Rediscovering the Olympic spirit among bikini-clad cheerleaders
We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.
You take your indelible memories where you can find them, and mine, to my surprise, came at the beach volleyball venue, Chaoyang Park.
Having spent almost every day for two weeks in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the gymnastics competition, I was ready for some California dreamin', and that's just what the women's finals of beach volleyball provided. China vs. U.S. (I was used to that.) Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, they of the 107-match winning streak, against Tian Jia and Wang Jie, the last team to beat them way back in July, 2007. Never mind that the sky was so dark the stadium lights were turned on and a driving rain pelted the poncho-clad spectators throughout. It was warm. The bikinis were bright. The atmosphere was more carnival-like than Olympian.
The Beach Girls, the bikini-clad cheerleaders who danced during breaks in the action, lived up to their billing. No wonder Kobe and LeBron, (not to mention George W.) had visited this venue. There is something about bikini-clad cheerleaders doing splits and cartwheels in the sand at an Olympics in Communist China that makes the world seem, well, just a little smaller. (There's a sentence I never thought I'd write.)
While awaiting the gold-medal game, the crowd was entertained by two-dozen randomly chosen spectators who tried to hit four Olympic mascots with a volleyball serve. Two tries: hit a mascot, keep the ball. Rain still pouring down. Everyone drenched. It quickly became apparent that few Chinese play volleyball in school, or on the beach, or anywhere. A middle-aged man in a white dress shirt, dark trousers and street shoes swung at the volleyball as if it were a pinana, and he was blindfolded. He shanked it twice. His wife, snapping pictures, was in hysterics. (She'd hit a mascot on her first try, hammering her serve with a roundhouse right that would have decked Ali.) Time flew. Before we knew it, the gold medal game was upon us.
Walsh and May-Treanor, of course, won in straight sets, 21-18, 21-18. It was close, well-played, exciting. It was their second straight gold medal. It meant a lot.
Walsh, whose nickname is Six Feet of Sunshine even though she's 6-foot-2, became absolutely jubilant. Girlishly giddy with joy, the pressure of the streak and having to defend the title and a million feelings gushing out in an unhibited, infectious way that you just don't see. She hugged volunteers, linesmen. She hugged Misty, of course, and her husband, and many friends. She waved, yelped, screamed, cried. She was fulfilled, joyous, and she didn't care who knew it. At 30, she called herself "the happiest little girl in the world."
That's why they do it, I thought. That's why they train so hard. All of them, in all the sports. Sometimes I need to be reminded of that.