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The Shanghai Diaries: Olympic Fever

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Attention to detail type people will have noticed that I have not yet spoken one word on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. There are reasons for this, and I shall now enunciate them. Truth be told I'm not much for sports of any kind. Sure I might play a pick-up game here and there when the mood strikes me, and I have been known to catch the Tennessee Volunteers play a game or two of football, but for the most part I haven't the slightest interest in watching athletic contests.

This most certainly rolls into the Olympics. Like millions of people, as a kid I waited desperately for the Olympics to roll around every four years, but over the last decade I've not given them much mind. I believe I caught some volleyball during the last summer contest, and I usually let the TV stay on during any game of curling but other than that I just don't care. Even in the midst of Beijing madness I can't say I have any particular interest.

The Olympic spirit does flow all around me, but I've never attached much of a story to it. The Shanghai Diaries have always been about my experiences in China, and the Olympics have, until recent events, never been a part of those tales except as a mass advertisement.

Certainly there is a political angle I could take with this year's games. The international community has taken more of an interest in this year's contest than I remember them taking in a long time. Protesters and pundits alike have all written long-winded, emotional screeds from political angles, and I'm sure there will be many more words written and spoken on that subject. I could add my own words to that pile from a somewhat inside angle. Yet I will continue to decline.

Since I started writing the Diaries I have tried to keep from making larger commentaries on the culture or politics of this land in which I live. I am a visitor and I write from that perspective. While living here certainly gives me a better view of China, it in no way makes me an expert and I have no desire to write like one. This goes double for politics.

That being said I can no longer keep my mouth (or my fingers) quiet on the subject of the Olympics. When I called it Beijing madness I wasn't kidding. The Olympics are everywhere. In every store, in every shop, on every street corner I find myself staring at some Olympic trinket or another. There are cups and shirts and hats and dolls and posters and everything imaginable all printed with Olympic logos and the ever cute mascots.

When I turn on the news there is almost always some new story about the Olympics. The torch is traveling to a new city, or they have just completed a new building or there is one of the organizers to interview. The China Daily newspaper has a daily countdown to just how many days we have left to wait.

This isn't just in Beijing or Shanghai (where some of the events will take place) but everywhere I have traveled over the country. From the big cities to the small villages, they all seem to have Olympic fever. I suppose that's a testimony to just how well the country mans its mass media machine. It can pump out new stories about the games ad infinitum and plaster the people's brains with Olympic thoughts. You could infer other things about that machine, and its ability to guide the people's thoughts, but once again I'll remain mute on the subject.

I remember when the games came to Atlanta and Salt Lake City and I don't remember anything like this. When the games finally came to those cities the networks covered it, as did the sports pages. People in the office talked about them, and it seemed like every company making something was a sponsor, but there was nothing like the furor that I have seen here.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong my wife and I learned that the torch would be in the city while we were there. We thought about going to see it, but the papers weren't printing where it would be and when (or at least not in English) and after thinking about the huge crowds it would draw we decided to not even try.

On the Saturday morning we grabbed a quick breakfast at McDonalds and headed out to face the day. We quickly realized there were more people on the street than usual (and that's saying something for Hong Kong where there are usually more people on the street than I can handle). After closer inspection we realized they were all gathering around a certain street. We knew it must be the torch coming and so we squeezed our way in between the masses to have a look.

We waited probably thirty minutes before the torch actually came. All over the people wore excited smiles eagerly anticipating one brief glimpse of Olympic glory. Impromptu chants and songs broke out as we waited. You could feel the excitement of everybody on the street. Finally it came. A smiling, athletic little guy came jogging along the street. Like a wave crashing on the shore, the people all shouted and screamed and shook with joy on down the street. The runner held his torch like a superstar, and for one moment that's exactly what he was.

More than anything the Olympics give the average Chinese, those who have so very little, a sense of pride — in their country, in their community, and the human spirit. Say what you will about their government or their politics, but after seeing a little man carry a little torch, I say the Beijing Olympics is something worth cheering about.

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