BEIJING -- The number eight is considered auspicious in China, which is why the Olympics opened on 8/8/08.
Knock the numeral 8 on its side and you get the symbol for infinity, which is also the mark on an Olympic credential granting the bearer access to every venue and every event. "Man, that's what I want," said an American volunteer working the road cycling course at the Great Wall. "That's like having a golden ticket."
That's precisely how another writer and I have referred to our credentials over the years -- golden tickets, passports through the five-ringed gates of the Olympics. Our credentials provide our name, photo and other identification information, but they ought to include the same promise Willy Wonka printed on his golden tickets: "Mystic and marvelous surprises that will entrance, delight, intrigue, astonish and perplex you beyond measure."
And that is what I hoped to see when I cashed in my golden ticket for its full value Saturday, attending as many events at as many venues in one day as possible. My day began with Michael Phelps tying Mark Spitz and ended with Usain Bolt blowing away the world; in between I saw mystic and marvelous surprises that astonished and perplexed.
Like, who knew Iran had a basketball team?
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Jim Caple's marathon began with a huge splash: Michael Phelps winning his seventh gold medal by one hundredth of a second.
10 a.m.: The Water Cube
Willy Wonka's golden tickets instructed the bearers to be at the factory gate promptly at 10 a.m. -- "Don't be late!" it warned. No problem, I am several minutes early. And as I take my seat, I look around and wonder, "Where is everybody?" Phelps is going for his record-tying seventh gold medal, in the men's 100 fly, yet the arena is at most half-full with spectators. Journalists, both in the media tribune and crowded below in the work room, may outnumber the fans.
This is not only a shame in a country of 1.3 billion, it's not unusual -- the stands are rarely filled at these Olympics, and no one can quite explain why. The tickets were supposedly sold, but to whom? And why aren't they using them?
Their loss. They miss what I see -- the closest of Phelps' eight races, a classic decided by one-hundredth of a second, a race so close that even on the replays it's difficult to tell who won, Phelps or Milorad Cavic, a Californian racing for Serbia, where he has dual citizenship. In fact, Phelps says the race is so close he thought he lost when he first saw the replay, and the Serbian delegation files a protest. A blink of the eye or the length of a fingernail are all that separate second place from athletic immortality for Phelps.
Just imagine our moral outrage if Cavic had won by one-hundredth of a second to prevent Phelps from winning eight gold medals.
He's not Serbian! He's from Anaheim! He grew up by Disneyland! He shouldn't even be at the Olympics!
Cavic, however, is gracious and smiling at his news conference. "I guess I have mixed emotions," he says. "If I had lost by a tenth of a second or two-tenths of a second, I could be lot cooler about this, but with one hundredth of a second I'll have a lot of people saying, 'You really won that race.' That kind of makes you feel good, but I'm happy with this."
Just not as happy as Phelps. He not only is The Man of these Olympics, he is these Olympics. He is so wildly popular that Tom Brady might want to keep an eye on Gisele. But for now Phelps remains focused on the next race on his path to becoming America's next sports hero.
When he walks away from Saturday's medal ceremony, an adoring fan tosses him a little flag to wave, but it falls short and lands in the photographers' well. A photographer picks it up and offers it to Phelps but the swimmer waves it off. "No, sorry, I can't," he says. "It already touched the ground."
Yeah, he's ready for the Wheaties box.
11:28 a.m.: National Indoor Stadium
From watching one of the greatest Olympians in history win one of the most thrilling races in swimming history, I walk two minutes next door to National Indoor Stadium for the second event in my Olympic decathlon.
AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
Trampoline gets Jim's vote as one of the most ridiculous Olympic events.
I have a pretty broad perspective when it comes to Olympic sports, but as far as I can tell, trampoline is an utter joke. The athletes bounce up and down for about 20 seconds to build up their height, then add flips and twists to their bounces for another 15 to 20 seconds, and that's it. They stop, raise their arms to signal the end of the routine and wait for their scores.
It just doesn't seem like a compelling story to reach the Olympics by overcoming mean parents who were always yelling at you to stop jumping up and down on the mattress before you break the box springs.
12:47 p.m.: Yingdong Natatorium
This is the first time I've ever seen water polo in person and I don't know why I waited so long. This is a tremendous sport and these are incredible athletes. If they aren't swimming on a fast break, they're treading water while fighting for position with swarthy Eastern Europeans who is slapping them upside the head and relentlessly banging their legs underneath the waterline.
And best of all, the Croatians are all sporting Borat-like mustaches in honor of their coach, Ratko Rudic.
"We find it pretty amusing," American center Ryan Bailey says after the U.S. upsets Croatia 7-5 on the way to the medal round. "He was our coach for several years and he actually made us have military haircuts so we would look like sportsmen instead of Casanovas."
Casanovas? Where would anyone get that idea? Just because you're all tall, incredibly fit athletes who parade around in little Speedo suits under plush terry robes with your names boldly embroidered on the back? The only thing missing is Mantovani playing in the background.
2:06 p.m.: Fencing Hall
The fencing venue is pretty cool. It's inside a big, dark hall with only the competition mats lighted. The athletes wear cream-colored fencing uniforms and helmets rigged with red or green lights that flash when their foil triggers a score on the opponent's body. It's a little like watching Obi-Wan Kenobi square off against Darth Vader, minus the light sabers, capes and James Earl Jones' deep breathing.
Which, frankly, would be a welcome addition because a little fencing goes a long way.
So I grab my notebook and dash for the next bus when Poland's Karolina Chlewinska extends the lead to 35-5 against Egypt's Eman El Gammal. I've been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you I was only the learner. Now I am the master.
3:02 p.m.: Peking University Gymnasium
The table tennis site is the easiest venue to reach. You grab either the 30-minute MB14 media shuttle or just walk downstairs to the wood-paneled rec room.
Table tennis is a national pastime in China -- when I ask a transportation volunteer where I might go to see a large group of ordinary citizens playing, she shrugs and says, "Any park or apartment complex" -- and is often credited with sparking the diplomacy that opened relations between the United States and China.
[Insert your own gratuitous Forrest Gump reference here.]
The arena is mostly full for the Germany-Japan competition that is filled with dizzying volleys and lunging saves. Dimitrij Ovtcharov beats Japan's Yo Kan three games to two in the opening match, but I can't stop to see which country wins because I need to get to the next venue. There is a timeout as I leave, probably because the ball rolled under the couch and they can't reach it, even when they get down on their hands and knees to try to poke it out with their paddles.
4:40 p.m.: Laoshan Velodrome
Dave Barry wrote a terrific column about what it's like taking a cab in China, and he's absolutely right. You have an irrepressibly friendly volunteer write down your destination in Mandarin, hand it to the driver and then watch him squirm as he wracks his brain trying to figure out where the hell the place is. The first day I went to the road cycling course at the Great Wall, I handed a driver what was supposedly my destination. He waved over several other drivers, and after consulting among themselves for several minutes while gesturing elaborately and looking through the map books, he signaled me to get into the car. Forty-five minutes later, he stopped to drop me off at the starting line for the road race.
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Taylor Phinney didn't advance, but the 18-year-old son of two Olympians has a bright future.
Unfortunately, I wanted to go to the finish line, a mere 40 miles in the other direction.
Today goes much better. After a 30-minute ride, I arrive at the velodrome just in time to see Taylor Phinney finish last in the men's pursuit heats. This is not as disappointing as it sounds because Phinney is only 18 years old and this is just the 10th pursuit race of his life. He has a very bright future ahead of him.
And for good reason. Taylor is the son of Olympic medalists Davis Phinney, the first American to win a stage of the Tour de France with an American team, and Connie Carpenter-Phinney, a gold medalist in cycling who also was an Olympic speed skater.
Davis Phinney is beaming with pride for his son when he speaks with reporters after the race. He has Parkinson's disease, but surgery last April has greatly improved his condition and he holds out his hands to show that he is virtually tremor-free.
"For the longest time, my health has been like a dark cloud on the horizon for my family and me," Davis says. "It's been a weight on the family, but for the first time the sun is out and shining bright for the whole family. And it's because I had such a successful result with the deep-brain stimulation surgery that I can be here and my health isn't the predominant focus of everybody each day.
"But the reason I'm on such a buzz is we got into the Olympic Village. It's very restricted and even parents, even Olympic parents, can't get in there more than once. But just to be there in that realm where there are all these athletes -- it's like going to a superior planet. There are all these tall, sculpted, beautiful people walking around, and that's where I got the sense that these are Taylor's people now. This is his tribe. My tribe is the Parkinson's group. His tribe is Olympians."
5:55 p.m.: Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium
I take the clean, quick subway to Wukesong Sports Complex, where the basketball arena and baseball fields are right next to each other. I take a seat in time to catch the final quarter of Argentina's 97-82 victory over Iran.
Whenever the Americans play, the news-conference room is packed with reporters eager to record Kobe Bryant's every word. But apart from a handful of Olympic Committee quote-chasers, I'm the only reporter when the Iranian team shows up. When the moderator asks if there are any questions, all eyes focus on me.
Fortunately, I have a question. How popular is basketball in Iran? And how much will the Olympics help the sport's growth there?
"All these guys are from the Iranian league, and the Iranian league is not so strong," says coach Rajko Toroman, who is Serbian and considers a 15-point loss to Argentina a virtual "dream" outcome. "They have some Americans in the league and they have improved, but there are still a lot of things they need to do to become competitive. Because we don't have enough players for this type of competition. We have to work very hard, but when we see players to the NBA and Europe it will be easier for us to improve because they will get new experience."
Iran, by the way, loses its five games in the tournament by a combined score of 148 points.
6:47 p.m.: Wukesong Baseball Field
On Friday, I saw China, managed by Jim Lefebvre, beat rival Taiwan when it scored five runs in the bottom of the 12th inning. The victory was devastating to Taiwan, famed for its Little League World Series success, but a huge step forward for China, where the sport is just beginning. Judging by Saturday night's near-sellout crowd for the China-Netherlands game, the victory also stimulated interest in the game.
The crowd's knowledge still has a way to go, though. Fans applaud wildly for every foul ball.
8:58 p.m.: Beijing Workers' Gymnasium
Despite the name, the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium is a typical modern arena with four sections of seats facing the boxing ring. Despite awful traffic on the way here, I'm in time to see Cuban light flyweight (106-pound) Yampier Hernandez dismantle Ukraine's Georgy Chygayev. But I'm disappointed. With a name like Beijing Workers' Gymnasium, I was expecting a cement block gym manned with guys in green Mao hats.
10:30 p.m.: The Bird's Nest
I'll say this for National Stadium, aka the Bird's Nest. As Whitey Herzog once said of old Busch Stadium, it holds the heat well. It's a relatively pleasant night outside the stadium, but inside it's stifling due to the lack of air circulation.
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Usain Bolt blew away the field in the 100 meters with a world-record time of 9.69 seconds.
This, however, does not seem to affect Usain Bolt in the slightest. Despite running with one shoe untied and his shirt untucked, the 6-foot-5 Jamaican sprinter with the enormous strides virtually glides away from the competition to win the 100-meter final. He poses, mugs, dances, wiggles his hands, blows kisses and then the world's fastest man crosses the finish line in a world-record time of 9.69 seconds. Could Bolt have gone faster if he had run all the way? Sure, but where is the fun of that? Besides, as Bolt says, "I didn't come here to break the world record because I already was the world-record holder. I came here to win."
Asked about Bolt's early celebration, Dr. Herb Elliott, the physician for the Jamaican Olympic team, offers unapologetically, "We are showmen in Jamaica."
The striking thing about Bolt's display is there is no mean-spiritedness to it, there is no intention to show up his opponents. It was just an exuberant display of unfiltered joy. And why not? He won the oldest, simplest and purest of competitions -- I can run faster than you -- and the entire world was several steps behind. As silver medalist Richard Thompson says, "Usain was just having fun."
I know the feeling. It has been a long, tiring day (I fell asleep twice on bus rides), but as I walk away from the Bird's Nest, I feel as though I'm being carried on a magic carpet.
Willy Wonka promised the golden ticket-holders that they would be escorted home by a fleet of trucks filled with "enough delicious eatables to last you and your entire household for many years. If at any time thereafter you should run out of supplies, you have only to come back to the factory and show this golden ticket, and I shall be happy to refill your cupboard with whatever you want. In this way, you will be able to keep yourself supplied with tasty morsels for the rest of your life."
My golden ticket has given me a pass to 10 Olympic sports in 10 venues, and I've been entranced, delighted, intrigued and astonished beyond measure. I've seen Chinese playing baseball and Iranians playing basketball. I've seen a race decided by an eyelash and another won with laughter. I've seen athletes compete proudly for countries that didn't exist when I was in college. I've seen a Cuban who weighs 106 pounds fight passionately for his country. I've seen a man with Parkinson's standing tall, firm and strong due to his mere presence with Olympians. I've even seen a Chinese crowd serenade a Dutch pitcher with "Happy Birthday to You."
And if I ever feel that a schedule is too demanding or a task is too difficult or feel overwhelmed in anyway -- if I ever run short of supplies in my life -- I need merely to return to this Olympic day to refill my cupboard.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.