Reviewing The Beijing Olympics

The Summer Olympics wrap up in Beijing this weekend. Initial media coverage of pollution and human rights abuses were eclipsed by the sporting events. The games showcased the rising talent of Usain Bolt, but also saw the age of Chinese women gymnasts questioned.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Well, we're coming to the end of the Olympics. The closing ceremonies will light up the sky in Beijing on Sunday. If you're into medal counts, the U.S. leads in total medals, but the Chinese are far ahead with golds. And if you're more interested in the complicated politics behind the Chinese games, there have been many storylines to follow there as well.

But we're going to wrap up the past two weeks of two of our tireless correspondents in Beijing, Anthony Kuhn, who reports year-round from China and Tom Goldman, who covers sports for us there. Both on the line now.

Boy, you both have had some really late nights. Are you still standing?

ANTHONY KUHN: We're still here.

TOM GOLDMAN: Barely, Michele.

NORRIS: I hope for the course of this conversation you're actually sitting, so get some rest. Let's start with you, Tom. There's this ongoing sports controversy about the age of a particular Chinese gymnast who won several gold medals. The competition is now over, but it sounds like this is still very much an issue. What's going on?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it reared up again today, as a matter of fact. Gymnastics officials have asked China to supply more documents that prove five of the six Chinese female gymnasts who won the women's team competition in Beijing were at least 16 years old. Now, that's the minimum age requirement.

Michele, this was prompted by the IOC, which got new information recently about some of the Chinese young ladies possibly being underage. And the IOC wouldn't say what the information was, but it said it was concerning enough to probe this thing further.

NORRIS: We might are being ahead of ourselves, but if it does turn out that these gymnasts were younger than 16, what happens?

GOLDMAN: Well, there is the possibility that up to four medals could be stripped from these gymnasts. And that would be a huge scandal and a huge shame to a country that really wanted to put on a perfect Olympics, as perfect as it can get, and portray a really good image. So we shall see.

NORRIS: Anthony, beyond athletics, what's the sense from the Chinese government? Are they happy with how the games have played out?

KUHN: Oh, definitely, Michele. Several state media have already sort of called the games in China's favor just from the clear fact that China's gold medal count is unassailable. And you know, it's very clear to observers that the initial foreign media reports, which centered on pollution and human rights problems, were very quickly eclipsed by the sporting events. The way the Chinese media have talked about this to the Chinese people is that they've said foreigners have come to China and gotten a look at the truth for themselves, that China has finally gotten the respect it's deserved for many years.

GOLDMAN: And I just wanted to add that the interactions I've had with not only the huge army of volunteers here but just, you know, a few people on the street, because I don't speak Chinese, but ones who can speak English, they all want to know what do you think of Chinese people? And it is very interesting that it's not just the government wanting to put on this huge image fest but the people on the street really, I think, are interested in having themselves portrayed well.

NORRIS: Tom, after the 2000 Olympics, the Chinese began a program called Project 119. The idea was to basically grow the country's medal count, to get better at events like swimming and track and field that generally provide a lot of medals. What's the verdict on Project 119 now?

GOLDMAN: It hasn't really worked out. In fact, China may end up doing better at the last Summer Olympics in 2004 in those targeted sports, swimming, track and field, rowing, sailing and canoe kayak. But - and it's a big but - the Chinese haven't really needed Project 119 this time. I mean, the gold medals are king here, and with just a couple of days to go, China is running away with the gold medal count.

A couple of things were happening here. This home country advantage that's evident in any Olympics, but it really charges up the host country athletes here. And I think all the planning and the rigorous state-sponsored sports programs of past years are bearing fruit at the perfect time. And you know, China has been cleaning up in sports like gymnastics and weightlifting and table tennis and shooting and diving. And then if Project 119 finally pays off, the 2012 Olympics could be a medals blowout.

NORRIS: Have either of you as reporters bumped up against any kind of limitations that are imposed by the Chinese government?

KUHN: I sure have. I was out in Xinjiang, in China's far west last week after terrorist bombing attacks there, and the government's initial response was to detain reporters who were in the area. But 24 hours later, they had a press center up and they were dragging in officials for press conferences. Today another example, the group students for a Free Tibet held an unauthorized press conference, and we believe that the police here are under orders not to detain people immediately if they're not causing any public disturbance. So we were able to interview these activists and they hopped into a cab and drove off, albeit we believe tailed by state security agents. So it looks like the iron fist is increasingly gloved in velvet.

NORRIS: You two have seen some incredible sportsmanship this week, or I should say sportswomanship also. Are there any particular sporting events that you will remember long after these games are over?

GOLDMAN: I'll take this one first. I always love to cover the little events at the Olympics because this is their moment to shine, you know? Personally, if I were making up the program, I wouldn't have NBA stars or baseball or tennis; that's going to anger some people. But I have to say that my favorite thing this time was a mega event. And it was basically the birth of a track legend. I got to see all of Usain Bolt's races. And he won his third gold medal tonight with a third world record in the men's 4x100 meter relay. And watching him win these races was astonishing. And he couldn't have come along at a better time for track and field, which is beleaguered by all these doping scandals of recent years. And he's just great. He's loose. He's funny. He has otherworldly talent. He hasn't been tainted by drugs, and he's a rock star. And that will be interesting to see how track capitalizes on his sudden fame.

NORRIS: Anthony, what's the stand-out event for you?

KUHN: There were so many but I think the type of thing that stood out for me were the events where China has never really been a strong competitor before. I was watching a rowing event where China has not been able to beat traditional strong countries like the U.K., and the women captured gold. And they were so emotional. They were weeping. It was just - it was quite incredible. To them it was absolutely historic.

NORRIS: Well, thanks to both of you for all your hard work in Beijing. I know it's been many long, long days, but what a wonderful assignment. So thanks again.

GOLDMAN: Thanks, Michele.

KUHN: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Anthony Kuhn and Tom Goldman speaking to us from Beijing.

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