Cheers for the small countries

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My new Lithuanian friends.
What the big news story was at the Olympics this week depends on where you are.  In Ulaan Bataar, the big news was Mongolia’s first ever Olympic gold medal.  Naidan Tuvshinbayar won the men’s 100 kg judo competition.  The event was important enough to get rival political parties to shake hands and share the pride.  Looking down the medals table, I think Mongolia and Jamaica (fewer than 3 million people each) are the smallest countries that won gold medals during the first week. 

Jamaica’s gold of course came in the men’s 100 m dash.  Watching that final on TV, it was striking that five of the seven fastest men in the world come from small Caribbean countries (two from Jamaica, two from Trinidad and Tobago, and one from Netherlands Antilles).  Once countries come to excel in certain sports it is easy to see how that excellence tends to be perpetuated since children are drawn to sports that are currently successful in the country.  Still, I find the dominance of such small countries remarkable. 

The same can be said for Lithuania’s basketball team.  Team sports in particular tend to favor larger countries for obvious reasons.  Yet Lithuania (with 3.6 million people) won its men’s basketball pool, defeating established powers Argentina and Russia.  I mentioned Lithuania’s close victory over Argentina in my last post.  By chance, my tickets brought me back to see Lithuania again on Saturday afternoon, against Croatia.  This time I happened to be seated with a group of Lithuanian fans.  They had traveled all the way to Beijing to cheer on their team.  They knew all the members of their national team and encouraged them by name whenever they had the ball.  They took such delight in the victory.  But they were also very good sports, appreciating some nice plays from the Croatian team.  Since I am an American they wished the USA team well and parted with a friendly, “hope to see you in the gold medal game!”  (Since Lithuania and the USA each won their group, they could only meet in that final game, if at all.)

The bird's nest under blue skies on the morning of August 16.
Other impressions from the first week: the number “eight” is supposed to be lucky in China since it sounds like the Cantonese word for “fortune.”  Hence 8/8/08 was supposed to be a lucky day to open the Olympics.  However, I prefer science over superstition.  For several years now I have noted that August 8 is always an unpleasantly hot and muggy day, while just about a week later the weather tends to break.  Sure enough, this year, August 8 was awfully hot and hazy.  One week later, August 15, was a beautiful, clear blue day – relatively cool and dry, with a full or near-full moon in the evening.  I even saw stars, which is a rare event.  I understand that the Beijing authorities were interested in a later start date for the Olympics for just this reason, but the TV schedule in the US dictated the earlier date (so that the Olympics would not conflict with US open tennis, end of the baseball season, and start of the American football season).  Anyway, we have the nice weather now in time for the track and field events, so let’s hope it stays around.

Italian men score in water polo match with Germany.
I especially appreciated the nice weather on Friday and Saturday because I had to travel around the city to four different venues: women’s volleyball, men’s water polo, the basketball game, and ping pong team semi-finals at Peking University Gym.  The city is much nicer with the traffic restrictions for cars and with the cleaner skies.  As I have written before, I hope Beijing learns from the Olympics that permanent restrictions on cars and emissions are very much in the city’s interest.    


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