Opening week creates stories the world over

by Ed Odeven

BEIJING — More than a week has rapidly gone by since the Beijing Olympics started, and in that time dozens of heart-warming stories have filled up space in newspapers from Swaziland to Saitama.

The Opening Ceremony featured one of the most touching scenes this writer has ever witnessed.

Chinese flag-bearer Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets’ giant All-Star center, entered National Stadium, aka the Bird’s Nest, with 9-year-old Lin Hao, a survivor of the earthquake that devastated Sichuan Province in May. Along the way, Yao held the little boy’s hand in a touching scene that neither of them will ever forget.

The rest of China’s 1,099-member Olympic delegation walked behind them.

Hao was awarded the “Teenage Hero in Earthquake Rescue and Relief” by Chinese officials for his efforts to save classmates from buildings that had collapsed due to the powerful earthquake.

The tiny boy and Yao created a poignant portrait of China’s future — two generations linked forever. The current generation has benefited from the expansion of trade, the influx of capitalism into China and the technological advances that have aided China as it has opened up to the outside world. How Hao’s generation will view these changes remains a mystery.

More than a billion Chinese now know — and care — about little Hao. Think of it as a big extended family, one that will grow to care about what becomes of him.

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Other Olympic-related stories have been equally compelling.

Iran swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei withdrew from his 100-meter breaststroke heat on Aug. 9. He was supposedly sick, but the heat also included Israel’s Tom Beeri.

For Iran’s Olympic delegation, this isn’t an isolated incident.

Instead, Iran’s wretched streak remains alive. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, one athletic streak has been constant: No Israelis have competed against Iranians in the Olympics.

The New York Daily News reported that in the 2004 Athens Games one Iranian judoka, Arash Miresmaeili, failed to compete against an Israeli because he failed to make weight.

Was it just a fluke? The facts suggest otherwise.

The IOC’s member nations are supposed to put political differences aside and focus on fair play and the spirit of good competition.

That’s clearly not the picture here.

“I just feel sorry for a swimmer whose dream doesn’t come true,” Beeri said of the 23-year-old Alirezaei. “I’m sorry he’s losing his dream. But he wasn’t the only competition. I didn’t think of it for one minute.”

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On the other hand, it’s nice to see women from Oman and the United Arab Emirates representing their countries in the Olympics for the first time.

Oman’s Buthaina Yaquobi, who is scheduled to compete in the 100-meter dash, long jump and triple jump, is a pioneering figure in her homeland. Her final result in the three events is really of secondary importance.

By showing up here in Beijing, Yaquobi, 17, will undoubtedly give young females in Oman a feeling of empowerment as they chase their dreams. And that’s never a bad thing.

Sheikha Maitha Mohammad Rashed al-Maktoum (tae kwon do) and Sheikha Latifa Bint Ahmad al-Maktoum (equestrian show jumping) are the United Arab Emirates’ first female Olympians.

Every society changes in different ways; for these two countries, this signals a positive change.

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Another symbolic story will remain etched in the memories of millions.

Georgia’s Nino Salukvadze embraced and kissed her Russian foe Natalia Paderina after the two collected the bronze and silver, respectively, in the women’s 10-meter pistol shooting competition on Aug. 10.

In the former Soviet Union the two had been teammates, but on the same day as the beauty of the Opening Ceremony filled National Stadium, war erupted between Georgia and Russia over Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The violent conflict provided the women with an opportunity to make a statement.

“If the world were to draw any lessons from what I did, there would never be any wars,” Salukvadze told reporters.

“We live in the 21st century, after all. We shouldn’t really stoop so low to wage wars against each other.”

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Swimmer Eric Shanteau was diagnosed with testicular cancer just weeks before the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.

Doctors told him at the time that the cancer wouldn’t spread quickly, and so the breaststroke specialist, who qualified to compete in the 200-meter event, opted to postpone surgery until after the Beijing Games.

“It’s kind of put the whole sport in perspective,” Shanteau told reporters in July. “I don’t put more pressure on what I’m doing. I can kind of relax and have fun. That helps a lot.

“I know there’s life after the Olympics.”

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This mix of stories represents a wide range of emotions on display here in Beijing.

Similar stories will unfold in Week 2, as well as many unexpected triumphs and, probably, sorrowful tales.

Enjoy the journey.