Skip to main content

A realization in a Beijing hospital

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

I had just come back from the evening session of boxing when I bumped into a glum colleague in the hall of the media center who asked, forebodingly, if I had heard the news.

The news was that Todd Bachman, father-in-law of Hugh McCutcheon, the head coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team, had been murdered, and his wife, Barbara Bachman, had been stabbed by a Chinese man who then jumped 130 feet to his death from the balcony of Beijing's majestic 13th-Century Drum Tower.

My heart dropped. It was the day after frothing crowds had filled public parks to catch a glimpse of the opening ceremonies on outdoor video screens. In an Olympics that seemed, even before it began, destined to go down as the most choreographed Games in history, here was something beyond anyone's control.

At the time, we had no idea whether the killer had a particular motive, whether we were getting the truth that it was an isolated incident, or what tension it might cause between Americans and Chinese at the Games. All we knew was that it was incredibly tragic, and we needed to find out more.

After several stops, including at the Olympic Village. I caught a taxi to Peking Union Medical College Hospital with SI reporter Rebecca Sun, a fluent Mandarin speaker.

Having worked for the New York Daily News, I am no stranger to hospital reporting, or to getting ushered out of hospitals by police. The prospect of snooping around a Chinese hospital, however, slightly unnerved Rebecca and me. When the NYPD would take umbrage with my reporting in a hospital, it was uncomfortable. What Chinese police -- and based on the number of them in the street, I figured the hospital would be stocked -- would do if they found me at Peking Union nosing into a tragedy they were not quick to highlight, was a distressing mystery.

When Rebecca and I arrived, our concerns were not tempered by the soldier standing at attention at the front door. But when we walked right past, he didn't stir. Pretty soon we were trying to find our way through the most labyrinthine hospital either of us had ever seen. The building was a full city block, and constructed as if a modern hospital was seeping from the center of the structure toward the old, dark, porcelain tiled halls at the perimeter.

To our surprise, we were completely alone for half an hour as we tried to orient ourselves in the dimly lit halls. Of all the things I did not expect to find in the hospital, it was that we could possibly be alone. Nowhere in Beijing, beside my hotel bed, had I been alone. Every door of every restaurant and hotel in the city seemed to have at least three people, workers or Olympic volunteers, standing sentinel.

In the dark of the hospital, the walls had eyes. Rebecca and I became convinced that as we quietly walked the halls, somebody somewhere was casually watching us on a security monitor, smiling at the knowledge that he or she could have us arrested with the push of a button. So we waited for them to come find us, and scold us, or worse. But nobody came.

Eventually we stumbled upon a meeting room where we were surprised to find a few other reporters, the first people we had seen since the lobby of the building. Rather than getting hassled by police, the reporters were surveying the offerings of a tea and crackers cart that the hospital staff had wheeled in.

Had I fallen completely down the rabbit hole, I wondered? Not only where we not being tracked on security cameras, but the hospital staff was happy to feed us as we waited in the meeting room for hours for an update on Barbara Bachman's condition.

I realized at that moment, despite all that I had read about China in preparation for the Games, how little I knew or should try to presume about this country.