BEIJING -- The situation called for delicate diplomacy, but not by No. 41 and No. 43 on your Bush presidential dial. Bush senior and junior were simple hoop fans among rowdy Olympic spectators Sunday night -- the only Americans without face paint in the arena -- when the U.S. men opened its competition in the Beijing Games against China.
It was the American players, not President Bush, who were on the hook to keep the peace by maintaining their decorum on the court, by not humiliating the host nation with showboat moves, by not taunting the weaker team with a gimpy resident icon, Yao Ming. The indiscreet Dream Teams of the past -- remember Charles Barkley elbowing an Angolan? -- are not famous for their restraint, but give the U.S. players credit for critical self-awareness.
They dunked in the lane, won 101-70, and ducked out the door. No international incident. No cause for backlash. There is enough stress on the Games as it is after Russia invaded Georgia, with its tanks rolling in for battle while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin coolly watched the opening ceremonies on Friday. There are enough frayed nerves, too, after a Chinese man stabbed the father-in-law of U.S. men's indoor volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon in an unthinkable murder-suicide amid tourists on Saturday.
The Beijing Olympics have morphed into the anxiety games. Beneath the veneer of architectural miracles and omnipresent smiles and the "one world, one dream" slogan, there is unease, exacerbated by a secretive Communist regime that rations information. No info, no closure. There are 100,000 Chinese security troops patrolling Beijing, all standing as still as scarecrows, many with the young, porcelain faces of toy soldiers. They are stationed on every street corner, ubiquitous under newly planted trees that line the sidewalks. They are numerically impressive but not especially comforting.
Where were they Saturday at the busy tourist site of Drum Tower? Somehow, someway, a knife-wielding Chinese man, Tang Yongming, managed to fatally stab American Todd Bachman, critically wound his wife and injure the couple's tour guide without anyone stopping him before he jumped to his death from the tower. Who saw what? In our YouTube world, where cell-phone cameras pop up everywhere including a bathroom stall, there are surprisingly few hints to fill in the picture about what transpired, a tragedy that took at least three hours to hit the Internet as a story.
That's slow-motion in the West. That's analog. In the U.S., an attack so public would have been quickly delivered to the masses. Bystanders would have spoken up, a profile of the murderer would have emerged, a sense of understanding would have materialized. Instead, silence. In fact, the story barely made news in China.
A long walk on Sunday down the mall area of the Olympic green -- a vast concrete plaza cooled by the shade of bamboo gardens - revealed how little information has been disseminated. In an informal poll of two dozen people, only one person had even heard about the stabbing. The state-run China Daily, an English-language news organization, tucked the details inside its pages and at the bottom of its web site.
The story was seen by a few readers, however, with about 60 comments posted by Sunday evening on ChinaDaily.com. One response in particular underscored the mistrust -- and disconnect -- between the U.S. and China: "... as much as Bush keeps drumming up and wants to isolate China and divide her people, the backlash will be stronger. With the arrogance of the mainstream Western and U.S. media of printing everything, 95 percent of the people know the truth of how evil the Western and U.S. governments are ..."
To separate sport and politics is to try to pull gum from a shoe. Already, Russian and Georgian athletes have had to face each other in competition since the invasion, which stunned the International Olympic Committee with its timing. "Conflict is not what we want to see," said IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies, whose organization has also had to comment on the criticism President Bush leveled against China before his arrival. "It is contrary to what the Olympic ideals stand for. The Olympic Truce is the heart of what our values stand for."
The IOC has very little moral authority after awarding the Games to Beijing in 2001 and standing by as China has broken repeated promises to address human rights abuses, environmental issues and establish press freedoms during the Olympics. The restrictions remain, the deficit of news continues, the undercurrent of anxiety grows.
As the U.S. played China, with its players on their most respectful behavior -- "The support we're getting so far from home is humbling," LeBron James said -- there was an odd vibe in the arena. Maybe it was the secret service detail guarding Bush Squared (son and pop). Maybe it was the dozens of surveillance cameras -- round and black like a Magic 8 Ball -- anchored in the rafters of the gym. Maybe it was not knowing what the heck is going on in China on any given day. One thing about Communism: You're always in the dark. And many folks are afraid of the dark.