three weeks ago, which I did, but John wasn't buying that.)

The trip up was easy and the trip down was a blast. There is a tobaggan ride that looks like the luge run at a Winter Olympics that takes you down the side of the wall. It actually is as tame as a water park slide, but still fun, although I doubt it has much to do with the Ming Dynasty.

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August 21, 2008 9:09 PM

Life Without Lauren

Posted by Steve Kelley

Lauren Jackson was already gone from the Seattle Storm. She missed the final five games before the Olympic break, choosing to train for the Australian Olympic team.

But that loss was temporary. That was a leak that could be fixed.

In Jackson's absence, the Storm went 3-2 and four of those five games were on the road. That small success is the hope the players will cling to now that the news is official and Jackson is gone for the final eight games of the regular season and beyond.

She will have arthroscopic ankle surgery next week in Sydney and will be out a minimum of a month. For the Storm, who came into the Olympic break only a half game behind San Antonio in the WNBA West, the news is devastating.

It means everyone on this MVP-laded roster is going to have to play like an MVP if it has any hopes of getting to the league finals, when Jackson thinks she'll be ready to play again.

"We know we can do it," point guard Sue Bird said. "For me, I've been asked to do a lot even with Lauren on the basketball court. To be more aggressive, but I'm definitely going to have to turn that up a notch and try to bring everybody together.

"It's not going to take one person to fill her shoes. One person can't do it. That's impossible. She's Lauren Jackson. It's going to take a collective effort. But we have the pieces. Obviously I'm sure a lot of people are disappointed, because she's that good of a player. But we can still make the playoffs and we can still make some noise in the playoffs."

But you can't replace Lauren Jackson. You can't make up her numbers. You can't re-create her intensity. On a very good team that includes Bird, Swin Cash, Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes, she is the hands-down MVP.

"She's one of the best players the game has seen," said MIke Thibault, assistant coach on the U.S. women's Olympic team and the head coach of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. "When I think about matchups that are hard to defend in our league, we spend a lot of time, a lot of time, worrying about how to play against her. She just changes the game."

The Sun will play the Storm in Connecticut in Seattle's second game back from the break.

"You have a player who's as big as she is, but is mobile. Can shoot threes. Can postup, pass, rebound and can block shots.You're talking about an elite, elite player," Thibault said. "You take her out of the Storm lineup, well, I know they'll be optimistic. They have a good team. They have people who know how to win, but she's great. She just is. If it were to have happened earlier in the year, maybe you could make some adjustments, but at this stage of the season, you're losing arguably one of the three best players in the league."

Jackson will take one last injection to fight off her pain, then play one final game, the gold medal game, for Australia Saturday against the United States, before she leaves for home and for surgery.

"You can tell when she plays how much she loves it," Thibault said. "I feel bad for players who have never had the chance to play fully healthy. But I think it isn't just the Storm that's going to miss her. Our league will miss her."

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August 20, 2008 8:08 PM

A chance Malawi meeting

Posted by Steve Kelley

The East African country of Malawi is one of my favorite places on the planet. It's home to one of my good friends, Lester Namathaka, one of the country's educational pioneers. I'm hoping to visit there again later this year.

The Malawians I've met are hungry for learning. They are voracious readers. When we visited villages there, my friends and I were greeted like royalty, because the Malawians knew that we shared their interest in education. Their appreciation of our help with the education system was heartfelt.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries on the poorest continent, but the people I met (and I met many) have this indomitable spirit that gives me hope that conditions will improve. At the heart of that improvement will be books and education, which will lead to better opportunities and greater hope.

It was my great good fortune this week to see a woman in the cafeteria at the Main Press Center wearing a Malawi T-shirt. Turns out Lucy Kadzongwe is a sportswriter for The Guardian, a paper in the capital city of Lilongwe. The paper is onwed by Duwa Mutharika, the daughter of the State president.

Lucy is here as part of the International Olympic Committee's Media Outreach Program, which helps journalists in smaller, poorer countries become part of the Olympic experience. This is her first Olympics and she said she is hoping to return to London in 2012. I told her she should come to Vancouver in two years and see a place much different, but equally as beautiful as her part of the world.

She has been covering her four Malawian athletes, none of whom made it past qualifying. Two were swimmers -- Charlton Nyirenda and Zahra Pinto. And two were runners. Chancy Master finished 10th of 12 in his qualifying race in the 1,500 meters. And Lucia Chandamale finished 15th in qualifying for the 5,000 meters.

Other than her country men and women, Lucy said Malawians are especially interested in coverage of volleyball and table tennis.

One of the joys of covering the Olympics is the opportunity for new friendships. I told Lucy that when we returned to Malawi, I would introduce her to Lester and we could travel around and see the advances the country has made in its education. I'm hoping she'll take me to a soccer match.

The circle widens.

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August 18, 2008 8:08 PM

Aretha Thurmond: My favorite athlete in Seattle -- or at least very close to it

Posted by Steve Kelley

After she had qualified for the finals in the Olympic discus, her first time qualifying for the finals in three Olympics, Aretha Thurmond stopped in the mixed zone and told stories and laughed and fizzed like champagne. This was an athlete completely enjoying the moment.

And after 15 delightful minutes, I kiddingly -- maybe only half-kiddingly -- told her she was my favorite athlete in Seattle.

That was Friday night. On Monday night, Thurmond struggled. She was short on all three of her throws and didn't make the cut for the final three attempts of the final. I watched her disappointment. Saw her slowly pull on her warmups, sit down and stare across the track, alone in front of 92,000 people.

I watched her gradually gather herself and start to walk off the track. And saw her face, almost expressionless, as she entered the mixed zone to talk to a small group of Seattle writers.

Then Thurmond smiled and talked with us for 15 more entertaining minutes. She talked through her disappointment. She didn't mumble a couple of short answers. She didn't march through the mixed zone with a sullen expression that told us to stay away. She laughed and joked and celebrated the good fortune she felt, even in defeat.

I asked her why she was able to be so gracious, when so many athletes are so aloof.

"I love what I do and I know that my reactions and actions can affect others," Thurmond said. "I have no reason to cry right now. I have no reason to be upset right now. I came out and I gave it my all and I want my family and friends and support group to feel the same way.

"I don't want them crying right now. I don't want them upset. I want them to be happy for me. You know what I mean. And I guess my thing is that I understand how difficult this is and how awesome it really is to be a medalist, because it is that difficult. It is that hard. Yeah, I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to beat myself up. I had three throws to try to get it done and I tried. That's why I can leave with my head held up because I really tried. I guess I'm just different."

The Mariners' clubhouse should be so different. A lot of athletes could learn for Thurmond, who is the captain of the U.S. track and field team and was thrilled that her discus teammate, Stephanie Brown-Trafton, won the gold, the first U.S. women's discus thrower to win a medal since the 1984 Games.

"This is history in the making here," she said. "We had two Americans in the finals. And maybe this will open some eyes and let people know that we can win medals in the throws. So help us."

Thurmond will leave China with a smile on her face. She is the national champion. She is an Olympic finalist, which means she's one of the dozen best in the world at what she does. We all should be so accomplished.

"It's been a great experience here. I just wish I had had a better result," she said. "I really have enjoyed myself. My heart goes out to my teammates who didn't get to see their dreams come true. My heart goes out to myself because I didn't get to see my dreams come true today. I think that's what we learn in our sport. Shoot, there's good days and bad days. There's ups and downs. Had I thrown what I threw in qualifying I'd still be out there. Sometimes you just never know what's going to happen."

Thurmond, 32, has two meets left in her season, one in Paris and one in Stuttgart. And said she isn't done. And the idea of continuing to throw all the way to the 2012 Trials and maybe earning a trip to the London Games is, at the very least, enticing.

"I definitely know I can throw one more year," she said. "I'd love to be able to throw one, two, three, maybe four more years. You look at a lot of the women who are out there and they were born in 1960, 1965 and if that doesn't give you motivation, I don't know what does. It's definitely a sport of longevity and if I can get all the support right and get everything together, hopefully we can make it happen. Maybe London in 2012 isn't such a bad idea."

Keep throwing Aretha. And keep smiling.

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August 17, 2008 7:58 PM

Becky Hammon grows weary of grilling

Posted by Steve Kelley

Clearly Becky Hammon was getting tired of the line of questioning.

The Russian national basketball team was making its way through group play at the Beijing Olympics, heading toward Tuesday's quarterfinal match against Spain, but its pony-tailed point guard was answering questions about the Russian incursion into Georgia.

The point guard fron South Dakota, who plays for San Antonio in the WNBA, was questioned about walking into the National Stadium for the opening ceremony under the Russian, not the United States, flag and an exasperated frown creased her face.

She was tired from playing a difficult game and tired of answering and re-answering the same non-basketball questions.

"Any more basketball questions?" Hammon asked before leaving the mixed zone interview area.

She knew what she was getting into when she accepted this assignment. Even though she was second in the voting for the WNBA's MVP last season, Hammon believed she hadn't been given a fair chance to make the United States' team. All she got was what she believed was a courtesy invitation to a tryout camp in March of 2007.

In the meantime she had signed with Russian team CSKA Moscow for four-years and $2 million. It is also believed she was given the option of earning bonus money if she got a Russian passport and played for Russia in the Olympics.

She took the deal and has been taking the heat ever since.

In the most infamous criticism of Hammon's decision, USA coach Anne Donovan said, "If you play in this country and you grow up in this country and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not a patriotic person."

Funny thing about that is that this Olympics is full of people playing and coaching in one country who are citizens of another.

NBA assistant coach Donnie Nelson is an assistant on the China bench. He was trying to beat the United States last week. Is he unpatriotic? Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman is playing basketball for Germany.

And China's sports superstar, Jenny Lang Ping, who helped her country win the 1984 volleyball gold medal in Los Angeles, is now the coach of the United States team. She was greeted with a loud, warm ovation by the Chinese people when she was introduced last week before the start of the China-USA women's volleyball game. China isn't holding some misguided grudge.

This is the way of the Games in 2008 and Hammon shouldn't be considered unpatriotic because she's playing basketball for Russsia. She's on a team. She's not in the army. She penetrating defenses, not invading Georgia.

"The experience has been great," Hammon said last week. "The Olympic Village has been awesome, meeting different people from all over the world. The Chinese people have been great hosts. They've been very hospitable."

Hammon has made it clear she isn't here to talk politics. She said she hasn't been involved in conversations with teammates about the situation in Georgia.

"The Russian girls comment on it here and there, but for me this has never been a political statement," she said. "It is not going to be a political statement now. I have nothing to do with our government and I have nothing to do with the Russian government. I'm just here playing basketball.

"I knew there were going to be people who had very strong opinions and strong feelings about me playing. My thing has been that I want to get the truth out and once people heard the truth I think they can draw their own conclusions."

She said she wasn't uncomfortable walking behind the Russian flag at the opening ceremony. Her only criticism of the ceremony was that she spent so much time underneath the stadium, waiting for the call to enter, that she didn't see much of the show.

She came here for basketball and there is no doubt Hammon is the Russian coach-on-the-floor. After a 24-second violation in a game against Brazil, she yelled at teammate Ilona Korstin and pointed to her temple telling Korstin to think.

But Hammon has had issues with Russian coach Igor Grudin. He has given her quick hooks after turnovers and, she says, he doesn't watch game tapes with the passion that American coaches do.

"I'm still trying to get everybody in the right spots and trying to communicate," Hammon said. "We've had a couple of shot clock violations and I'm screaming, but sometimes they don't hear me. I really wish I could sit down and watch ourselves. Watch film, but unfortunately we haven't watched much film and we really need to. We're finding ways to win, but they haven't been pretty.

"I'm still trying to feel him (Grudin) out. What kind of substitutions he makes. When and why. That kind of stuff. But I'm not here to question anybody's coaching ability."

The Russians entered medal play still looking out of sync. They lost Sunday to Australia 75-55 in their final game in Group A. The U.S. and Australia appear headed for an inevitable gold medal match.
Russia's best hope appears to be bronze.

Hammon has talked with most of the U.S. players. They visited during a pre-Olympic tournament. She said her decision never has been uncomfortable for them.

"They don't care that I'm playing for Russia," she said. "They're athletes. They get it. They understand. And since I've been here Anne (Donovan) has been nice to me. Water under the bridge. We've all moved on and let it go."

But the inevitable questions follow Hammon so that she can't completely let go. And when she talks about her U.S. Olympic snub there still is an edge to her voice.

"I had agents and coaches and GMs calling and feeling out that situation (whether she had a chance to make the U.S. team)," Hammon said. "There just wasn't much encouragement. It wasn't very positive. I'm a pretty bright girl. I can read between the lines. I can pick up what you're layin' down."

Hammon just wants to play basketball. But -- and this is unfortunate -- her decision to play it for Russia, in the Olympics, will linger through Beijing and all the way back to the WNBA.

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August 16, 2008 3:27 AM

The greatest moment in sports ever -- or at least close to it

Posted by Steve Kelley

One last lurch. One desperate dive at the wall. Caught between a Serb and a second place, Michael Phelps gathered up one final stroke for the ages, one last swoosh toward immortality.

It looked like he was done.

Milorad Cavic, a relatively unknown Serb swimmer liviing in California, was about to put an end to this unprecedented and seemingly inevitable gold medal quest of Michael Phelps. The 100 butterfly was going to be Phelps' Waterloo.

Cavic led by .07 over Phelps as they made the turn. Phelps was in seventh place and inside the Water Cube, American fans were in a panic. The picture in front of them was all wrong.

It takes a moment like this to truly measure the greatness of an athlete. Greatness needs to be tested. It needs a Cavic, someone who isn't afraid of the legend swimming next to him. Greatness needs a gut check. Life is easy when every win is a rout. But how does Greatness act under pressure? How does Greatness react to adversity.

Here was Cavic swimming unafraid. Leaping ahead of Phelps. Cavic, the perfect foil, heartlessly playing the spoiler. It was a truly spectacular, Olympic moment.

But Greatness understands the circumstances. Greatness adjusts. Greatness has deep, deep reserves of willpower. Greatness finds a way past all of the adversity. It overcomes..

In the final 10 meters, Phelps was a mess. He looked done. The timing of his strokes was off. In a race that was going to be decided by a hundredth of a second, it didn't look like he had the time or the distance to get to the wall first.

But this is where Greatness happened.

Phelps knew how to win this race. Cavic didn't. Timing be damned, Phelps practically threw himself at the wall and touched just below the surface of the water. Cavic glided in, probably secure in the knowledge he had won. He rode his last stroke like a wave.

For a moment, it looked as if Cavic had won.

Phelps hit the wall, tore off his goggles, spun toward the scoreboad and saw the result. The crowd, certain he had lost, gasped. Then it gasped again when the results appeared.

Phelps was first in 50.58. Cavic finished in 50.59.

Some immediately thought the fix was in. Serbian officials filed a protest, but referee Ben Ekumbo said the Omega timing system had worked.

Indeed, Phelps won. NBC's super slow-motion proved as much.

Even the good-natured Cavic said of the Serbian protest, "I would drop the protest. I'm stoked with what happened. I'm very, very happy."

Continuing the protest would have been sour grapes. And this moment was too sweet for sour.

This is what we hadn't seen from Phelps. We had seen his remarkable natural ability. We had seen the fruits of his long, painful hours of training. We knew he was among the greatest Olympic athletes of all time and knew he had won more gold medals than anyone ever.

But in his quest for eight in Beijing 2008, we hadn't seen THIS. We hadn't gotten a good look at his heart. We didn't know if, even he could react to athletic adversity this drastic.

All of us were pretty sure we would see the most remarkable 100 of all time on Saturday, but we thought it would be on land, at night, in the 100-meter final featuring the fleetest triumverate ever -- Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay.

Turns out the most remarkable 100 was in the pool..

Phelps tied Mark Spitz' 36-year-old record, winning his seventh gold medal by this .01 second. He will go for his eighth-and-final gold on Sunday morning, swimming a leg of the 400 medley relay.

But ridiculous as it is to say, I believe, Phelps' Beijing Olympics won't be defined by the unprecedented eight golds, but by one last-ditch lurch that got him to the wall ahead of Cavic..

"I think the biggest thing is that when someone says you can't do something, they don't know," Phelps said in a brief appearance in the mixed zone after the race. "But this just shows you that anything is possible. When you put your mind to something you can do anything."

In this race we learned even more about Michael Phelps. Under the most difficult circumstances, he found something else inside of him. He found a desperation that even he couldn't describe.

"It seems like every day I'm in some sort of dream world," he said. "I have to pinch myself to make sure it's real. I'm just happy to be in the real world. When I did chop that last stroke I thought it cost me the race. But it turned out to be exactly the opposite. If I would have glided in, it would have been way too long."

Greatness was pushed inside the Water Cube. Michael Phelps discovered a show-me swimmer from Serbia, who thought he just might be able to beat the best man ever on water.

For 99 meters, Milorad Cavic was right.

But Greatness finds ways to the wall. Greatness finds ways to win.

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August 15, 2008 8:32 PM

Say it ain't so

Posted by Steve Kelley

Getty Images

"Performance" dancers at men's basketball game..

I always thought the Olympics would remain above the tawdry exhibitions that pass for fun during the time outs at NBA games. I even thought the Olympic creed said something about no dance teams. I mean what would Jesse Owens think?

For decades, when we went to the Olympics, the events were the entertainment. The fans were so thrilled to be there, whether it was ice dancing, fencing, luge or badminton, that they didn't need to listen to the Bee Gees during the break. They didn't need canned excitement. This was the O-freaking-lympics, for crying out loud.

Alas times have changed.

Even Michael Phelps in the pool. Tyson Gay in the starting blocks. LeBron James on the fastbreak aren't enough for the Olympics anymore. Even these Games have been honkey-tonked.

At the basketball games, for instance, we have been "treated" to the Beijing Dream Dancers, the Beijing Dream Performers and the Beijing Dream Stunt Team. The stunt team is a knockoff of Seattle's Dunking Ushers, who are a knockoff of any number of other acrobatic dunkers who leap off trampolines and do flips before they dunk.

Don't get me wrong, they're very athletic and very entertaining and they make me nostalgic for Squatch. But at the Olympics? And the saddest part is that, on most days, the Beijing Dream Stunt Team gets one of the loudest cheers of the night. Besides China, and Kobe Bryant, they are the most cheered peformers at the basketball venue.

As far as I can tell, there are two sets of Dream Dancers, one local, one more Laker girl. Again the crowd seems to embrace the Laker Girl group as if it were the Rockettes and this is Radio City Music Hall. And the Dream Performers, well, they're a nightmare, doing staggeringly bad routines to the theme from Zorba the Greek, for instance, when Greece is playing.

Call me old fashioned, but I Iiked the Olympics when the only non-competition entertainment was the endless playing of the theme song for that particular Games. (My favorite was the theme from the Lillehammer Games, which loosely translated, was titled, "Give Yourself a Hug."

I guess we can't fight the march of corporate sport. And corporate sport demands more than the games, even at the Games. People at sporting events need to be entertained non-stop. Silence is the enemy.

What would Wilma Rudolph think?

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August 14, 2008 8:26 PM

Behind all the world records

Posted by Steve Kelley

Records are falling like bowling pins inside the Water Cube. So many so fast that they've become expected, like going to a baseball game and knowing you're going to see a no-hitter. If someone merely sets an Olympic record, the time practically is greeted with groans.

Swimmers are setting world records for world records. It's getting ridiculous.

In the space of a half hour on Friday morning, Rebecca Soni broke a world record in the 200-meter breaststroke, swimming it in 2:20.22, The old record was set more than two years ago by Australia's Leisel Jones, who finished second in this race.

Soni's record was set at 10:12 a.m. here.

Fans had barely digested their breakfasts.

At 10:19, Ryan Lochte broke the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, beating his own record set in Melbourne in 2007.

After a brief pause to celebrate the 19th and 20th world records in this pool, Michael Phelps (who else?) set the third and final world record of the day in the 200 individual medley, beating his record set in Omaha at the Trials in July, swimming 1:54.23, which experts tell me is very fast.

It was an American world-record hat trick and it happened in a half hour.

We're learning a lot about physics at these Olympic Games. Maybe you once thought swimming was the lowest of low-tech sports. Swimmers shaved their bodies, made themselves sleek as dolphins and --provided they weren't using performance-enhancing drugs -- just tried to naturally out-stroke each other. It was simple.

It wasn't like track and field, where a new shoe could be designed, or a new composition track created that could shave split-seconds off world records. You don't see records falling in track. At this Olympic meet, even with a fast track, fans will feel lucky if one or two world records fall.

When records become expected, the amazingness of the feat should softened a bit. Germany's Britta Steffen only set an Olympic mark, winning the 100-meter freestyle in 53.12 and I almost felt like asking her at the news conference what went wrong.

Phelps' sixth gold medal Friday also was his sixth world record. His win in the 200 individual medley was the 21st world record from this meet.

Horse racing fans understand the difference between a fast track and a sloppy one. But a fast pool? What is happening?

I remember swimming in a pool in Baden Baden, Germany that had these powerful jets that pushed you faster around the pool's circuitous course. But there are no jets here. And, unless one or more of these record-holders comes back with a dirty drug test, we have to assume the records are falling naturally.

So, no jets. No drugs.

Is it just fast water? Is swimming in this pool like swimming inside some energy drink?

The answer appears to be, "yes."

This pool is a meter deeper than most Olympic-sized pools. Deep water is good. I know it because that's what the swimmers say.

And this pool has 10 lanes, which means the outside lanes on both sides are empty, creating less splashing. A smoother pool is a faster pool.

And then there is the matter of these suits, the new Speedo LZR racer. I've heard that even Pork Chop Womack could slip into one of these suits and challenge world records. It's all about the drag, man, and these suits have no drag. It's better than swimming in the nude -- or so I'm told.

There is one more reason that seems to make perfect sense and has nothing to do with physics. Elite swimmers get paid now, so they have more time to devote strictly to swimming. Phelps, for instance, will earn about $5 million this year, not counting the $1 million bonus Speedo has promised him if he wins eight Olympic golds.

(That seems inevitable as high tide now, doesn't it?)

Remember, back in the day -- 1972 to be specific -- there was very little corporate sponsorships. A swimmer couldn't make a living in the pool. Mark Spitz went into dentistry because he couldn't make money swimming. And back then, I'm sure, setting world records was like pulling teeth.

It's hard to draw a conclusion from all of this. If every night a batter hit for the cycle. If Kobe Bryant scored 50 points in every Lakers' game. If Tiger Woods broke course records every time he teed it up, at some point all of the drama would be gone.

But that isn't happening at the Water Cube. Trust me, I've seen more world records fall this week than I've seen in the rest of my life. And whether it's Soni, Lochte or Phelps, it still feels thrilling.

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August 14, 2008 8:38 AM

What pick and roll?

Posted by Steve Kelley

Even before the national anthem, when the U.S. still was going through warmups, there was a different feel to the men's game with Greece. The Americans were grim-faced through the player introductions. There was no pre-game laughter. No special handshakes.

This was the meeting the Americans have anticipated since Japan in 2006, when a team from Greece that had no NBA players on its roster, ran the most elemental play in basketball, the pick and roll, perfectly, over and over again, against a U.S. defense that was helpless to stop it.

Greece beat the United States in the semifinal of the World Championships and U.S. basketball has been smarting from that loss ever since. And because it came in the wake of the United States winnng only bronze in the Athens Olympics, the loss was even more devastating.

This was the rematch. And it was a mismatch.

On Thursday night, in the third preliminary round game of the Olympic basketball tournament, the United States was committed to its defense. It was hell-bent on stopping the pick and roll. It was swarming and angry and almost scary in its approach to Greece.

And it got revenge, smothering Greece, 92-69.

This win was practically dream teamy.

"Defense just requires energy and brains and we had a supply of that tonight," U.S. assistant coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I'm just really proud of the way they came out here tonight and just took care of business. Sure there was a little bit extra tonight.

"Two years we've been listening to everybody talk about how we can't defend the pick and roll. We couldn't do this. We couldn't do that. Well, not true. We proved we can. We pressured them more today and we knew that was going to be a key. We really stressed that. Watching what we did in 2006, they ran it to perfection back then."

The U.S. is turning this Olympics into some kind of redemption tour. It will take a team -- maybe Spain, maybe Lithuania -- playing better than it has ever played to beat the United States. It's going to take something like Greece did in Japan two years ago.


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August 13, 2008 7:52 PM

The mixed (up) zone

Posted by Steve Kelley

They have this system for interviewing athletes at the Olympics that is as archaic as it is chaotic. The place is called the mixed zone and it makes the mosh pit at a Metallica concert look as tame as two seats on the aisle at the Seattle Opera. Neumo's is a church by comparison.

After every event, athletes walk through a maze that is cordoned off by the equivalent of the velvet ropes you see at exclusive New York nightclubs. If they want, the athletes can stop and visit with reporters, usually the ones they know, or the ones who at least speak their language. (I've often been caught in back of a guy I thought was English speaking, only to listen to him start off in a volley of Italian.)

But when the athlete stops, reporters climb all over each other craning their tapes recorders, their necks, their ears, to get a morsel of a quote to throw into their stories.

Sometimes -- rarely -- this system works perfectly. At the Water Cube the other day, while most of the U.S. reporters still were interviewing American women from a previous race, a couple of English-speaking swimmers who had just lost to Michael Phelps in the 200 freestyle final, South Africa's Jean Basson and Great Britain's Robbie Renwick, not only stopped, but were excited to talk about their small part in creating Olympic history.

Phelps had just tied the Olympic record by winning his ninth overall gold medal.

Only a few Canadian and British writers were there with me, while the Americans were working in another part of the mixed zone's switchbacks. The swimmers were great and their cooperation was deeply appreciated.

Most often, however, the system doesn't work. Most often it's downright humiliating. Take the women's gymnastics team final on Wednesday. The U.S. had just lost a heartbreaker to the Chinese after Alicia Sacramone had fallen in both the balance beam and floor excercise. In a room barely the size of walk-in closet, one set of reporters (American) was mashed together, trying to get a word from the devastated Sacramone. We were so pushed together, none of us could have written a word even if we heard one.

In another corner of the closet/mixed zone, the excited Chinese press (many of them cheered unashamedly when China won the gold) pushed forward as one to get immediate responses from China's tiny-dancer gymnasts. There was almost no separation from the two groups and at one point I wondered what it would take for tempers to flare and whether I would get caught in the crush.

Fortunately, with deadlines and such, the crowd thinned. The Chinese went into a news conference where one reporter asked one of the gymnasts what she did to celebrate her 16th birthday. (It was a trick question, because there are very real suspicions that some of the gymnasts aren't 16, the mininum age to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics.)

Sacramone, I must say, handled herself beautifully. She took the blame, offered no excuses and was remarkably composed. A certain group of baseball players in Seattle could learn a little something from her.

The best way to learn to survive the mixed zone is to watch old tapes of Wes Unseld battling Paul Silas for rebound position. Quickly find a spot close to the ropes, spread your arms, give yourself a solid base with your feet and don't budge. (Back in the day, the Germans were great at this. Before smoking bans, they would spread out their arms, holding a cigarette and creating even more space with their smoke. (Paul Silas probably would have tried that if he had been given the option.)

That works, unless Sacramone decides to stop either 10 feet before she gets to you, or 10 feet after she passes you. Then you're toast and you have to hope the gaggle next to you tires and leaves a space for you to slip in.

Also, I noticed on Tuesday night, the United States men's team has found a way through the mixed zone. LeBron James led a group of players, who hurdled the ropes and sprinted into the locker room, which is closed from the media.

We may not see better hurdling until next week when Liu Xiang, Dayron Robles and Terrence Trammell meet in the 110-meter finals.

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August 12, 2008 5:37 PM

Dreaming big

Posted by Steve Kelley

The best thing, actually the only good thing, about missing the 10 o'clock bus back from the basketball venue to the Main Press Center is that you have a half hour to talk hoops.

Outside the Beijing basketball gym, I bumped into Doug Collins, former NBA all-star, former coach at Chicago and Washington and the commentator for Olympic basketball for NBC. I believe he and Hubie Brown are the best teachers of the game on television.

We were talking about how this U.S. basketball team is different from all of the recent teams. This team seems to respect where it is and respects the coaching staff. It hasn't been worn down like the 2004 team was by coach Larry Brown's relentlessness. It has had three summers to play together, to learn each other, to feel more like a team.

And this summer, everybody is here. Kobe Bryant missed the World Championships, where the U.S. lost to Greece and got bronze. Dwyane Wade, who missed last summer's America's tournament in Las Vegas is healthy. The players have embraced the three-year commitment USA Basketball asked of each player and they are playing a much more cohesive game.

The one nagging problem remains outside shooting. Bryant is 1-for-15 on his jump shot through the first two wins over China and Angola. That is hard to believe. LeBron James hasn't been sharp outside. Neither has Wade. Collins believes it's because these guys aren't used to just catching and shooting the ball. On their NBA teams, they're the guys who penetrate and kick to other players. They're the guys who create their own space, create their own jump shots. As hard as it may be to believe, they aren't used to merely receiving a pass, squaring up to the basket and shooting a barely-contested jumper.

My guess is they'll figure it out soon.

Greece is looming. The team that beat the U.S. in the semifinals of the World Championships two years ago, by slicing apart the defense with non-stop pick and rolls, plays the Americans on Thursday night.

"That's our only loss in three years," USA assistant Nate McMillan told me after Tuesday's yawner-of-a-win over Angola. "That's stayed with us."

In that tournament, the U.S. didn't have a zone in its defensive package. A zone could have slowed down Greece. Now the U.S. has a zone. The coaches thought about test-driving it against Angola, but decided not to show it to their next couple of dangerous opponents. (Spain looms after Greece).

McMillan, whose main responsibility is defense, said the team has put a much more comprehensive defensive package together since the worlds.

(BTW, McMillan would have loved to have played zone in the last meeting with Greece, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski, like his mentor Bob Knight, devoutly believes in the man-to-man.)

"The pick and roll is stil the hardest play to defend in basketball," McMillan said.

The United States got lazy -- as it still sometimes does -- in its loss to Greece two years ago. The Americans got a lead and then feel asleep.

Redemption can get ugly. Greece should discover that on Thursday.

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August 10, 2008 5:29 PM

A moment of silence

Posted by Steve Kelley

Early Saturday afternoon, in the middle of his volleyball team's final practice before the start of their Olympic tournament, men's coach Hugh McCutcheon was told he had a phone call.

"We saw him leave practice, but didn't think it was a big deal," said USA player Lloy Ball. "That stuff happens all the time."

But McCutcheon didn't come back. And he may not return for the rest of these Olympics.

After practice, the team was told the shattering news that McCutcheon's in-laws had been stabbed.

His father-in-law Todd Bachman was dead. And mother-in-law Barbara was in critical condition. Barbara Bachman underwent eight hours of surgery Sunday and was listed in critical, but stable condition.
The players only were given the facts at the time and those facts were vague.

Imagine their horror.

Many of them had family arriving in Beijing on Sunday. Ball's wife Sarah and two children were coming. Was some terrorist group targeting Americans? Were they, their families, all Americans in Beijing, in jeopardy?

And then imagine their anguish.

The Bachmans weren't just part of their coach's family, they were the first family of volleyball.

"They are always around," said team captain Thomas Hoff

Their daughter Elisabeth played in the 2004 Athens Games. The Bachmans traveled to volleyball games, both men's and women's and brought gifts and food to the players.

"Hearing the news was tragic, stunning, words can't describe it," Hoff said. "All you can do is think about what the team could do to help. We knew the best thing we could do was to come out here and try to play volleyball."

Some three hours after the stabbings, the players were told that the acts appeared to be the random. The work of a madman.

They were assured this isn't the harbinger of another Munich. There was no evidence that Americans were being targeted.

It is impossible to make sense out of the senseless, to find meaning in something so meaningless, to find inspiration in such cruelty.

So the American volleyball team did the only thing it could do, it played a game. The players tried losing themselves inside the sport they love, their coach loves and the Bachmans have loved.

"I told the guys to go out and enjoy the game of volleyball," interim coach Ron Larsen said. "It is a game and we should love playing it."

Less than 24 hours after learning of Bachman's death, they were on the court, in front of the world, pursing a medal that still was desperately important, but this game, at least, had lost much of its Olympic magic.

"At times they played like they were a little bit sad," Venezuela's Joel Silva said.

Playing in spurts, the United States won a match it was supposed to win, but didn't play the way it had hoped, beating less-talented Venezuela, 25-18, 25-18, 22-25, 21-25, 15-10.

"The last 24 hours have been so hard. Obviously we're playing volleyball and that doesn't compare to the loss that happened to our team and to our whole family," Hoff said. "We all came here to do this and it's very hard to continue on, but our first and foremost thoughts and prayers are with their family."

McCutcheon, a compassionate, hard-boiled coach from New Zealand, called the team on Saturday night and tried as best he could to explain the situation. He said he wouldn't coach them in their opener and didn't know if, or when, he would return.

Suddenly, a team that came to China with so much to win, felt like it was losing everything. Its coach, part of its family, all of the momentum gained from the past four years.

But, still their coach, McCutcheon also offered his guidance.

"To hear his voice and get the leadership from the guy who has been leading our squad for the last four years, meant a tremendous amount to the guys," Hoff said. "He told us that we had to try and move on in our own way.

"This (Olympics) is what he's been building for. This is what he's expended so much passion and energy on. He told us it would be difficult, but together, we could be much stronger. We are completely cognizant of the situation that is going on and we are totally aware that we may see him and we may not."

After the pre-match introductions, the U.S. players made Olympic officials wait to start the match as they gathered in a circle on their side of the net.

They needed this moment together to try to put everything in some kind of perspective before the matches began. They bowed their heads and observed a moment of silence for their late friend and his grieving family.

"It was very difficult in an arena like this and with Olympic protocol and all, but we knew one thing, they weren't going to start the match without us," Hoff said. "We wanted a moment together, where we could gather our thoughts.

"We wanted a moment of silence to honor the Bachman family and Hugh's family. It's tough to change (protocol), but we wanted to do it."

The grieving and the moments of silence will continue through this tournament. The U.S. volleyball team lost part of its family Saturday, in a murder that can't be explained.

And the only option left now for the players, is honor their friends by playing these games with the same kind of passion and affection that the Bachman family has always shown them.

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August 10, 2008 10:37 AM

China celebrates hoops

Posted by Steve Kelley

Carmelo Anthony threw the ball away and China had its first possession of its home Olympics. Then, as the shot clock ticked down, Yao Ming wandered freely at the top of the three-point line, got the ball and hit the first three-pointer on home soil in Chinese Olympic history.

And the crowd, which was buzzing with anticipation before the game like an old Vegas crowd on a big-time fight night, went wild.

Thus began the most entertaining 31-point blowout I've ever witnessed.

As the reviled (at least in our hometown) commissioner of the NBA David Stern knows all too well, China loves basketball. If he wants the league to capture some of its old pizzazz, he should move Memphis to Beijing. The Griz finally would have a home that loved them.

This was the kind of full house that would warm the hearts of every NBA capitalist. If Clay Bennett was watching, he'd probably already be planning to move his team out of OKC and situate it right here in the new Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. This Glitterdome has a capacity of 18,000 and even has luxury suites. It was made for the NBA.

But back to the game, which was won by the U.S. 101-70. In front of the world's most appreciative audience, China hung with the Americans for 15 minutes. The Americans are still having trouble hitting any shot besides a dunk, which helped keep it close.

China was able to take an 11-7 lead and still was tied with the faster, stronger U.S., 29-29, with six minutes left in the half. And for just a moment, this was beginning to feel like Lake Placid in 1980, kind of a miracle on hardwood.

(Before I forget, after the player introductions, the crowd lustily sang along with the public address version of the Chinese National Anthem and it was absolutely stirring.)

At times this crowd was a little schizophrenic, rooting for both teams at the same time. (In the player introductions, Kobe Bryant, not Yao Ming, got the loudest cheers.) They love their basketball here and they obviously were thrilled that their country's first game was against the best collection of basketball players in the world.

Eventually, the Americans' smothering defense wore down China's weak-handled backcourt. Dwayne Wade, another Beijing favorite (heck, this crowd would love Calvin Booth), created havoc and ignited fastbreaks.

The U.S. transition game is so good it makes the court seem like it's about 60-feet long. These young Americans looked to run every time they touch the ball, They have point guards -- Jason Kidd, Wade, Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- who can deliver the ball. And this is the best set of finishers in the history of the sport.

China still only trailed 49-37 at the half, but LeBron James, Bryant, Wade and Chris Bosh led a 14-3 run that ended the third quarter with a 74-48 lead. The run was so spectacular that the fans didn't know whether to feel elated or depressed.

The truth is, this crowd could leave its beautiful new home happy with the knowledge this is the best Chinese National Team ever. Its goal is to make it out of group play and into the quarterfinals. It's a difficult, but reachable goal.

But the crowd also can be excited about the way the United States, the home of their real hoop heroes, played. Since China won't win Olympic gold, I get the feeling the fans would like nothing better than to see the U.S. reclaim its championship.

And now the kiss of death.

I think the going to cakewalk through this tournament. Defending Olympic champion Argentina is a shell of itself, already 0-1. Spain in the only reasonable threat to the United States' redemptive run to gold.

In some games, the U.S. still might need Michael Redd or Bryant to punish a team from the outside. But the Americans' defense is the best in the world. And it is playing together like no team since the Dream Team.

This team is so athletic, powerful and deep. In the fourth quarter, when coach Mike Krzyzewski cleared his bench, his "scrubs" were Redd, Carlos Boozer, Tayshaun Prince, Willians and Paul.


But the real story in Sunday's opening game was the great affection China showed for the game. Beijing deserves to host this tournament. For that matter, it deserves to host the Griz, or the New Orleans Hornets, or the Minnesota Timberwolves, or any of a half dozen foundering NBA franchises.

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August 9, 2008 12:01 AM

The Forbidden City: There's no doubt where we are

Posted by Steve Kelley

One of the problems with visiting a city when it is hosting the Olympics is that the combination of government security and International Olympic Committee dictates masks much of the host's charm. When we leave one of these places we often think that we'll have to come back after The Games to see what it really looks like.

I did that in Barcelona in 1992. Went up the coast to Tossa de Mar for a week, then came back to Barcelona and it was a different place. Much more its hip and historic self.

In Atlanta in 1996, the entire city was turned into a honky tonk. There were almost as many carnival workers as athletes. It seemed like there was a Tilt-A-World on every corner. (OK, I'm exaggerating.) In Salt Lake City it was much the same. It was the first Olympics after 9/11 and the fences and concrete security barriers littered the city.

And let's face it, as beautiful as all of the newly built venues always are -- my favorite still is the VIking Ship that housed speedskating at the Lillehammer Games -- after a while a stadium is a stadium, a gym is a gym and all of us get lost in the competition. We could be just about anywhere in the world.

That's why this morning I got up early to accompany photographer Rod Mar (who I'm spending entirely too much time with) to Tiananmen Square and the Forbiddden City to watch the cyclists blur by on their way to The Great Wall.

For this event, there was no doubt where I was. There was Chairman Mao's portrait looming like a deity's over the scene. That picture of course is legendary. And the shot Rod got of the cyclists passing with Mao in the background is a classic.

For me, because I wasn't working on deadline, I got an hour to walk around. To stop in the square and think about the tanks that rumbled through and the violence that happened here.

For the few events like this, that are free to the public, the squares almost always are packed with people and the avenues are lined with spectators. But Saturday the scene was surprisingly tranquil. Most of the people there, I got the impression, were tourists, who were there for two of China's most popular attractions, not the Olympic event. And when the cyclists came by (they were in our view for all of about 11 seconds) there was no cheering. It was as if nobody was paying attention.

But for me, it was magic. I was in Tiananmen Square. There was no Coke banner covering Mao's face on the Forbidden City's wall. The square didn't have some mini-roller coaster rattling around. There was no doubt where we were. This was China. This was real. .

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August 8, 2008 1:12 AM

Great people, spectacular sights but Chinese blunder with Cheek

Posted by Steve Kelley

Five days in a country hardly qualifies me as an expert, especially because so much of Beijing has been taken over by the Olympics that some of its heart has been removed.. But my early thought is that this certainly is a country of contradictions (The same can be said for the United States, by the way.)

Everybody I've met -- everybody -- has been unbelievably kind and helpful. Even the cab drivers have been affable. And cab fares are ridiculously cheap. (Sidebar: before the Olympics, the Chinese government bought all of the Beijing drivers yellow shirts and dark slacks, so even they are in uniform.) We also have these handy cards that show some of the landmarks, so that when we're going some place like the Forbidden City, we can just show the cab driver the picture of the place and the language barrier is bridged.

The city is huge, but it is remarkably clean. China's baseball manager Jim Lefebvre said the changes from when he got here five years ago are remarkable. He said the city used to be "kind of gray," but now it is all florals and greenery. Our accommodations are the best I've had in eight Olympics. The North Star Media Village is a collection of 30-story high rises that surround a beautiful countyard. The place is kept immaculate and there are gardens everywhere -- all violets and impatients. In the middle of the courtyard there's even a Buddhist temple.

And then there is the other side of China, the other side of Beijing. Every day has been gray and smolderingly hot. I can't imagine running an 800-meter race here, let alone a marathon. I've made a vow to myself to never again complain about the grayness of a Seattle winter. This Beijing gray is 100 times as oppressive and depressing as Seattle's gray.

The air is practically apocalyptic. Maybe it's haze. Maybe it's smog, but it is constant. And all it does is keep the heat underneath it like a foul-smelling down comforter.

But most disturbing about my first five days in China has been the news that the visa for Olympic speed skating gold medalist Joey Cheek was revoked. Cheek is the front man for an athletic group known as Team Darfur, which shines a light on the murderous Sudanese government, a government that China has supported.

This is supposed to be China's time to shine. These should be the days when it opens its arms to everybody. This should be a time of harmony. China should be an unambiguous ally to everyone. And, at least for these 17 days, Joey Cheek, whose Olympic soul belongs in Beijing, should be celebrated for his passionate activism, even by the Chinese government.

But in this case, it's as if China can't help itself. It has to be the way it is. It has to stifle Cheek's expression. It has to ignore its support for Sudan's government and ignore those who know that support is encouraging a violent regime.

The government doesn't get it. The worst thing it could have done was keep Cheek out of the country. All that did was draw more attention to itself. To its strange alliances with Sudan and Zimbabwe. To its human rights violations. Etcetera. At the least, barring Cheek from the Games was a monumental public relations blunder.

Like most places on the globe, the people here are warm and hospitable. You get the feeling they are thrilled to see the world coming here. Just a generation ago, China was closed to the world. That seems hard to believe now, as we walk around this city and see so many different styles of dress and listen to so many different languages being spoken.

But it's never the people. It's the governments that screw things up. It's the political leaders -- who are so removed from the reality of every day life -- making these wrong-headed decisions that affect the way their countries are perceived.

Five days into my stay in China, as the Olympic Games finally are about to begin, my early review is mixed. Great people, spectacular sights, hideous weather and a government that can't even loosen its grip for Beijing 2008.

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August 7, 2008 12:47 PM

The NBA in China

Posted by Steve Kelley

Underestandably we're a little down on the NBA in Seattle these days. Something about the Oklahoma City Thunder, or Blunder, or whatever they've decided to call themselves. And, pessimistic as it is to think this way, it could be another decade before the league returns to Seattle and a remodeled KeyArena.

But half a world away, in Dongdan Park, just a block from Beijing's busiest shopping area, the kids on the court are in love with the game. And much of the affection is a tribute to marketing. The courts here are sponsored by Nike. There are swooshes on every center circle on every full court.

During non-Olympic times, posters of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade cover the walls and fences surrounding the courts. A block away, a Nike store showcases jerseys, shoes, just about every saleable item from all of this Fab Three.

Pointing in the direction of the Nike store, 15-year-old Wang Xiao Giang, who plays for his school team in Hunan Province, says "You can look at all the stuff right there. You can see pictures of all the great NBA players. The NBA is everywhere at the store."

Wang admits, almost heretically, that his favorite player isn't China's Yao Ming. He says it's Miami's Dwyane Wade, a member of the U.S. Olympic team. And his second favorite is Denver's Allen Iverson.

"I like his lifestyle," Wang said. "I think he's cool."

Nike cool. Marketably cool.

Wang also had a prediction for the Olympic tournament, which opens Sunday with a game between China and the United States.

"I don't think the United States will win the tournament, but I know that China cannot beat them," he said. "But I think China can win enough games to get to the round of eight. That would be very good for us."

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August 7, 2008 6:05 AM

The old skipper's in China

Posted by Steve Kelley

Hobbling on a bad hip that he says needs to be replaced, Jim Lefebvre met Rod Mar and me at the front of the Olympic Village on Thursday afternoon and entertained us with movie's worth of stories for two hours.

His team was playing in a scrimmage against the United States at 6 p.m., but you got the feeling Lefebvre was so grateful for this chance to talk baseball with people he had known for years that he would have stayed in the village's cafe until about 5:55.

The former Mariner manager may have lost a step, but he hasn't lost any of his fire. For two hours he bounced around the booth in the cafe like he was back at second base with the Dodgers. He'd jump up and ilillustate techniques. He was the same high-energy, motivational speaker he'd been in Seattle.

Lefebvre is the manager of China's Olympic baseball team and, while his team won't win a medal, he thinks the game has a great future in this country.

"There is no question in my mind, there is absolutely no question, that if China every commits itself to a baseball program it would be a world power in a very, very short period of time. They have incredible athletes here and I know where to get them and they're not in baseball."

I joked to him that if they weren't in baseball where was he going to get them? Team handball? Lefebvre looked shocked.

"Where did you come up with that?' he asked as if I had exposed a state secret.

For a period of time during training, the baseball team has shared a training facility with China's team handball squad and Lefebvre was amazed at the athleticism of the players.

"They're all big. They're tremendous athletes," Lefebvre said. "The first time I saw their practice I was sitting with our pitching coach at the time Bruce Hurst. We were just kind of lounging around and then the practice began and we saw some of the athleticism and we sat right up.

"They have great arm strength. They have that hand-eye coordination and they'll throw the crap out of the ball. They're tough players. I'd go over every day to watch them practice and just think, 'Wow, they'd look good in a baseball uniform.' I saw how agressive they were and I wished I had one of them."

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August 6, 2008 8:18 AM

Hobbled and hot, but Beijingers are more than welcoming

Posted by Steve Kelley

Gingerly I stepped off the bus as it parked in front of the North Star Media Village, my home for the next three weeks and -- whoosh -- three bright-faced Chinese college students rushed to my aid as if they thought I was about to topple into a flaming pit.

You see, the day before I left for China I stepped into a hole while I running and sprained an ankle in the fall. Now, after an 11-hour flight, I was hobbling. Put it this way, Jose Vidro could beat me in a race to first base. Getting off the bus I must have looked to those students like I was John McCain's grandfather.

But I'm not looking for pity. The point of this story is that, in these first days of the Olympic experience, even the usually stony-faced customs agents smiled and asked me if I was excited about the Games. China's people are making the world feel welcomed. From the time I got off the plane, people have jumped to lend me a hand. They pushed my baggage cart all the way through the airport to the bus. They wouldn't let me load my bags onto the bus. One of the kids even grabbed my elbow and led me to the seat. I was equal parts humiliated and grateful. At least early in my stay, I'm going to have to rely on the kindness of strangers while my ankle shrinks.

At the door of our high-rise apartment building, two uniformed kids, with sashes that say, "Welcome," open the door every single time anybody enters the building.

Now for the other side of the story. The air stinks. Imagine being inside a sock. That's what it feels and smells like here. There is a layer of air hanging over the city that looks like a wet, dirty dish towel. The air actually has texture and it holds in the heat like asbestos. If it stays this bad, I can't imagine how any athletes could run an 800 meters, let alone a marathon. Maybe a storm system will blow in before the track and field events. There are rumblings a storm is brewing that could disrupt the opening ceremony.

Still there is something magical about being here. As I was coming into the city on Monday, I remembered watching on TV as Richard Nixon's motorcade drove from the airport into downtown Beijing. China seemed so foreign then, it was like watching Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. That's how mysterious this place was then and some of that mystery still exists.

I've been fortunate enough to visit some exotic spots -- Afghanistan, Malawi, Kilimanjaro. This feels exotic like they felt. And every morning I wake up and remind myself I'm in China -- in China, covering the Olympics. That's pretty cool.

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August 5, 2008 11:14 AM

Switching sides: From China, with love

Posted by Steve Kelley

Lang Ping and her teammates started this very different kind of revolution in China. They won a gold medal and turned a country wild for sports.

In 1984 in Los Angeles, while the Soviet Union boycotted the Summer Olympics reciprocating for the United States boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, China came. And in women's volleyball, China won.

Lang was the star of the team, all, ferocious, charismatic, a killer in volleyball's best sense of that word.

China rolled through Los Angeles on the way to gold and, when it came home, the players were treated like conquering warriors. That win opened a country's eyes to the possibilities of sport.

"I was surprised after we won that people were so excited," said Lang, late Tuesday afternoon, answering questions in both English and Chinese in a large auditorium in the Main Press Center. "It was a huge thing that happened in China. It was like a dream. At that time China wasn't an open door to the world. But since then the Chinese people believe that we can do well. And not just in sports.

"I think it gave the people confidence to have a better life. To connect with the rest of the world. I think that was more meaningful. Not just our success on the volleyball court."

USA Volleyball

Jenny Lang Ping.

Lang was the harbinger of hooper Yao Ming, the pioneer who cleared a path for gold medal diver Guo Jingjing. She was a significant part of the beginning of an athletic movement that is so profound, this country's heart practically will stop beating for the 10 seconds Liu Xiang runs in the finals of the 110 meter hurdles.

The Olympics are in Beijing, in large part because of the success of that volleyball team.

"Everybody here knows who she is," said Nicole Davis, a U.S. national team member since 2004. "She is such an historical figure in this country and I think that's a beautiful thing."

Even 24 years later. Even though she has been the United States coach for the past four years, Lang, who's American nickname is Jenny, still is one of China's most beloved figures.

Davis remembers a match played in the World Grand Prix in China against China in 2005. Lang's picture was on billboards around the arena. And, up in the cheap seats, Chinese fans were holding cards with Lang's picture and cheering for the U.S.

"That was a remarkable thing," Davis said. "Chinese people supporting our country. Supporting us.
"There have been times when we've had to be her bodyguards. People here just want to touch her. Mothers have thrown their babies at her. They just want to be near her. There's no parallel to that. Not Michael Jordan. Not anybody. I think the way she's respected here is extremely unique."

After her retirement from competition, Lang coached China to a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and coached for six seasons in the Italian professional league. Now she is coming home with a very different team, in a very familiar setting. Her U.S. team is ranked fourth in the world.

"This is a very unique Olympic Games for me," Lang said, "because I'm different now. I feel back home. There's just the feeling I'm back home. I don't feel there's any pressure on me. Maybe it's because I'm home, or maybe because I'm more mature. I feel like I can enjoy the Games and enjoy the process more, not just the results."

These next two-and-a-half weeks are a tribute to the power of sports and the force of Lang's personality.
China has emerged as a sporting power. It is a player in the world. And Jenny Lang Ping is the player who helped start the revolution.

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August 2008