Special to The Times

Beijing The air turned an eerie white four days before the opening ceremony, then became a murky haze that hung over this city for a week.

The Chinese still chalked up some of those sunless days in the “blue sky” category, according to their measurements of air pollution, which was one of the reasons to wonder if a clear picture of the 2008 Summer Games would ever emerge.

The sky actually went blue in the middle of the first week of competition, the sun came out almost every other day, and the Beijing Olympics wound up looking as most expected.


They were a triumph for a people and a government determined to show their skill and confidence, as both athletes and organizers, to a world that once treated China as a weak, servile nation.

China won the most gold medals, hardly a surprise when a country of 1.3 billion people commits enormous resources to achieving its goal. China also built sports venues that combined gargantuan scale and striking architecture in a way no previous Olympic host could afford.

China carried off these Olympics with no organizational snarls, no doped Chinese athletes and no qualms about creating virtual reality -- flags blown by fake wind, computer-enhanced fireworks for TV -- to enhance an artificial image of perfection.

Yet the images the sports world will remember most from China’s coming-out tribute to itself -- the Games lacked the spontaneity to be a party -- were those of foreigners: a U.S. swimmer, Michael Phelps, who could hang a record eight gold medals around his neck; and a Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, who rejected a TV commentator’s description of him as “Superman 2.”

“I’m Lightning Bolt,” he said. And who would disagree after watching Bolt break world records in all three of his events, the 100 and 200 meters and the 400 relay?

“The two icons of the Games were Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said Sunday -- when Rogge chose for the second time in a week, inexplicably, to diminish the Jamaican by saying he had not shown enough respect for his rivals.

Rogge could crow about increased Olympic TV ratings, especially in the United States, where the live-in-East-Coast-prime-time successes of Phelps and gymnast Nastia Liukin made NBC look brilliant for insisting that finals of those events take place in the Beijing morning.

Doping never became the issue Rogge expected when he predicted from 30 to 40 positives, based on mathematical projections of past results and increased numbers of tests.

As of Sunday, with analysis reports on the final five days’ samples yet to come, there had been only six positives out of 4,600 tests during the Games. Only two involved medalists, and neither was a gold medalist. There were 26 doping violations in 2004, including three gold medalists.

“It is more difficult to cheat,” Rogge said, noting that pre-Olympic testing caught 39 other athletes, who were banned from competing in Beijing.

Yet that did not spare either Phelps or Bolt from questions about doping, so skeptical has the world become after years of watching dirty athletes beat tests.

U.S. Olympic Committee officials promised a clean team, and none of its athletes were caught for doping as they racked up the most total medals, 110 -- more than any U.S. team in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1904.

The U.S. effort was most impressive in team sports. Of the 11 teams that competed in Beijing, only men’s soccer and women’s field hockey failed to win medals. The field hockey team earned props just for qualifying -- and then tied two games to finish a respectable eighth of 12.

“It’s important that our teams do well, because so many kids get their start in sports on a team,” USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth said.


From where we sat

Evaluating an Olympics depends entirely on perspective, both national and journalistic. We all see only a tiny slice of the 11,000-layer cake (that’s the record number of athletes who competed in Beijing) the Summer Games have become.

I reported on only three sports -- track and field, road cycling and swimming -- yet was fortunate enough to see the two most thrilling purely sports moments of these Olympics: Bolt’s world record in the 200 meters, and the come-from-behind victory of the U.S. men in swimming’s 400 freestyle relay that kept Phelps’ record quest alive.

But the observations here necessarily rely on what my colleagues at The Times and Chicago Tribune saw at events in virtually every other venue.

They watched U.S. boxers have their worst Olympic performance in 60 years, Australia’s Matthew Mitcham prevent China from sweeping the diving golds, and BMX cycling (emphasis on the X) add the element of youth culture IOC officials had hoped it would when it made its Olympic debut in Beijing.

None of us heard an athlete take China to task for its repression of dissidents, its treatment of Tibet or its failure to help ease the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. U.S. swimmer Amanda Beard held a news conference to unveil a poster in which she had unveiled herself to protest the treatment of animals on fur farms, but Beard has also stripped for Playboy.

“The Olympics is a time where you can address international issues, domestic issues,” U.S. silver-medal fencer Erinn Smart said. “We are aware of the struggles in Darfur and Tibet, but we really were focused on the competition.”

We all saw the Chinese volunteers do their country proud with not only relentless friendliness but also remarkable efficiency. Have a computer problem? Three volunteers descended in five minutes to solve it. Arrive at a venue without an umbrella on a rainy day? Volunteers requested you wait on the bus until they found one.

The media from every country, print and broadcast, concentrated on their own athletes, which is understandable and unfortunate.

It means that most in the United States did not get to know enough about shooter Abhinav Bindra, who became India’s most eligible bachelor after winning the first gold medal ever for the country of 1 billion people.

Or winning open-water swimmer Maarten van der Weijden of the Netherlands, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001 and told his chances of survival were slim.

Or taekwondo bronze medalist Rohullah Nikpai of Afghanistan, who won his war-ravaged country’s first Olympic medal.

Or judo competitor Tuvshinbayar Naidan, a decided underdog in several matches, who won Mongolia’s first gold medal, setting off spontaneous celebrations in the capital, Ulan Bator.

In countries with dozens of medalists, it is too easy to overlook how much a single medal can mean.


The real achievements

Meanwhile, China fulfilled predictions by winning the most gold medals: 51, to 36 for the United States, which nevertheless maintained the top spot in overall medals it has held since the sports breakup of the Soviet Union in 1993.

The Chinese had a development plan called “Project 119,” the number of events out of 302 total in which they believed medals were possible. They wound up remarkably close with 100, an increase of 37 over four years ago, which had been their previous best performance.

China also suffered the biggest disappointment, when national hero Liu Xiang withdrew from the hurdles because of an Achilles’ tendon injury, but it had few others. Its superstar diver and gossip column celebrity Guo Jingjing helped compensate with another riveting performance, successfully defending her 2004 golds in 3-meter springboard and synchro.

“I did watch her, even though I’m not supposed to,” said Christina Loukas of Riverwoods, Ill., who finished ninth in springboard. “I can’t help it.”

Loukas had seen the athletic excellence that defines most Olympic Games. Plenty of that was visible in the Olympic bubble China created, when the only reality was sports competition for the ages, baby-toothed Chinese gymnasts and all.


Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune. Times staff writers Bill Dwyre and Kevin Baxter and Tribune reporters K.C. Johnson and Melissa Isaacson contributed to this report.