It ended in a blink, these last two and a half weeks compressed in our memories like one big burst of emotion, excitement and energy. And so, with the flame extinguished and the Olympics over, the Beijing Bureau is ready to close shop. It's been a 10-week journey that, looking back, went by all too fast.
These Games had it all, from touching stories, like German weightlifter Matthias Steiner standing on the gold-medal podium and kissing a photo of his wife, who died in a car crash last year; to amazing stories, like South African Natalie du Toit swimming with a prosthetic leg; stories never-before-seen—Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt—and stories of friendship and bridge-building, like the U.S. synchronized swimming team carrying a "Thank you, China!" banner into the Water Cube. Till the final weekend, the Olympics never ceased to offer moments of surprise and wonder—Zou Shiming capturing China's first boxing gold, Australian Matthew Mitcham executing the perfect dive.
There will always be cynics, and indeed it sometimes seems the powers-that-be make an easy target. But it is also possible—indeed, sometimes welcome7mdash;to separate human achievement with human scheming. If anything, the Olympics, ostensibly a celebration of humanity, shows us that one can root for Georgia to beat Russia on the beach one day and erupt in unison the next as a Russian pole vaulter breaks her own world record. Isn't that why we watch?
What have these Games meant to China? Different things to different people, as to be expected from a country of 1.3 billion.
Zhan Xiaoyin is an Olympic enthusiast, and after the Closing Ceremony he went around asking strangers to sign a t-shirt. "I have signatures from people of more than 100 countries," he boasted. He pointed at the scrawling on his hat: "A handball coach from South Korea signed that, and a high-jump athlete."
Yao Xiaoyong is about to start graduate studies in sports economics at Tianjin Sports University. For him, the Olympics were a chance to conduct the ultimate cost-benefit analysis. "You have to wonder, can they really get back the investment they put in? That's a question I keep asking myself."
Gan Lu is a recent high school grad who got several Olympics tickets through her dad. To her, a lifelong Beijinger, these Games weren't all glitz and glamour—sometimes they were a downright hassle. "I just finished my college entrance exams, so [the Olympics] really weren't a significant concern in my life," she said.
Tony Nicholson, a native of England who's been studying Chinese for the past three years in Beijing, is an admirer. "Amazing, absolutely amazing," he said as we walked away from the Bird's Nest, still aglow. "I'm completely blown away by it all. If I was Chinese, I'd think my country is the best country in the world."
Soon life will return to normal here, if it hasn't already. Light posts in some areas have already been stripped of their Olympic banners, and volunteer tents and kiosks around the city have folded up. Thus are the Olympics, arriving like a whirlwind, all pomp and fury, and leaving just as quickly.
How have these Games changed China? We'll leave that up to the historians. Or as IOC president Jacques Rogge put it: "The legacy of these games for China is ultimately up to the Chinese people." For now, though, let China bask in its glory and get some much-needed rest. The Paralympics, after all, starts in 11 days.
ALSO ON THE PODIUM
The nation's major media outlets weigh in:
•Time: "This was China's Games. The rest of the world was just a bystander."
• Newsweek: Photo slideshow.
•New York Times: Recapping the Closing Ceremony and the Games.
• Wall Street Journal: "Hosting the most controversial Olympics in a generation, China disarmed the world with a firm but polite pageant, one that in the end was dominated by athletic achievement, not politics."
• Washington Post: "Spectacularly Successful Games May Empower Communist Leaders."
• Associated Press: The Beijing Games' mixed legacy.
•Reuters: "China basks in the glow of success of Games."
• Boston Globe: Featuring a time-lapse slideshow of the Closing Ceremony.
• ESPN: Jeremy Schaap on the past 17 days.
Not everyone thought the Closing Ceremony was great: here's a humorous take.
Yao Ming, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle, gives a deep, thoughtful take on the Olympics: "To know that we've had a chance to welcome the world and have a chance to let them see us, talk to us, live with us, gives me a good feeling. That's a good dream."
In China the Olympic medal count is organized by golds won. In the U.S. it's by total medals. So—if this matters—who wins the final medal count? Christian-Science Monitor breaks it down.
What happens in the Olympic Village stays in the Olympic Village. Or something like that.
FINAL MEDAL COUNT: U.S.A., 110 total (36 gold); China, 100 (51); Russia, 72 (23).