LONDON -- So, I felt sorry for a Chinese athlete Tuesday. Is that permitted in the war for medal supremacy?
Liu Xiang is one of the world's best hurdlers. A huge star in his country. But for the second straight Olympic Games, he didn't make it 15 meters down the track.
In Beijing four years ago, Liu ripped his right Achilles tendon coming out of the starting gate in his first heat race. He spent the past four years building back his strength to give it another shot here.
But on Tuesday morning -- again in his initial qualifying heat -- Liu banged into the first hurdle and collapsed to the ground. When he arose, he wound up hopping on his left leg alongside the remaining hurdles to the finish line.
As a loyal U.S. citizen, I guess Liu's painful failure is supposed to make me ... a little happy. At least according to the latest global athletic rivalry meme. The current scoreboard shows China owning 73 total medals, compared with the USA's 70 -- and 34 gold medals to the USA's 30.
I'm not certain who makes the rules about this stuff. But after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the USA had trouble identifying an ominous rival to become all hot and bothered about at the Olympics. Then, in 2008, the Games were staged in Beijing. The Chinese government and sports establishment plowed major resources into making an athletic statement.
The strategy worked. China won more gold medals in Beijing, but the USA won more
As it turned out, snarkiness has happened. On both sides.
Last week at the swim venue, John Leonard, a U.S. coach who also heads up the World Swimming Association, watched a Chinese female swimmer named Ye Shiwen post a remarkable time in the 400-meter individual medley relay. Leonard raised both eyebrows when he noticed that in the 100-meter freestyle leg of the race, Ye's clocking had beaten the time of USA male swimmer Ryan Lochte in the same leg of the same race.
Implying drug usage, Leonard called Ye's performance "unbelievable" and "disturbing." In response, a Chinese official said that the country never questioned Michael Phelps' eight-gold medal dominance in Beijing. Ye called Leonard "unprofessional." Meanwhile, in a separate but equal throwdown, a Chinese sports executive named Wei Jizhong told Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla: "Olympic sport is part of the culture war."
Hey, all you planetary dwellers of the same Earth. Can't we all just backstroke along?
Leonard might indeed have suspicions about Ye. Since 1990, more than 40 Chinese swimmers have failed drug tests. But it is not Leonard's job to do the testing -- or even talk about the testing until results are in. That job belongs to Olympic doping officials. They're doing it just fine. They've busted several athletes here already. Ye isn't one of them. Until proven otherwise, she had a great and natural swim.
Look, I'm as patriotic as the next guy. It was a gas to watch the American beach volleyball team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor defeat a Chinese team in a tight and exciting tournament semifinal match here Tuesday. But it didn't prove anything about either country. It proved that two passionate athletes found a way to beat two other passionate athletes in a sand pit near 10 Downing Street.
If American citizens truly cared about beating China when it counts, they would stop buying imported stuff at Wal-Mart and Target. The USA Olympic team would also refuse to honor a sponsor's decision to have team uniforms made offshore. It seems silly to fret about Chinese dominance in diving and canoeing when corporations are cutting deals that outsource American jobs to Guangzhou.
Diplomatic staterooms are where geopolitical rivalries matter. Not here at the aquatics venue. Prior to 1991, the Soviet Union would sometimes beat the USA in the Olympic medal count. This didn't appear to help the USSR outlast internal strife and avoid eventual collapse.
Likewise, American and Chinese life will not be affected by any results here. The mother of gymnast Gabby Douglas filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Lochte's mom and dad are facing a home foreclosure. And problems in China will remain problems in China.
For example, I remember the scene in Beijing when Liu couldn't finish his hurdle race before a shocked nation of viewers. At the ensuing news conference, surprised Chinese reporters wondered why Liu's coach had not disclosed to them that Liu had been nursing an Achilles injury for a few months. The coach responded that various overseas Internet sites had mentioned that information. A peeved Chinese reporter pointed out to the coach that because many sites were censored in the country, no one there had seen those reports. (I've always wondered what happened to that brave reporter and where he is today -- probably demoted to covering the Shanghai sewer beat.)
Forget the medal race, here is what I am observing: Remarkable athletic feats by men and women from many countries. Here is what I am writing down: The way that almost every competitor here respects the other competitors, with few exceptions. It held true again Tuesday when Liu, who left the stadium without speaking to the media, finally reached the finish line at the Olympic Stadium in obvious agony after his one-legged journey there.
When Liu arrived at the line, his right arm was lifted in the air by a fellow competitor from Hungary, as a gesture of triumph. Two other hurdlers put their arms around Liu and helped him into a wheelchair so he could be rolled away from the track to medical care.
Jamaican sprinting star Usain Bolt knew Liu's story well and called the situation "sad" when reporters caught up to him afterward. American competitor Aries Merritt, who won his own heat of the 110 hurdles, winced when asked about Liu's injury.
"It was just terrible for that to happen," Merritt said. "I hope he's OK. It's just a shame. I was looking forward to competing against him."
That sort of non-jingoistic attitude might not please John Leonard or Wei Jizhong. It tells me that when you leave sports to the sportsmen and politics to the politicians, things work out better. Now, when does the decathlon start?
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-5092.