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BEIJING 2008 : COMMENTARY

And just like that, the reverie ends in Beijing

August 10, 2008|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

JUYONGGUAN, China -- You felt peace, serenity, joy.

You went to the Great Wall of China on the first morning of the Olympics to watch a 152-mile bicycle race.

You traveled 50 miles from the site of a majestic opening ceremony to get there, having just seen Beijing make a sweet first impression.

You watched more than a hundred bikes swoosh by, breaking away past checkpoints like the North Gate of Temple of Heaven and the Great Hall of the People.

Tiananmen Square just up ahead.

The mood of the city was anything but forbidding.

Strangers were treating you with a practiced kindness and charm.

Olympic volunteers did not miss a chance to greet you with a hello, whether in your language or theirs.

China, you told yourself, was off to a great start.

It took but a few hours more to intrude on your reverie. A formal statement from the United States Olympic Committee flashed onto the screen of your PDA.

Something terrible had happened at a central Beijing landmark called the Drum Tower, due north of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

Two individuals with family ties to a U.S. coach had been stabbed in broad daylight. One was dead. So was the man with the knife, by his own doing.

It happened a little past noon, practically at the same time that those Olympians in the men's road race came whizzing by on 143 bikes.

Your heart sank.

Anxiety and grief already had come to a Games not yet 24 hours old. A host city eager to provide joy to the world had been placed all too abruptly on edge.

You automatically expected everyone in a city with a population of 17 million to feel responsible or be taken to task for the irrational actions of a single man.

You wondered if fear-mongers would take pains to portray a moment of random violence as something far more devious -- a plot, a pattern, a hidden hatred of your kind.

You worried that visiting dignitaries like the president of the United States and the mayor of Chicago would feel compelled to remind their security companions to stay on high alert.

You could see it being chalked it up as Beijing's ugly international incident, as if it bore a resemblance to a Munich terrorist raid or a pipe bomb in an Atlanta park.

The details were lurid.

A 47-year-old man identified as Tang Yongming was found dead, an apparent suicide, after an attack on two Minnesota tourists, Todd and Barbara Bachman, whose daughter is a former Olympic volleyball player from UCLA and is married to the coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team.

For reasons unknown, Yongming is said to have come at the couple with a knife, killing Todd Bachman and severely wounding his wife, atop the ancient Drum Tower. Yongming then jumped to his death.

No more ghastly beginning to a new Olympic Games could have been expected or prevented.

By all appearances, the crimes seemed to be without motive, although China and U.S. authorities continue to investigate. There was no known personal or political explanation for this momentary madness.

Nevertheless, it sent a shudder through the organizers of the Beijing Olympics. They could not get through a single day without the kind of traumatic event they dreaded most.

A safe Olympics was first and foremost our goal, they had to reiterate to the world.

You felt their pain.

You could imagine a similarly senseless incident taking place in a London or Tokyo train station.

You could picture such a thing perpetrated by a Chicago gang-banger or a drug-dealing punk on a beach in Rio.

Only a fool would blame all of Beijing for this. Only a doomsayer could expect the Chinese people to pay a price on the whole, to have a relationship with another land permanently damaged by the inexplicable behavior of one in a billion.

It could happen anyplace. Beijing has no particular history of violent street crime. Olympic cities past and future offer no guarantee of 24/7 safety and goodwill toward all.

You invite the global community to come pay a visit. You appeal for sanity, beef up security, keep your fingers crossed and have faith in your fellow man.

One of which will disappoint you every time.

Saturday was supposed to be a day when you woke up with a warm glow, still remembering the opening ceremony's beauty and whimsy the previous night.

You had a bike race to attend that spirited you away to a glorious place, a Great Wall, a real-life Shangri-La where you can seriously contemplate life's grandeur and enchantment.

By the time you came full circle, though, you understood yet again how quickly the good things in life go downhill.

You can't stand to see Olympic Games begin this way.

You lie awake praying they won't end this way.

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