Written August 2008
EVERY morning for a month, I’ve walked past the same soldier on sentry duty at the Games media village.
He has stood stiff through rain and sweltering heat, facing a vista that never changes — a wire-mesh fence and a block of flats.
On his expressionless face, a thousand metre stare.
After a fortnight of attempts by foreign journos to catch his eye, he eventually began to return our smiles.
We felt as R.P. McMurphy did in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when the Chief finally spoke.
Yesterday, as I was about to depart the village, I offered him a handshake.
His arm moved momentarily in a reflex action, but he quickly checked himself, and returned his white-gloved hand to his side.
Even in the disarming atmosphere of a city high on harmony, a young sentry cannot break the disciplines of his training.
The Chinese culture is so much more regimented and formal than ours, but they have been warm and beautiful hosts in these Games.
The people of Beijing have made sure their visitors enjoyed the city, and that the world saw the new China in a golden light.
Of course, their organizational ability was never going to be an issue. They built the most spectacular and imaginative venues in Olympic history, the best athletes village and provided the most efficient transport system.
Surprisingly, their security was less intrusive than in Athens four years earlier, and every search ended with a volunteer saying “thank you for your co-operation”.
The phrase was taught, but the sincerity was genuine.
The 70,000 volunteers, mostly university students on summer holidays, were cheerful, even if their lack of sporting knowledge at venues often rendered them useless.
My criticism of these Games would be that they’ve been too sanitised – without the spontaneity, it’s taken the herculean efforts of Bolt and Phelps to create the magic.
Frankly, Athens and Beijing have lacked the atmosphere of Sydney 2000, simply because the locals don’t seem to be as into the sport as much as we Aussies.
If the Olympic extravaganza achieves two worthy results, they are to offer athletes an incentive to strive, and to expose people of different backgrounds to each other.
When you share a meal, a train ride or walk in the park with someone, you realise just how much you have in common.
We are one world, and we do share similar dreams.
For 16 days, we have watched 10,500 athletes strive for excellence, showing respect and fair play in the most competitive and demanding environment.
The goodwill that athletes showed to each other in almost every situations should stand as an example to all the leaders of the world.
As for the residents of the host city, they have politely reminded us that – whatever the culture or creed — most people just want to take care of their families and live in harmony.
Sure, the afterglow of a glittering Olympic Games is not the time to judge whether the Chinese leaders have learned anything about human rights, freedom of expression or the environment.
Right now, there are a lot of dirty factories and power stations waiting to fire up, and a million cars ready to return to gridlock, so Beijing will be its old sooty self by week’s end.
But, as hosts for the 29th Olympiad, the people of Beijing have scored well – not quite the perfect 10, but worthy of a handshake.