Pass or fail for Beijing? Suspending cynicism here helps provide answer

BEIJING -- The lobby of my media village has a large reader board that provides the weather forecast each day. Some days, it predicted "cloudy." Some days, it said "rain." Some days, it said "sunny." And one day, I kid you not, it said, "cloudy and somber."

Bring your umbrella. And a box of tissues.

One night the forecast read "sunny and cloudy," which seemed contradictory at first but upon further consideration is an apt description of the Beijing Olympics as a whole.

Sunny or cloudy? Assessing the Games here often depended on how far you squinted into the Beijing haze, beginning with the very opening. The gravity-defying ceremonies were astonishing, the finest of the eight Olympics I've covered. And they should have been, given the vast armies (and I don't use that term lightly) of performers who in some cases endured horrific conditions for the "honor" of providing us such pleasing entertainment. Reading later about the training conditions of the 2008 martial artists somewhat dampened my enthusiasm for the Closing Ceremony.

(Sure, London's unfolding double-decker bus lacked the extraordinary visual and athletic artistry of the Chinese performances, but I doubt Jimmy Page and David Beckham had to wear adult diapers during rehearsals.)

Sunny or cloudy? Were all those world-record performances natural or as artificially enhanced as the fireworks? The IOC virtually doubled its doping tests, but surprisingly few came back positive. The sunny view is that we're finally catching up to the cheats. The cloudy view is that the cheaters are now so far ahead, we can't even catch the stupid ones. No one can say for sure, which means some will applaud the performances while others wonder about the otherworldly performances of Dara Torres, Usain Bolt and even Michael Phelps (just part of the game when you do something no athlete has ever done).

Sunny or cloudy? Passport free agency reached new heights (or depths) here, but is that good or bad or, more likely, does it simply depend on whether they beat some of your athletes? Former Lost Boy Lopez Lomong proudly walked into the stadium carrying the U.S. flag in what was both a tribute to one of America's greatest strengths (immigrants) and a not-so-subtle slap at the Chinese for their deplorable foreign policy with Sudan. Meanwhile, Becky Hammon wore the Russia uniform even though she doesn't speak the language and has no lineage to the country, but did it in part because it allowed her to sign a richer contract to play basketball in Moscow. Is that a sign of disappearing borders or of a rapidly approaching day when Scott Boras takes on new clients?

A-Rod would very much like to learn more about your country's culture, as well as its income-tax shelters …

Sunny or cloudy? As the reader board forecast said, it wasn't an either/or proposition. It was sunny and cloudy. After all, Russia and Georgia marched into the stadium peacefully for the Opening Ceremony at approximately the same time the countries went to war with each other.

My mother once said nothing is so over quite like Christmas after all the presents have been unwrapped. The same is true of the Olympics. One day we're watching a swim meet on the video board at an NFL game, and the next day we're focused only on the pennant race, game day and our fantasy football teams. We'll quickly forget much of what we saw in Beijing the past 17 days, but some moments will linger:

Phelps' collecting so much gold that he could rival that James Bond villain who covered his secretary in gold from head to toe. Bolt's celebrating his laughably huge victories in a way that Terrell Owens may ask for pointers. Hope Solo's shutting out the Brazilians to win the gold medal. The most famous wall outside of Fenway Park's serving as a grand backdrop to a suffocating bike race. Hugh McCutcheon's guiding the men's volleyball team to a surprising gold medal two weeks after his father-in-law had been murdered at a Beijing tourist site. South Africa's Natalie du Toit's swimming a six-mile race without her left leg.

One of my favorite moments (and there were many) of these Olympics was standing with former Olympians Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter-Phinney at the velodrome after their son, Taylor, raced in the men's pursuit. Davis has Parkinson's, but that afternoon, he held out a steady hand to show how well his latest treatment was going and said that no small part of his excitement that day was due to mingling with Olympians in the athletes' village -- "It's like going to a superior planet."

Davis and Connie lived on that planet when they won bronze and gold medals, respectively, at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. That was the first year China returned to the Olympics. In the ensuing years, the Phinneys married and raised a family, while China underwent a few changes of its own.

For one thing, it's doubtful Beijing Workers Stadium had a Hooters across from it in 1984.

China was the focus of these Games the way few host countries ever are (I don't remember this much fuss in 2002 when Salt Lake City hosted), as we tried to gauge the world's most populous country.

The city adds an estimated 1,000 cars per day to its roads -- all of which always seemed to be in front of my cab -- and, consequently, at least as many drivers. Imagine an entire nation taking driver's ed at the same time. It's why pedestrians better look every possible way when crossing a street, including up. (You never know when a driver will take an exit ramp too quickly off an elevated highway.) Green walk signals aren't designed so much to allow pedestrians to cross a street safely as simply to give them a fighting chance.

The cars, of course, are major contributors to China's staggering and worsening pollution. But lest we get too sanctimonious about the subject of choking auto emissions, remember that we gave the Chinese the idea in the first place. As much as China needs to drastically cut its pollution, our criticisms might be better received had we not spent the past two decades driving ever-bigger, ever-more-polluting, ever-less-fuel-efficient SUVs.

China won 100 medals in these Games, 68 more than it won in 1984. Part of that increase is due to home-court advantage, part of it to an increase in the number of medal sports; but much of it is due to a fierce national commitment to developing medalists in every possible sport. You know the balance of Olympic power is tipping when China starts beating the Brazilians in beach volleyball.

Things are changing in China. Often quickly -- I swear a skyscraper was approved, designed and built across from the Main Press Center since I got here -- and sometimes maddeningly slowly. Under pressure, China set aside official protest zones for the Olympics. What the government did not do, however, was grant a single person permission to protest, rejecting application after application. Among those rejected were two women in their 70s who applied once too often and were told they would have to undergo re-education through labor.

"Re-education through labor" means, I suppose, that they were performers in the Closing Ceremony.

It is risky to pretend you know much about a country after 17 days, especially one so foreign you feel a major sense of accomplishment when the taxi takes you to the intended destination or in as contrived a setting as the Olympics. It's like judging a host city's economic health on the basis of who shows up at the Super Bowl.

Still …

In China, you have a country where there are malls with Ferrari dealerships, hotels so lavish they describe themselves as "seven-star" and so many Western chains that the world's most famous landmark has a Starbucks. And you also have a country where millions of people labor in appalling working conditions for minuscule wages -- often, it must be remembered, so that we can buy their products cheaply at Wal-Mart. You have a country with a skyscraper that appears ever so much like a man striding through the city, and another building that showed Olympic video replays 24/7 on screens so large you can see rhythmic gymnasts a mile away. You also have a country where many people still use squat toilets. You have a country filled with warm, welcoming and wonderful people. And you also have a country with a government so stern, it wants to put two old ladies through a labor re-education program because they dared to ask permission to complain about the too-slight compensation they received for losing their homes in order to build Olympic facilities.

After 17 days here, I'm still not sure how much of the Beijing haze we saw so often was due to the humidity and the heat and how much to the pollution. But that's modern China. You can peer into the haze and still wonder whether it's sunny or cloudy.

"This is my last day on this shuttle, and I may not see you again," the English-speaking Chinese volunteer said to us on the media bus Sunday when I took my final bus to the Olympic center. "Thank you for appearing in my life."

A colleague heard the same words on a separate shuttle, so perhaps the volunteers were told to say it. But the volunteer seemed sincere, and whether the words were scripted or not, it's a nice thought. Sometimes, especially at the Olympics, it's best to suspend the cynicism.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.