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Seeing Flowers, Tasting Freedom

China and the Olympics are changing each other in myriad and profound ways

NO RECENT Games have opened under darker clouds—the struggle in Tibet, human rights violations, pollution, censorship and a foreign policy that embraces outlaw states like Sudan and Myanmar. But none kicked off with such strength. The opening ceremonies unfolded with a choreography that was not so much muscular as it was isometric—tight and breathtaking and topped with the great Chinese gymnast, Li Ning, flying the Bird's Nest on a wire to light the torch. And in the morning the roads to venues were clear and planted, manicured—everywhere trees and flowers and more flowers bundled and sculpted to replicate more trees. All so clean. And the venues themselves staffed with waves of slender young volunteers smiling in powder-blue-and-white polyester, the next wave on the brightest of marketing horizons. All so friendly and helpful and promising. Then came the Drum Tower attack, which was made all the more tragic by its randomness and the murderer's madness (page 68). And the most brutal irony: just when everything was going so well. The attack focused the expectations of the Beijing Olympics as clearly as it appeared to undercut them. Everyone took a breath.

The One World, One Dream lineup of lucky 8s—the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008—was a cross between superstition and marketing intended to validate massive Olympic spending ($40 billion!!!) in a country where the number eight is traditionally twined with luck and wealth. A towering banner on the side of the Pearl Market on the way to the boxing announced ONE WORLD, ONE DREAM OF SHOPPING without guile. One of the building blocks of modern China is investment in sports and the nation's thundering sports economy. In the streets of Beijing, Nike and Adidas are as Chinese as chopsticks, and Yao Ming was already the best-known athlete in the world when he led his country's Olympic team into the National Stadium and, along with the 638 Chinese athletes behind him, outnumbered all comers.

An estimated 184 million Chinese watched Sunday night's U.S.-China men's basketball game (page 50). Last season's Super Bowl between the Giants and the Patriots had about 97.5 million viewers, the most watched Super Bowl ever. You get the picture. The Chinese know their sports, and they want to win. And when it comes to these Olympic Games, there is boundless pride in what has already been accomplished. The BBC reported that a woman who gave birth to quadruplets on the 8th named the children Welcome, Olympics, To and Beijing. The economic boost predicted for the Games may fall short, but the infrastructure is much advanced and the enthusiasm day to day during the first week of the Games was palpable, the beaming looks on the faces of the athletes on the victory stands mirrored on the faces of Chinese spectators.

All of which made the attack at the Drum Tower an especially powerful shock. The government-controlled Xinhua News Agency broke the news in English and after a brief delay released it to all Chinese-language media. This was surprising to many. To others it was another sign of accelerating change. Everyone exhaled. China is a Communist country teeming with capitalists, many of them sports fans. Every one will tell you that prosperity will lead to freedom. When you ask them how they know this, they start talking about the Olympics.



INFINITE POSSIBILITIES Li Ning flew around the Bird's Nest, demonstrating that sports and freedom are inextricably linked.