Kobe Bryant is sitting on a small bench in the training building, the tattoos on his right arm visible under his gray T-shirt and a mobile phone carrying case attached to the waistband of his shorts. Bryant, who makes $39 million (€25 million) a year, looks bored, even though he says he is not. These are his first Olympics, here in Beijing.
Does he feel a burden? He scratches his goatee and says: "To be honest, I just try to be myself, relax and have a good time." Bryant's team, the Los Angeles Lakers, recently lost the finals in the American professional basketball league, the NBA. Years ago Bryant, who is married and has a daughter, weathered a sex scandal that was eagerly followed by the entire nation. He is constantly in the public eye. Why should he feel nervous now?
Bryant is certainly enthusiastic about the Olympics, especially now that he is playing basketball for the United States for an entire two weeks. He is determined to bring home the gold medal and nothing less, and he wants to increase the popularity of basketball, the NBA and himself, especially in China, this gigantic market of the future. Besides, part of Bryant's job is to embody the dream of happiness and self-determination in freedom, the original American dream.
The game between the United States and China on the opening weekend of the Olympic Games couldn't have been more fitting. More than one billion people watched as Kobe Bryant squared off against Chinese star Yao Ming. It was an encounter between an artist and a robot, between a self-confident star, an agile and fast-playing genius whose biggest enemy is his own arrogance, and the 2.26-meter (7' 5") man from Shanghai, who barely has to hop off the court to place the ball into the basket. He is neither fast nor agile, and his greatest weakness is the fragility of his long bones. The United States won the first clash with a 31-point lead over China. But that was only the beginning.
The Beijing Olympics have also emerged as a battle of cultures, with 596 athletes from the United States versus 639 from China, and with the old superpower facing off against the new superpower of sports. It is a competition between systems, between state-sponsored athletes and individualists, East and West, democracy and the single-party state.
In the first week, the Chinese were ahead in the medal count. They had served up an army of weightlifters, marksmen, fencers, judokas, platform divers and gymnasts. All the Americans had to offer was swimmer Michael Phelps.
Phelps' swimsuits are emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes. He laughs a lot, and he spends his free time in the athletes' village, playing cards with other US swimmers. Otherwise, little interests Phelps besides the water in the pool. He has been accumulating gold medals and breaking one world record after another, and he is pursuing the goal of becoming the most successful Olympian in history with a provocative nonchalance.
Some admire him for the way he takes everything in his stride, pushing on where others would fail and standing up to the stress and expectations of the daily races. Others doubt that this is even possible without doping, but it is unlikely that this is the case among the athletes from either country. Some may have found it unseemly when Phelps, after his first relay victory, struck up a Hercules-like pose and let out a victory yell. But there is no doubt that he is America's answer to China's aspiration to dominate these games.
China can certainly boast its own stars. They include athletes like Lin Dan and his girlfriend Xie Xingfang, both of whom play badminton, an immensely popular sport in China. The pair, who have been together for a year, are attractive, outgoing and successful, and their story is both glamorous and romantic. But what they lack is the desire to set themselves apart from China's army of athletes. The state-controlled, English-language newspaper China Daily calls them the "golden couple," the role the party has assigned to them and that they cannot shed.
In fact, no one is permitted to step out of his or her role, and even Chinese superstars like Yao Ming and hurdles runner Liu Xiang can only do so to a limited extent. Both have long been millionaires and are idolized at home in China. But they still behave like creations of the Chinese government-controlled athletic system, which seeks out its talents, trains them and then owns them for the rest of their lives. There are never any exact figures on what part of their millions they are ultimately allowed to keep and how much goes to the state.
Michael Phelps is his own creation, a one-man industry with a clearly worded business plan, its objective being to win eight gold medals in Beijing. Until now Phelps has earned $5 million (€3.2 million) a year as a swimmer, but after the games that number could jump to $30 million (€19.3 million), which he is not required to share with anyone. Phelps is the embodiment of the American dream.
'A Great Global Story'
The slogan of the Beijing Olympics, "One World, One Dream," is emblazoned throughout the city. But what does the Chinese dream consist of? China has gone to great lengths to bring the rest of the world to Beijing, but what message does it want other countries to take home from the Olympics? That the Chinese people are industrious, modest and hardworking? "To get rich is glorious," former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once told his people as he introduced economic reforms. Has this remained the Chinese dream to this day?
Both American and Chinese athletes are patriotic, and both are quick to say that they are proud to be representing their respective countries. But to make the claim more believable, America has discovered the story of Lopez Lomong, 23, a mid-distance runner, who is a Sudanese refugee and has only been a citizen of the United States since 2007.
When the US athletes chose Lomong as their flag-bearer for the opening ceremony, it was like a gift to the officials on the US Olympic Committee. USOC President Peter Ueberroth and CEO Jim Scherr were sitting on the podium in the press conference room during the presentation, wearing dark blue blazers and straightening their backs. Between them sat Lomong, a slight man wearing a track suit, his eyes flashing as he looked at the crowd. "This selection is a wonderful statement," Ueberroth said, describing Lomong's background as a "great global story" that is also "a great American story." Then Ueberroth and Scherr sat down in the audience so that their new hero could tell his own story, the story of his journey to Beijing.
And Lomong delivered. At the age of six, soldiers abducted him, together with other children, as he was attending a church service in his native Sudan. The men locked them into a windowless cell, gave them very little water and mixed sand into their food. No one warned them eating the mixture would kill them. Lomong escaped and ran for three days and three nights, and when he finally yielded to exhaustion, he laid down on the ground in such a way that his head was pointing in the direction in which he had to continue running, fearing that otherwise he could might fall into the hands of his tormentors again. He eventually reached a refugee camp in Kenya. Lomong is a gripping storyteller. As he spoke, hardly pausing for 20 or 30 minutes, there was complete silence in the audience.
Looking for Inspiration
Many US newspapers ran stories about Lomong the next day. For them, the story began when America came into the picture. It was the year 2000, and Lomong had run eight kilometers (five miles) to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black-and-white television set. When he saw Michael Johnson win gold in the 400-meter race, Lomong says today, he wished that he could run for America one day. A short time later, he was fortunate enough to be taken in by a foster family in the state of New York. He was 16 when he began running as an athlete, but this time, instead of running away from something, he was running toward his new goal: the Olympics.
Lomong's appearance was one of the moments in which world politics burst into the Olympics, which Beijing has sought to insulate from the political sphere. China supplies weapons to the Sudanese regime, and Lomong is a member of "Team Darfur," a group of athletes seeking to draw attention to the genocide in the Sudanese region. Naturally, he was asked whether he condemns China's policy. He paused for a moment, perhaps fearing that commenting would damage his own story and reduce it to a single statement of criticism. He said: "I hope that I can inspire others. I am here to represent my country."
The Americans often use the word "inspiration" when talking about what they hope to do in life, aside from being competitive athletes. What they are saying is this: America gave me a chance, I took it and I made something of myself -- look for your chance!
China's patriotism works differently: My country has given me a task and I want to live up to it. Only then will I have reason to be proud.
Beach volleyball is America. It emerged on California's beaches as a recreational sport. Today it is played in many places around the world, and even in countries like Norway or Germany, squares in major cities are filled with sand and bleachers are set up for matches. There are countless sponsors and even a world cup, and the most successful of the pros are dollar millionaires. The tanned players often wear sunglasses and baseball caps, with the women clad in bikinis and the men in shorts and tank tops. Whether they are Asian, white or black, Russians, Angolans or Greeks, they all look as if they had immigrated to California.
Beach volleyball has been an Olympic sport for 12 years and there are medals to be won, which also makes it attractive for China.
This is the third time Tian Jia, 27, is participating in the summer games. After winning a match with her team in Chaoyang Park, she is leaning against a railing next to the court, with rock music blasting from loudspeakers. An American announcer announces the next match. Tian Jia is an attractive woman, and she looks sexy with the sand still clinging to her body. She is wearing a red bikini with the Chinese flag imprinted on her chest and the Nike logo next to it.
Tian Jia and her partner, Wang Jie, are military athletes. The government collects about half of their incomes, although Tian Jia isn't quite sure what that amounts to.
She would never have hit upon the idea herself of becoming a beach volleyball player, says Tian, but the army ordered her to do so. And the bikini? She says that she found it difficult, at first, to get used to the scant clothing. "We used to wear more, but this is what the audience wants," she says.
Sometimes the distinctions become blurred in Beijing. On one day, one might be sitting on a bus next to a young American who works for China Daily and says that there is indeed discussion in the editorial board over what the paper should print. And on the next day, one could be sharing a taxi with a Chinese man with a deliberately unkempt hairstyle who says that during the basketball season he lives in Houston, where he reports on Yao Ming for Chinese media. He says that he is considering moving to Los Angeles next year, now that the Lakers have signed a new talent from China.
Many Olympic arenas have an American and a Chinese announcer who alternate making the announcements. They sit next to each other for days on end, so it is unlikely they will remain complete strangers.
These are China's games, but they are also the games of American corporations like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa, perhaps because coke, hamburgers and credit cards form the common denominator on which the world has tacitly agreed. And these are also the games of New York-based broadcaster NBC, which is paying $894 million (€577 million) for the American rights and is broadcasting 3,600 hours of programming on TV and on the Internet. In return, NBC has convinced the Chinese to have the swimming finals, decisive rounds in apparatus gymnastics and some beach volleyball games conducted during prime television viewing hours in the United States, which are the morning hours in Beijing.
China has brought in foreign coaches for its athletes, and Chinese coaches have no qualms about working in the United States. What may sound like mutual infiltration is merely part of a way of life brought on by globalization.
Lang Ping, 47, has been a coach for the US women's volleyball team for three years. A tall, slim woman with glasses and red streaks in her hair, she fits the image of the physical education teacher to a T. The Americans call her "Jenny." Her life is made up of opportunities she has taken. Her story, in fact, is an American story. In 1984, after a long absence, China took part in the Olympics once again, in Los Angeles. Lang Ping was part of the Chinese volleyball team that won the gold medal in the final against the US team. Twelve years later, when the games were held in another American city, Atlanta, she was the coach of the Chinese team that won silver. After that she lived in Italy for several years, where she worked for club teams.
Now she is back in Beijing, her native city, which has changed so much, she says, that: "I need a navigation device in my car to find my way around." Passersby constantly recognize and take her picture, and no one seems to mind that she is walking around in a tracksuit with the letters USA emblazoned across it. "Being connected to the world," she says, "means more to me than sports."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan