China makes Day One of the Olympics its own

Aug. 09, 2008, 12:08 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Midday Saturday, local time, China got its first gold of the Beijing Olympics. Taxi driver Liu Zhongliang caught the drama on his radio. He kept his eyes on the road but both ears on the live Voice of China broadcast.

The radio announcer was overcome with emotion.

"I can see tears in the eyes of the spectators!" she reported from the weightlifting arena, her voice filling Liu's cab. Blissfully unconcerned that she was on-air, the reporter sang along - "selflessly braving the enemy's gunfire, march on!" - to the Chinese national anthem that played for Chen Xiexia, China's small but strong Olympic champion who lifted twice her own bodyweight on the way to gold.

The reporter signed off with a yell: "China, I love you!"

China's critics hated that Beijing got the games. But being Olympic hosts sure seems to be making the Chinese feel good about themselves.

Seven years of preparations are over. The world has come to China's once-closed door. Venues worked, athletes competed, glitches seemed few and minor; Beijing appeared to be passing the acid logistical test of the Olympics, Day One. The spectacular opening ceremony of the previous night left a lingering buzz, not a hangover.

"Oh, what a night we had!" exclaimed a headline in the China Daily.

Can Beijing keep this going for two weeks?

In a country so big, at such a historic time, there's a constant feeling that something - anything - could blow up big in the Olympic microscope.

Around the moment that Chen was getting her medal in weightlifting for women weighing under 48 kilograms (105.8 pounds), there was a darker drama in a different part of town. A man stabbed to death the father in-law of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon and seriously injured his mother in-law at the 13th-century Drum Tower, popular with tourists because it gives them a great view of old Beijing. The man then leapt to his death from the structure, where drums once tolled the hours in imperial times.

The tower is not an Olympic venue, and the U.S. Olympic Committee said the coach's in-laws were here as tourists and were not wearing anything that would have singled them out as Americans.

Nevertheless, the seemingly random and extremely rare attack on foreigners, in a city crawling with the Olympic policing, showed that no amount of security can guarantee that China's communist leaders will get the successful games they so crave.

Olympic alchemy is a delicate thing. The $40 billion poured into games-related infrastructure has provided stunning arenas for Olympic champions to make history. But having a pool with a bubblewrap-like exterior or a stadium that looks like a bird's nest is not enough.

Overbearing security can kill spontaneity. In central Beijing, the route for Saturday's men's cycling road race was protected by continuous metal barriers, followed by a row of white T-shirted "security volunteers" and a final line of plastic police tape strung between the trees. This is one of the few events where hard-to-buy tickets are not required. The wild Tour de France - where spectators at times run alongside the riders - this was not.

"Don't push against the barrier. You're overexcited," said a security guy to middle school student Deng Jiaxi, 16. She got to hold up a rolled-up banner marked "Jia you!" or "Go for it!" but the whole pack of riders flashed past in 30 seconds.

"It was over so quickly," Deng moaned.

Feel-good crowds can make the difference between a good and great games.

In Beijing, there's been spectator training ahead of the Olympics. They've been instructed what and what not to holler and to be good sports.

But there's a clear hometown bias.

American Michael Phelps, one of swimming's greatest champions, got barely a cheer as he opened his bid for a record eight gold medals on Saturday. A team of Chinese women relayers got a roar. Boxing had cheerleaders with green-and-yellow pompoms and sparkly hot pants and the crowd's darling was clearly Chinese light heavyweight Zhang Xiaoping.

This is the first time that Chinese spectators have gotten to cheer for their Olympians on home soil. Many are going with revolution-red Chinese flags painted on their cheeks. But it's not just about taking part. National pride is on the line. The government has long portrayed sports as a test of national strength.

That means that the race with the United States to finish atop the medal table is on.

Chen Shaohong, owner of a cigarette, liquor and tea store on the cycling route that snaked out of Beijing to the Great Wall, said he expects nothing less.

"China is a strong country now. We have so many people that proportionally we should be on top," he said.

Only to serve customers waiting for the cyclists did he break from watching the weightlifting on his flatscreen TV.

"That is fabulous," he enthused as Chen made easy work of snatching 93 kilograms (205 pounds). "The gold should be hers. That is what we all hope."

Pang Wei picked up a second gold for China in men's 10-meter air pistol.

But the weight of 1.3 billion people's expectations proved too much for shooter Du Li. Expected to bag the very first gold of the games, the defending champion instead flunked the final round and finished out of the medals in fifth. There was a soft but perceptible groan from the crowd.

So many people watching, so much pressure to succeed.

One can sympathize.