NOW THAT IT’S OVER, THE ANSWER STILL IS …

Because it’s China.

Because I can still see the Opening Ceremonies in my head.

Because the first people who greeted us gave a small bow, a symbol of respect that repeated itself every day.

Because of Michael Phelps.

Because of his mother.

Because of stories that turn on one hundredth of a second.

Because of NBA players jumping up and down at center court, as if they’d just won a high school title.

Because of seeing Kobe and LeBron, unannounced, clapping for U.S. athletes at the pool.

Because 20 Chinese will gather to give directions.

Because 20 Chinese later, you’re still lost.

Because, for once, drugs were not the story.

Because of Natalie Du Toit, an amputee from South Africa, who swam a marathon with one leg.

Because of Eric Shanteau, who arrived with testicular cancer but still competed in the breaststroke, serving notice to his disease: you will not kill my dreams – or me.

Because who knew beach volleyball had that much drama? To the Great Wall and beyond

Because I thought I knew about China and was wrong on so many levels.

Because a worker shared with me an old Chinese expression, “You’re so poor, you only have money.”

Because of Peking Duck.

Because of Usain Bolt.

Because of dropped batons and gold-medal relays.

Because fans actually cried when Liu Xiang walked off the track.

Because a 67-year-old farmer led us up a mountain to the Great Wall of China, and when we gave him more than the $4 he’d requested, he invited us to his home for a meal.

Because, despite what we heard, the Chinese do hold hands in public.

Because, despite what we heard, you do not need a mask to breathe.

Because, despite what they’re told, the Chinese do long for larger families, same as us.

Because, despite what they’re told, many Chinese seek out God and religion, even at great risk.

Because the Chinese volunteers took on Western names, like “Betty,” to make it easier for us.

Because the Chinese will give you a Chinese name if you ask, although I still can’t pronounce mine.

Because, while undeniably under a Communist government, Beijing seemed nothing like the old Soviet Union or East Germany, grim places with miserable people looking over their shoulders. There were smiles and laughter and hope and growth and a belief in their system, even if we doubt it.

Because I didn’t know that before going. For the old and the young

Because our female gymnasts were as graceful in defeat as they were on the bars and beams.

Because our softball players cried real tears when they lost their finale – not just over a silver medal, but because their sport was being eliminated.

Because an American you never heard of – Bryan Clay – won the decathlon; still, in my book, the greatest athletic feat in the world.

Because women like Sheila Taormina, Dara Torres and Lisa Leslie proved you’re never too old.

Because 14 year-old divers and who-knows-what-age gymnasts proved you’re never too young.

Because of the Forbidden City.

Because of the Temple of Heaven.

Because in two-plus weeks of sporting competition, I never heard a boo.

Because of busses next to cars next to bicycles next to a mule.

Because of hutongs (or alleys) that show what Beijing once was, and gleaming shopping malls that show what it’s becoming.

Because you never appreciate another country – or your own – until you walk on foreign soil.

Because of these reasons, and a million others, I have an answer to the question I’ve been asked upon returning: “Was it worth going all the way to China?”

I thank you and this newspaper for the privilege of telling Beijing stories.

Because it really, truly was.

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