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BEIJING 2008 : BILL DWYRE

Efficiency, but also drama, on first day

August 10, 2008|BILL DWYRE

BEIJING — If first-day-of-competition impressions are meaningful, then the Beijing Olympics will be exactly what the organizers want them to be. A model of efficiency. A click-your-heels-and-salute Olympics.

The prevailing symbol may end up being the young soldiers who stand at attention on little stands of wood near entrances to buildings and main intersections. They appear to be less a military symbol than one of order and readiness.

On Saturday here, the first day of competition and always an interesting measure, the trains mostly ran on time, literally and figuratively.

But what will be most remembered -- sadly for both the Games and the people involved -- was probably random and related to the Beijing Games only by the happenstance of the victims' connection to a United States coach.

Todd Bachman of Lakeville, Minn., the father-in-law of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, was stabbed to death. His wife, Barbara, who survived the attack, remains in critical condition at a hospital here. Elisabeth McCutcheon, who was with her parents but not injured, lives with her husband in Irvine.

The attacker, identified as a 47-year-old man from the eastern province of Zhejiang, who jumped to his death after the attack at the 13th century Drum Tower landmark, had no apparent connection to the Olympics or any Olympic movement.

The attack was the main topic in the daily International Olympic Committee press briefing today.

"We are deeply saddened," said Wang Wei of the Beijing organizing committee, who added that, while there was no indication that this was anything more than "an isolated criminal act," the Chinese will probably increase security at areas he called "scenic spots."

Wang said that the murderer was divorced, jobless and had entered the city Aug. 1. Both the foreign and health ministers of China visited the hospital where Barbara Bachman and the Bachmans' Chinese guide, also injured, were being treated, Wang said.

As competition took place Saturday, the bad air that has hung over the city remained, and has become almost a given.

Giselle Davies, IOC spokeswoman, said Sunday that the pollution levels are constantly monitored, that they remain within acceptable readings, and that the IOC's 72-hour forecast indicates nothing ahead that would force any postponements.

As big an issue may be heat.

A large number of riders in the cycling road race, 53 or nearly a third of the starting field, pulled out and many cited the heat. The temperatures were in the high 90s, humidity was oppressive and one of the most notable casualties was pre-race favorite, German Stefan Schumacher.

"I had a terrible headache," Schumacher told Reuters. "It feels like you are at 3,000 meters because of the air. You cannot breathe. The air is thick and there is smog."

There was similar reaction from competitors in another outdoor sport, and the tennis players hadn't even started competition yet.

"I have never, ever played in worse humidity than this," said Serbia's Novak Djokovic, the third-seeded player in men's singles, after a workout.

Uncontrollable Mother Nature aside, it appeared that the Beijing organizers' well-documented preparedness was bearing fruit immediately.

After a spectacular opening ceremony, viewed at one time or another during its airing by 840 million Chinese, or 83.6% of the people in the country watching television Friday night, the city moved smoothly into competition mode.

Buses ran on time. Lines of spectators made orderly progress. Taxis lined up where they were supposed to, foreign visitors handing drivers little pre-written Chinese addresses of destinations.

Michael Phelps qualified nicely with an Olympic record in the 400-meter individual medley, then followed that up today with a world record and his first gold medal.

Diana Taurasi, the pride of Chino, led the U.S. women's basketball team to a 97-57 breeze past the Czech Republic by scoring 17 points.

Carli Lloyd got the U.S. women's soccer team back on track with a goal in the 27th minute of a 1-0 victory over Japan.

Fencing was in the spotlight for the U.S., a rare spot for that sport. The medal podium in the women's sabre was an all-American show, with Mariel Zagunis winning, Sada Jacobson getting the silver and Becca Ward the bronze.

A symbol of the day took place in the Main Press Center, as the grueling 245-kilometer cycling road race neared its finish. A crowd gathered around the TV in the hallway. Reporters, volunteers and officials watched as the three-man race to the finish, eventually won by Samuel Sanchez of Spain, built in drama. TV cameras rose above the crowd and took a picture of the picture.

Then and there, as in most places here Saturday, it was all about sport, about winning, losing and racing to the end.

Which is exactly what Olympic officials, and the Chinese, want.

--

Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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