BEIJING – Because it’s China.
Because I’ve never been here.
Because you can’t have a conversation in America without someone saying, “In a few years, the Chinese will take over everything.”
Because there is a Starbucks at the airport but armed guards on highway overpasses.
Because there is no bigger county undergoing a bigger change anywhere on the planet.
Because this is the culture that invented paper, the compass and gunpowder.
Because exactly 100 years ago, it ushered in its last emperor, who was 2 years old.
Because I still remember Nixon’s trip.
Because when I was in grade school, this place was crushing freedom with its Cultural Revolution.
Because when I was already out of college, this place was meeting college students with tanks in Tiananmen Square.
Because China is rich and powerful enough to be buying up America’s debt, yet narrow-minded enough to think it can censor the Internet.
Because people here who do what I do can end up in jail.
Because of the Great Wall.
Because of the Forbidden City.
Because of Taoism, Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty and Mao Tse-tung.
Because it’s historic. The mystery of China
Because my first Summer Olympics, in 1984, were also the first Summer Olympics for China in more than a quarter century.
Because today, less than a quarter century later, China stands to win the most medals.
Because like 1936 Berlin or 1980 Moscow, these Games will be a glimpse inside a powerful, repressive, cloistered society that can’t resist pluming its feathers for the world.
Because I want to see whether they are, as some alarmists claim, the enemy.
Because I want to show them, in my own small way, that we are not.
Because of this number: 1.3 billion.
Because if you took out all the people who had finally reached middle-class status, you’d still have a billion who hadn’t.
The spirit of competition
Because it’s the Olympics.
Because I want to see whether Michael Phelps can do it.
Because I want to see whether Dara Torres can do it.
Because the Games indeed have grown bloated and corrupt, but the magnifying glass for that is watching on TV; in person, the Games always look different, smaller, more personal, better.
Because I want to witness how Yao Ming is treated in his house.
Because if you diss and dismiss the Games by saying, “Everyone’s on drugs,” then the drug users win. And there are still enough honest athletes who don’t deserve that.
Because I want to see whether LeBron, Kobe, Wade and Prince can do it.
Because the idea of the Olympics is still the best idea in the world of sports.
Because it still matters.
Because the older I get, the more I want to see something I didn’t expect – something that can jolt or delight in a new way.
And because you get that feeling when you see the athletic world marching into a stadium together, holding up flags and waving.
All of this is my answer to the question I have been asked over and over during the past few weeks: “Why are you bothering to go to China?”
Because I’m lucky enough to get the chance.
Let’s see what we can find out together.