Monday, August 11, 2008

Beijing Olympics - Days One Through Four; Summer Olympics - Years 1968 thru 1976

10:35 p.m. - Big scores for China on the vault. Two scores over 16. Li Xiaopeng gets 16.775. China takes over the overall lead with two rotations left. They lead by 1.575 over the US with Japan another 3.4 points behind.

China goes to parallel bars. Announcers say that any of their three gymnasts could be the best in the world on this apparatus. The US goes to floor exercise. Huang Xu opens with 16.475. Yang Wei gets 16.10. Li Xiaopeng anchors the Chinese team. Many wild release moves earn Li a cut on his arm and a big score of 16.45.

Now the US on floor exercise. Justin Spring starts. He had major knee surgery not to long ago...seems impossible that he could compete in this event. He gets 15.20. Joey Hagerty next. He lands outside the line on his first tumbling run. Another step out later. Not what they needed to maintain silver medal. First Japanese on bars scored just 15.0--down from 15.6 in prelims. Hagerty got 14.625. Horton is next. He's been the US's best. Perfect routine. No mistakes. Horton gets 15.575. US still in second by 1.7 points. US goes to pommel horse. Japan and China finish on high bar.

Artemev, Bhavsar and Tan will compete for the US on pommel horse. This is only event for Artemev. He will be the last competitor for the US.

China holds a 5.2 point lead and have accomplished their goal of being too far ahead to lose. Both Bhavsar and Artemev are alternates. Tan is first. He sits on the horse. Tan gets only 12.775, loses all of the lead. Bhavsar goes second. Does fine until his dismount. Silver medal is probably out of reach. Japan's first two high bar routines are just fine. Artemev now competing for the bronze. Bhavsar gets 13.75. Fabulous effort by Artemev, who does a crazy routine that excites the crowd. Gets 15.35. We'll see.

Germans have to do pommel horse and beat US by almost two points per competitor. Need to average 15.3 to take bronze from US. Probably not going to happen after first performer posted 14.675. Next guy gets 14.9. Bronze medal in the bag for the US. Last German needs 16.35, which is impossible. In the meantime China wraps up the gold medal with solid high bar routines. They celebrate gold while US team celebrate their bronze medals. Relief for the Chinese coach as he doesn't have to make good on his promise to jump from the highest building in Beijing if China didn't win the gold medal.

9:15 p.m. - We watched men's gymnastics until Michael Phelps time. The Chinese men did their floor exercises. The first guy fell out of bounds on his landing, but the other two guys did great.

Now the focus is on Phelps for the 200-meter freestyle. His main competitors are teammate Peter Vanderkaay and South Korean Park Tae Hwon. With a win Phelps will win his ninth overall gold medal, tieing several others, including Carl Lewis, for the all-time record. At 100 meters he's about .7 seconds ahead of world record pace. Phelps is way ahead with 50 meters left. Phelps wins with a world record time of 1:42.96. Park and Vanderkaay finish second and third, about two seconds behind.

During the commercials I'm watching the Phils and Dodgers from Dodger Stadium. Kyle Kendrick is pitching for the Phils. Despite the Dodgers' struggles, this is a tough matchup for the Phils, who always struggle offensively on the West Coast.

Back to swimming. Next come Natalie Coughlin and Kirsty Coventry in the 100-meter backstroke. My money is on Coventry, who's been swimming just great. That said of course, Coughlin wins! A great first 50 meters and push to the finish line won the race. If the race had been 2 meters longer, Coventry would have won. Coughlin's margin was 0.23 seconds. American Margaret Hoelzer picked up the bronze.

The non-Phelps event of 100-meter backstroke is next. American swimmers are Aaron Piersol and Matt Grevers. They go 1-2 with Piersol winning in a world record time of 52.54 seconds to defend his 2004 gold medal, becoming the first swimmer in 80 years to repeat as gold medalist. The US has won four straight gold medals in this event. This is Piersol's fifth world record in this event.

Phelps is stretching on the medal platform as he waits for his 200-meter freestyle gold. He has to swim in a butterfly semifinal in about 20 minutes.

The Dodgers added AL players Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake before the trading deadline. Both are in the lineup tonight, Ramirez in left and Blake at third.

Next is the women's 100-meter breaststroke. Aussie Leisel Jones is trying to atone for non-gold medal winning swims in Sydney and Athens. She's a big favorite in this race. Two Americans are among the competitors. Jones wins the gold easily (by more than 1.5 second in an Olympic record time), which according to the announcers, will allow her to go home. Rebecca Soni of the U.S. takes silver.

No score between Phils and Dodgers after 2-1/2 innings.

Now men's gymnastics. France and the U.S. lead after two events, but have competed on the higher scoring equipment. American Jonathan Horton received a score of 16.2 on the vault, the highest score I've seen so far. China has taken two scores below 15 on their first two rotations. Lots of discussion about the slow scoring. Apparently the judges can review the performance in slow motion. Yang Wei gets 16.3 on still rings. China will be moving up in the standings. Chen Yibing gets 16.575 on the same apparatus--amazing display of strength--he moves like a hydraulic-driven machine.

The Dodgers strike for four in the 3rd. Looks like I'll be watching more Olympics. Now back to swimming. Semifinals of men's 200-meter butterfly. Phelps is considered the prohibitive favorite in this event. Phelps wins the race, tieing the Olympic record at 1:53.70 and moving on to the final.

Back to gymnastics. Jonathan Horton turns in a great parallel bar routine--15.625. China moved into first on the strength of their rings routines. Raj Bhavsar followed with 15.575. Justin Spring is the third American. He's solid as well.

After three rotations, the US leads with China 0.875 points behind. The US does high bar next. Joe Hagerty gets 15.55. First Japanese vaulter steps off the mat on his landing. Unbelievable high bar routine by Horton--sticks triple twisting dismount. Gets 15.70. Justin Spring might have been better - ridiculous release moves and a triple somersault dismount to the end of the mat that has the crowd going. 15.675 for Spring.

7:30 p.m. - During the break between MSNBC's afternoon coverage and NBC's evening coverage I took a nap and cooked dinner. First up is the somewhat bizarre new sport of synchronized diving. It's appropriate that this sport's Olympic debut comes in China, the diving capital of the world. After four dives, the Chinese men are first, followed by Russia and the U.S. The Russian pair had the best dive of the fourth round. Russia followed with the worst dive among the contenders in the fifth round, but held onto second by a small margin. Russia, Germany, the U.S. and Australia are all in medal contention. The Chinese pair would have to fall off the platform to miss out on gold.

Germany got 97 points, which can't hurt their chances. The U.S. pair does the same dive and gets 93 points. They need the Russians to flop again. China gets 89 to wrap up the gold. The Russians weren't perfect, but were good enough to hold onto bronze, with Germany moving up to silver with their outstanding final dive. The U.S. finished fifth behind Australia, by just four points, and just five points from bronze.

On to women's beach volleyball. The U.S. team of Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor looks unbeatable. In fact they've won 102 matches in a row. Tonite they're playing a Cuban team, taking the first game 21-15. The match coverage opened with a human interest story about Walsh, who lost her engagement ring in the sand during the last match. The organizers pulled out the videotape, metal detectors and a squadron of searchers and found the ring after a brief search (at least on replay).

During the commercials I'll tell you about the commercials. Is there anyone in America who's not aware that McDonald's has chicken sandwiches for breakfast? I'm told, "It's juicy!" Here in Baton Rouge we're in the middle of "Car Wars", a campaign by local dealer Royal Nissan to take on a rival Honda dealership. "It's On!" We bought a new Honda CR-V in January, so Car Wars can pass us by, just like the breakfast chicken sandwich.

Back to volleyball. Team USA leads Game Two by 14-10. Now 16-12. Pie time.

Inspired by some fabulous coconut cream pie we had in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Kay bought a Mrs. Smith's version. I appear to be the only consumer, but I'm enjoying it. Oh yeah, Walsh/May-Trainor prevailed by 21-16, with May-Trainor scoring the match-winning point on a crushing spike.

2:45 p.m. - Took a break for lunch and to move some furniture (actually the old TV). In the meantime, Federer finished off Turnusov in straight sets and MSNBC moved on to women's team handball - Hungary vs. Brazil. This game is an fast-paced blend of basketball (ball--albeit smaller than a basketball, dribbling - but limited to three, passing, goal, shooting, travelling--after three steps) and soccer (goaltender, penalty shots, clock counts up rather than down)--maybe more like hockey without ice or sticks (complete with power plays). Hungary leads 20-19 in the second half, so scoring is in between basketball and soccer. The flow of play most resembles water polo--of course, it's easier to shoot and score while on your feet rather than treading water.

Now tied at 22. Brazil got a goal on a fast break after their goalie made a kick save and controlled the rebound.

For the most part, NBC seems to be using experts in the particular sports as announcers rather than broadcast professionals. With so few other major sports broadcasting contracts, NBC can focus its resources on the Olympics, its premier event. I always enjoy listening to Bob Costas, who has the Jim McKay host role. Mary Carillo, who usually does tennis broadcasts, has shown some range here. Among the analysts, Rowdy Gaines gets high marks for swimming--his prerace analysis of the 4x100-meter relay was right on, even though he couldn't see how the French could lose, other than by a perfect effort by all four American swimmers, which is exactly what happened. The next day he broke down the videotape, showing how French anchor Alain Bernard tightened up at the end of the race, taking 17 strokes to cover the distance that American anchor Jason Lezak covered in 14 strokes. He also showed how Bernard snuck a look at Lezak just two meters from the end of the race, a move he couldn't afford.

I would appreciate a little more upfront explanation of the rules of each sport - beach volleyball, team handball, water polo and other sports are all more-or-less new to me. They do explain the rules as they impact the game, which may be their policy. Now it's 25 all with less than 9 minutes left. Three fouls results in disqualification in team handball. Hungary just lost one of their starters.

With less than five minutes left it's still tied at 25. Brazil gets a power play after a Hungarian penalty. Good save by Hungary. Turnover by Hungary. Brazil takes first lead since first half. Penalty on Brazil evens the players. Save by Brazil holds the lead. Another goal by Brazil builds two goal lead. Hungary gets one back. Down one with 1:40 left. Offensive foul against Brazil. Hungary ties the game. 27 all with one minute left. No overtime in this game--not a medal game. Brazil scores with 24 seconds left. Hungary calls time with 15 seconds left. One player has 10 of Brazil's 28 goals. Ball loose. Just one second left. Direct shot scores! Game ends in 28-28 tie.

August 11 - Forgive me for being a few days late starting this. There was a hot air balloon competition in town--I spent Friday evening and Saturday morning taking pictures and awhile longer posting them to Photoblog ( I also recommend for a blog of photos from the Beijing streets as taken by my photofriend Alain (a Filipino working in Beijing - the photo at the right is one of his).

I'll try working this forward and backward at the same time. This morning I'm watching a men's beach volleyball match between the US and Switzerland on our new Sharp HiDef TV. My wife bought herself the TV for her birthday. The timing could have hardly been better - OK, maybe a day better, as we didn't get it set up in time for Friday night's spectacular opening ceremony. I hope they replay it in HD before the Olympics are over. If not, I'll look for it on DVD.

The first event we watched in HD was the men's beach volleyball match between the US and Latvia in which Latvia pulled an ominous straight set upset over the heavily-favored Americans. A prematch pep talk by President Bush wasn't enough; maybe our guys were still a little shaky after meeting the great man. Today, the Americans took the first step toward redemption with a straight set demolition of the Swiss team. An odd sight in the match was the Americans wearing goggles without lenses. Apparently the lenses interfered with their vision, but their sponsorship contract required that they wear the goggles--solution, goggles with no lenses.

The men's 200-meter butterfly brought forth a sad story. An Israeli swimmer who barely qualified for the event (it took the disqualification of a Greek swimmer to make it happen) found out two days before his first race that his 51-year-old father had died in a fall off a ladder. He swam in the first heat, finishing fourth in a time that probably won't advance him to the semi-finals. The swimmer and his sister will fly home Thursday for the funeral on Friday.

Tragedy struck directly in Beijing even before the games began as the father-in-law of the U.S women's volleyball coach was killed by an attacker on a Beijing street. His wife was seriously injured in the attack. The assailant killed himself before he could be captured by jumping from the second story of a tower. The Chinese judicial system looks very unfavorably on attacks against non-Chinese visitors. Perhaps the attacker knew what was coming. No motive has been speculated for the attack.

Michael Phelps, already a two-time gold medalist in these games, swims in the next 200-meter butterfly heat. In the stands to watch are most of the U.S. men's basketball team, including LeBron James and Jason Kidd. We were amused with the revelation that U.S woman beach volleyballer Misty May-Treanor has Kidd's #5 (actually V) tattooed on her back. I wonder what her husband, a major league baseball catcher thinks of that. It reminds me of the Yellow Pages commercial where the young woman is looking for a tattoo removal service - she has Michael tattooed on her lower back, but is marrying Tom.

Phelps won his first gold medal of 2008 in the 400-meter individual medley with a world record performance. The 400-meter freestyle relay gold came after an amazing comeback by teammate Jason Lezak in the final leg. Lezak overcame a huge lead by the French team in the last 25 meters. This came after French anchorman Alain Bernard said thatAsi the French would "crush" the Americans in a prerace statement. While the Americans exulted, the French swimmers could hardly move.

Phelps won this butterfly heat in an Olympic record time of 1:53.70. The time is slower than Phelps' world record time, but still unsurpassed by any other swimmer.

Other than the swimming relay, the competitive highlight so far was Sunday morning's (US time) basketball game between the U.S. and China. The Chinese people have developed a crazy love for the American-invented game. They love their own players--Yao Ming carried the Chinese flag in the Olympic parade. But they may love NBA stars like Kobe Bryant even more--Bryant's #24 jersey outsells all others in an NBA-merchandise-hungry China. (The first-ever NBA store was opened in Beijing, not in the US.)

For a game that was destined to be a blowout, a better script could not have been written. Yao opened the scoring with a 3-point shot. The Chinese hung in for about 15 minutes behind dead-eye 3-point shooting. With the score tied at 29, the U.S. turned up the defensive pressure to opened a healthy halftime lead. Midcourt steals and long rebounds of Chinese misses invariably resulted in U.S. dunks by LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant. James and Wade were particularly impressive. James is clearly the emotional leader of the team--and with such talented teammates he doesn't have to carry the offensive load as he does with the Cavaliers. James also contributed on defense with several frightening blocks. Wade was stat-perfect, making all seven field goals and five free throw attempts in a performance reminiscent of his 2006 playoff run with the Miami Heat. The U.S. team has adopted a new organizational strategy, signing players to three-year commitments to develop continuity and a better sense of teamwork. I wondered aloud whether the arrangement might create a conflict of interest, as these same players have to compete head-to-head for three long NBA seasons while they are U.S. teammates. One player with long international experience, but looking a little out of place among the young superstars, is Maverick guard Jason Kidd. Kidd played on the last U.S. gold-medal-winning team from 2000. Still I think the team will be better off with some combination of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant in the backcourt. Legendary Duke Coach K (Mike you know) is also instilling a mindset that every game has to be played competitively to the end, no matter what the score. This attitude should be very helpful in an ultra-competitive international tournament full of foreign-born stars with NBA experience (Pao Gasol, Manu Ginobli, Yao Ming being most prominent.)

A prelim for the women's 200-meter individual medley is happening now. Aussie Stephanie Rice, a huge celebrity in her home country, and Zimbabwean Kirsty Coventry (winner of four of Zimbabwe's five Olympic medals in their history) advanced to the next round and should battle it out for the gold medal in the final a day or so hence.

We spent much of the weekend watching gymnastics - both men (primarily U.S., China and Japan) and women (U.S. and China). Sprinkled among amazing performances were surprisingly major errors - a US gal jumping all the way off the mat in free exercise; another landing her uneven bar routine on her back. Under amazing pressure both the Chinese men and women performed well. The Chinese women's team (or at least their fans) have had to deal with accusations that some of their athletes are younger than the minimum age for competition (turn 16 during 2008). Passports issued by the Chinese government all show that the girls are old enough. Some of them do look pretty young--perhaps all the attention to muscular development has retarded their sexual development. China and the U.S. are expected to battle for the women's team gold medal. The men's gold medal battle will probably be between Japan and China with the U.S. hoping to put together their best performance for a possible bronze.

Now the story is women's water polo. We watched the U.S. men's team beat China yesterday in this gruelling sport. It's almost unthinkable the level of fitness needed to compete -- they have to tread water continuously using legs only while they play a game that's a cross between basketball and soccer with their hands. Every 30 seconds they get to swim the length of the pool. The center position is particularly challenging as the primary defender's main job appears to be attempted drowning.

Underdog China is competing beautifully with the U.S. women's water polo team. The U.S. leads 8-7 at halftime. China is only in the tournament because they're the host country. No mixed loyalties for the fans this time as the Chinese spectators are 100% behind their team, though the U.S. fans are very vocal. Whew, the U.S. survives 12-11.

My Olympic memories begin with the Mexico City games in 1968, and are more or less limited to the enduring images and sounds - U.S. sprinters Tommy Smith and Lee Evans displaying a "black power" salute during the medal ceremony, a move that got them ejected from the games; and Jim McKay's call of American Bill Toomey running the final 1,500-meter event "in the cold and the dark of Mexico City to win the decathlon."

Political statements weren't considered appropriate for the Olympics, although use of the games by the host country for political purposes is almost an quadrennial event (most egregiously by Hitler in the 1936 games in Berlin). Twelve years later, in 1980, the U.S. would make an overtly political statement by leading a boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, a move that the Soviet Union retaliated by leading an eastern boycott of the following 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Politics have been front page news at the Beijing Games as countries and athletes have struggled with how to deal with Chinese policies regarding human rights for their own people (especially those in Tibet), and support of the bloodthirsty regime in The Sudan. When China was awarded the 2008 Summer Games, their leaders vowed improvement, a promise that is widely regarded to have been ignored, as they focused on preparing for the Games and growing their economy, while maintaining tight political control of their diverse and enormous nation.

I was 18 years old and just entering college when the Munich games were held in 1972. My dorm's TV was broken and I was too poor to have my own, so I walked across campus to another new dorm to watch their TV. Almost the whole of these games were overshadowed by the murder of several Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. It was very uncertain if the games would continue. Athletically, the biggest story for me was the U.S.S.R's defeat of the U.S. in the gold medal basketball game, a contest that appeared to be over with the U.S. ahead, until the referees put a few seconds back on the clock and ignored a brutal foul committed by the Soviet center just before he scored the winning basket. As I remember, the U.S. almost refused to accept their silver medals. I mourned for years. I'm sure the players, which included long-time NBA star player and coach Doug Collins, mourned longer. Swimmer Mark Spitz did better for the U.S. medal count, winning seven gold medals in a haul that stands as a single-games record. U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps has a chance to break that record as he goes for eight gold medals in 2008. Through two events he's on track with two golds in the 400-meter individual medley and the 400-meter freestyle relay (oh yeah, I mentioned those earlier).

The 1976 games were held in Montreal. As I remember, women's gymnastics was the big story--particularly the Romanian team led by Nadia Comaneci, who logged several perfect 10 point scores. The U.S. men's basketball team reclaimed the goal medal behind coach Bobby Knight.

Next for the U.S. women's water polo team is Italy, who just beat Russia 9-8. I hope that no one drowns when Russia plays China, as the Chinese girls will be outweighed by about 2:1.

MSNBC takes over the coverage--Roger Federer is playing his first round match. The format is best two-sets-of-three. His opponentis Tursunov of Russia. Sadly, we don't get HD MSNBC with our cable package. The picture is a little fuzzy on such a large screen in non-HD format. The announcers say that Federer has been aiming for Olympic gold since seeing countryman Marc Rosset win the men's tennis gold at the Barcelona games in 1992.


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