Reflecting ON BEIJING

The Baltimore Sun

Editor's Note: In the spirit of the From Baltimore to Beijing blog, Rick and Kevin dialogued about their Olympic experiences:

Rick Maese: Until a few years ago, tradition called for the Olympics to close with a grandiose and dramatic pronouncement. The top boss would proclaim for all of the gathered nations and athletes that these particular Games were undoubtedly the best ever.

As these Beijing Games draw to a close today, there's no need to jump into the deep end of the hyperbole pool. Without a doubt, though, these Olympics have produced moments and memories I'll never forget.

Michael Phelps certainly dominated the headlines, and while history will show him as a central figure of these Games, there were plenty of others, those who won medals, those who didn't and those for whom simply being here was more than enough.

Kevin Van Valkenburg: For better or worse, you can't tell the story of these Olympics without mentioning the soupy pollution that draped over the city of Beijing like it was my crazy neighbors' dirty curtains. It dominated the news the first week of the Games, even penetrating the breathable plastic walls of the Water Cube. It was also like something out of George Orwell's 1984. When the U.S. cycling team showed up at the airport wearing masks, the U.S. Olympic Committee freaked, worried China would be insulted. China was claiming the pollution wasn't bad, so even though it felt like we were all breathing brown cotton candy, Team USA had to declare that they had made a mistake and that the air really was quite lovely.

I guess if I had to pick a favorite memory from Week 1, it would be seeing Phelps on the medal stand for the first time after the 400-meter individual medley. He wanted to sing along with the lyrics to the national anthem, but he was so emotional, he couldn't do it. And when Bob Bowman saw him crying, one of the toughest coaches in all of sports started crying, too. Michael isn't typically emotional, but I think in that moment, he knew that despite all the worry over his broken wrist, he was poised to do something special.

RM: Phelps provided countless memorable moments that first week, but all Olympic headlines weren't as positive.

The motto of these Games is plastered all over town, "One World, One Dream," and because we're all living together in this temporary Olympic city - the mayor of which, based on crowd reaction, seems to be Kobe Bryant - there was one story that immediately touched us all. The father-in-law of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon was fatally stabbed and his mother-in-law seriously injured.

You couldn't help but pay special attention to the U.S. team, which somehow played its way into the gold-medal game. That's the Olympics, though. You can be simultaneously awed by the athletic achievement and inspired by the personal stories. If you don't walk out of here, Kevin, having felt chills go down your spine from some "Olympic moment," then I think the smog might've gone straight to your head.

KVV: As you know, Maese, it's hard to truly enjoy events when you're writing about them, especially when there is a tight deadline involved. You just want to be accurate, fast and eloquent. So when Jason Lezak reeled in Alain Bernard in the 400 freestyle relay, or when Phelps out-touched Milorad Cavic by .01 of a second to win the 100 butterfly, my hands were shaking - but I didn't really get chills. I was just stressed.

I did have one Olympic moment, though, that I'll remember forever. The one night there were no preliminaries to cover at the Water Cube, some friends and I wandered over to the Bird's Nest to watch Usain Bolt in the 100-meter track final. We weren't journalists that night; we were just fans. It was humid, we were sweaty, crammed into tiny seats, and the beer we purchased tasted like warm spit. We were all cranky and, in some sense, wishing we were in bed. Or at the bar.

Then Bolt exploded from the starting blocks. I've seen a lot of amazing feats as a sportswriter, but few have ever blown me away like Bolt's world record. When he started celebrating with 30 meters to go, slapping his chest and extending his arms, it was electric. I realized I would have waited three hours for that moment. On the walk home, I got a big laugh by running down the street, arms extended, thumping my chest. Later, I realized little kids all over Jamaica were running barefoot down dirt roads, extending their arms and doing the same thing I was: dreaming of being the fastest man in the world.

RM: It's funny how these moments sneak up on you. I was watching weightlifting one day with one eye tuned to the actual competition and the other studying the rules. Pardon the cheesy admission, but I was blindsided by Olympic spirit. And it had nothing to do with a gold medal.

Michaela Breeze was her name, a 29-year-old lifter from Great Britain. She had hurt her back a couple of weeks earlier and knew she had no business being there. As the only lifter representing her country, she felt she had no choice. "It's the Olympics," was her explanation. She was attempting lifts the other competitors could do with one arm. Still, she left the platform in pain on her second snatch lift and didn't come out for her third. We thought she was done.

But she gingerly walked back out for the clean and jerk. For her third and final lift, the Chinese crowd went nuts. Breeze could barely walk to the bar, yet somehow she pulled it up to her waist. Her face was beet-red, crumpled and creased in obvious agony. As she laboriously raised that bar over her head, I had never seen someone so proud. She was helped off the platform and even mustered a smile through her tears.

It wasn't about winning; it was about being here and experiencing the Games, a feeling I empathized with on some level.

What about favorite little moments?

KVV: I might have to go with Katie Hoff coming back out to face reporters after her Olympics ended prematurely when she failed to make the final of the 800 freestyle. She blew through the mixed zone right after the race but stepped up a few hours later and returned. I know she was nervous, afraid that she was going to face some tough questions, but she had the courage to do it anyway. She took a deep breath, stuck out her chin and gave the best answers she could. For that, she earned a gold medal for guts in my eyes.

RM: I think mine actually took place away from the Olympics. Before the opening ceremony, we found time to escape to the Great Wall. Along with our cameras and water bottles, we had brought with us the ashes of a dear friend's dear friend. They came all the way from Baltimore to be spread over the Great Wall.

Far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, the Wall is tranquil and sacred. Its giant stones connect not just generations, but also ages. After a few thoughtful words, we emptied the ashes, watching a breeze whisk them away. Here, they'll remain forever.

KVV: Well said, Maese. As trite as it sounds, the Olympics are, in many respects, about friendship. I was once told that covering a Games was like the Peace Corps - the toughest job you'll ever love. And I think that's true. But it wouldn't be true without your friends, and it doesn't matter if you're an athlete or journalist. It might be the U.S. men's 400 free relay team going completely bonkers in victory, embracing one another in front of the entire world, or it might be a quiet drink in the hotel bar after a rough deadline and two young scribes leaning in close to hear a venerable newspaper legend tell stories and pass on advice. I will cherish both memories equally.

It's been a pleasure and an honor, my friend. Who knows what tomorrow will bring for our industry and our newspaper, but regardless of what happens, let this be said: In 2008, Michael Phelps had the greatest individual performance in Olympic history, and we were here as witnesses, doing our best to tell the tale.

RM: In the medal standings, Baltimore-area athletes - Katie Hoff, Michael Phelps and Carmelo Anthony - fared better than more than 60 nations. They won more golds than 70 nations. Perhaps just as exciting, I expect all three to be back at the London Games in 2012 and the medal haul could be even more impressive then, if you can imagine.

I'm already looking forward to it and hope to see you there, as well.

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