August 24, 2008

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

Every venue at these Games had its own distinct personality. What made the Laoshan Velodrome (a.k.a. The Flying Saucer) so memorable for me -- aside from its H.G.Wells-influenced architecture -- was its team of Olympic volunteers.

Maybe the kooky nature of the velodrome's events -- odd, arcane competitions like Individual Pursuit and Keirin -- rubbed off on them. Maybe it was because they worked a good ways from the epicenter of the Games. Whatever its provenance, the Laoshan vols seemed to possess a slight independent streak. And so, at the end of each session of track cycling, I found myself looking forward to righteous ritual that captured, in its own minor way, the Olympic ideal.

I'm not sure how it got started, but I'm delighted -- and surprised, in a nation that doesn't exactly encourage acts of spontaneous whimsy -- that it did. As we spectators filed toward the exit, we passed through twin columns of giddy volunteers, who cheered us, thanked us, chanted for us, and, yes, high-fived us as we negotiated this human tunnel of hospitality. It was like running onto the field at an SEC football game. Gave me chills every time.

Such was the goodwill generated by this gauntlet of good cheer that it blunted my despair during the ordeal that inevitably followed: a fruitless session of pointing to an icon on a map for the benefit of a taxi driver whose knowledge of this city, however comprehensive, left him unable to find that little known, hidden structure known as ... Beijing National Stadium. (I was lodged nearby).

Rather than dump on the taxi drivers -- imported en masse from the provinces, apparently, on the eve of the Games -- I am here to celebrate the 75,000, blue-shirted BOCOG volunteers who, more than any other group, made these Olympics hum; made them a joy to cover. Selected from a pool of some two million applicants, in coordination with those party animals at the Communist Youth League, these street-level ambassadors were chosen on the basis of their ability to speak English, navigate stadiums and interact with visitors.

While it may simply be a measure of how accustomed I have become to the general surliness of the TSA screeners, I found myself continually startled by the courtesy of those solicitous and smiling young people staffing the security checkpoints.

Nor was it such a penance to be patted down, on those occasions when my belt buckle set off the alarm, by a smiling, solicitous, 20-something, who invariably sent me on my way with the sentence she had meticulously memorized: "Thank you for your cooperation."

By its sheer numbers and indefatigable competence, this blue-shirted army had Britons, who will host the Summer Games four years hence, wondering: How the hell are we supposed to top this? The Guardian's tart-tongued Marina Hydeaddresses the issue:

"So resolutely, multitudinously eager to assist are the Beijing volunteers that a single question looms larger each day: where in the name of sanity are they going to source a comparable force for 2012? Doubtless the organisers will mine London's vast "helpful young people" demographic but, when they've signed up those 75 individuals, the task of prising WKD bottles out of the fists of 70,000-odd others is going to redefine the adjective Olympian."

Don't beat yourself up, Britannia. With this current crop of helpers, Beijing has set a Usain Bolt-like standard for those that follow. The kids in the blue shirts emblazoned with the BOCOG's "lucky cloud" embodied a can-do, shoulder-to-the-wheel spirit that helped make these the best-organized Games I've ever witnessed -- even if there was a little more razor-ribbon and surveillance equipment than we're used to seeing in non-police state. But you can't hold the volunteers responsible for the sins of the stuffed-shirt autocrats comprising the Politburo Standing Committee. The volunteers didn't break the heart of a seven-year-old girl it deemed insufficiently cute. They didn't tell bald-faced lies to the IOC, as their bosses did when promising to allow Chinese citizens to stage protests during these Games. And they aren't the ones sentencing septuagenarian women to re-education camps for the crime of trying to apply for a permit to protest. Not only were the volunteers not responsible for these shortcomings, they represent the demographic -- China's youth -- which stands the greatest chance of coaxing this authoritarian state into a more egalitarian future; of handing the People's Republic to its people.

Which is why, when they thanked and applauded us, my fellow spectators and I clapped back, and said, "Xiexie" -- thank you.

The truth is, I learned disgracefully little Mandarin before embarking on this journey. Once there, I was a crummy tourist. But high-fiving my new friends outside the velodrome fed some deep-seated desire on my part to make contact; to reach out and literally touch them.

If only they drove taxis.

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