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Three encounters that showed what the Games meant to China

We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.

When I leave Beijing, I'll pack with my bags no single overriding memory from these Olympics. Rather, I'll take home an accretion of encounters -- day-to-day interactions with the Chinese people who yearned for the Games, banked on them, sacrificed for them, and in the end delivered on them.

Herewith, three such encounters. Taken individually, there's nothing extraordinary about any of them. But the cumulative effect of moments like these over 17 days was a profound one. And they speak to the lodestar I've tried to follow since Sept. 11, 2001, as articulated by my colleague Pico Iyer in his Time essay "Why Travel Is Necessary." It's when the world is at its wobbliest that it's most incumbent on us to seek out other people in other places, and transact with them the business of reaffirming our essential humanity.

On the Games' opening weekend, after the U.S. defeat of China in the lidlifter of the men's basketball tournament, I holed up at the press table in the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium to pound out my story. It was 4:30 in the morning when I finally finished and filed. Packing up my gear, I turned to make my way up the stairs to leave.

At the top of the steps I saw two young women in Olympic polo shirts, volunteers still standing sentinel. "Good night, see you tomorrow!" they said in near unison as I filed past.

I smiled, then turned to look around the gym. There was no one in the place but us. There had probably been no one else in the place since 2 a.m. Whereupon it occurred to me: Those two volunteers had waited seven years to take their stations at the top of those stairs to wish me good night. They weren't going to be fazed by having to wait a few hours more to fulfill their mission.

Every time a press bus rolled through a security checkpoint, a People's Liberation Army soldier snapped off a smart salute. On the way into the Wukesong Baseball Complex one morning, the devil got hold of me. As we passed the solider standing sentry, I caught his eye, put two fingers to my eyebrow, and shot him a salute back. A smile fissured out over his face, and then we were gone.

I'm willing to bet that, in the PLA procedural manual, there's no code X, section Y, subcodicil Z, that authorizes impulsive smiling at Westerners in mid-salute. If he worked at Buckingham Palace, he'd have been sacked. But in the space of a moment he'd made my morning.

I told my wife about it. I wonder if he went home that night and told his wife.

Over more than a fortnight of shadowing the Redeem Team, I got to know well a little dumpling joint just steps from where the U.S. basketball players practiced at Beijing Normal University. I parted the beaded curtain just before 2 p.m. on the final Thursday of the Games, looking forward to a plate of pork and parsley dumplings and an iced green tea.

The lunch rush had subsided and I was the only Westerner in the place -- the accidental Occidental. The restaurant staff had gathered around a TV set as CCTV looped highlights featuring the U.S. women's volleyball team, which earlier that day had defeated Cuba for a berth in the gold medal game. The camera lingered on U.S. coach Lang Ping, who remains the most beloved female athlete ever to play for China, as Lang fixed each of her players with a postgame hug. After a few minutes of this, one of the restaurant workers turned to meet my eye and add a nod of the head.

"Lang Ping!" I said, nodding in reply, and adding that gesture of approval, as universal in the Middle Kingdom as in Middle America: the Sammy Davis, Jr., double thumbs up.

He shot me a smile and a more vigorous nod. Here we were, stand-ins for China and the U.S., the respective interests of our nations in perfect alignment, no translation necessary.

Four people down. Only 1,299,999,996 to go.