As someone who has obsessively watched almost every hour of NBC’s Olympic broadcast coverage in recent memory, I would be making a gross understatement by saying that I was excited to spend this past summer in Beijing, host to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Through a series of very fortunate events, which include sitting in the 10th row of the Bird’s Nest and running into Michael Phelps, I had an experience that was of, well, Olympic proportions.

Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008

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It’s hard to describe the feeling of euphoria that I had when I first held the tickets in my hands — the feeling of thick, quality cardstock, the glint of holographic authenticity glimmering in the light. It’s real — I’m going to the Olympics, and to 14 events, no less! After months of frustrating searching, my seemingly futile quest for Olympic tickets finally ends in success.

Ever paranoid of reports on Olympic-ticket scams, fake Internet sites and scalpers alike, I was only willing to buy tickets through official and legitimate ticket vendors. Since the largest percentage of Olympic tickets were sold exclusively to Chinese citizens (only 25 percent of tickets were available to the overseas public), my best bet was to recruit a Chinese friend to help me purchase tickets. When we got the heads up about final tickets going on sale, we planned to go at 5:00 a.m., early enough to snag tickets, no doubt. Then I found out that my friends had gotten there at 6:00 a.m. the day before, and there were already 30,000 people ahead of them in line, camping out. I was crushed. But at least it was only metaphorically speaking. The New York Times reported that people in line were literally getting crushed, as Chinese paramilitary groups tried to maintain crowd control. The Chinese really were very excited about hosting the Olympics, as ticket sales show, and apparently I wasn’t aggressive enough to get my hands on any.

So as each of my plans fell through and August was soon approaching, I was getting desperate enough to consider sketchy options such as eBay. But in a lucky breakthrough, I learned of last-minute ticket sales through the U.S.’s official retailer and managed to snag the last of the tickets, literally the day before they ran out. In the end, I succeeded in securing about $1,000 worth of tickets, which was actually surprisingly inexpensive, considering that I bought 14 tickets each for myself and a friend, as well as six tickets each for another five friends.

In my opinion, one of Beijing’s biggest accomplishments for the Games was making tickets affordable for the general Chinese public. With the exception of extremely popular sports such as swimming, gymnastics and track and field (and to the Chinese, ping pong, diving and badminton), tickets were very reasonably priced by Chinese standards, and dirt-cheap by American standards. To an outsider like me, it was incredibly interesting to see how the Olympics drew all sorts of people, not just internationally, but even people representing all parts of China.

While waiting in line at beach volleyball one day, I saw a grandmother with her grandson. The elder lived through Mao’s reign, Cultural Revolution and all, and the younger will live through what’s shaping up to be another revolution that will make China the center of the world’s attention. Both grandmother and grandson had Olympic tickets in hand, almost like a symbol of how China’s past is meeting the future. As important as the Games were to China for proving itself to the rest of the world, the Olympics were for the Chinese people as much as they were for the rest of us.

Friday, Aug. 8, 2008

Opening ceremonies: awe-inspiring. Both innovative and traditional at the same time. Also, China has a lot of people. Enough said, if you watched the ceremony too.

Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008

On the first day of Olympic competition, my true love gave to me … Nine. Handball. Tickets. As the Games began, my friends and I made our way to the Olympic Park to watch the prelims of women’s team handball. Handball is an Olympic sport? What is handball anyway? Don’t worry, we were asking the same questions. But we quickly discovered the answer: a game similar to soccer, but using hands and in a much smaller indoor court. Also, possibly one of the more legit Olympic sports, or at least more so than ping pong. (Okay, maybe ping pong is a legit sport, but I’m still a little bitter about China racking up the gold medals in this event.)

I wasn’t expecting much from handball, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of my time in Beijing. It’s fast-paced and aggressive — imagine the contact of hockey, but without protective gear. But beyond the sport itself were the fans, who created one of the most exciting sporting event atmosphere I’ve ever been in. It was the first time I had heard of handball, much less seen it being played, but by the end, I was jumping up and down, screaming my heart out, just like everyone else.

Fans at the Olympics were some of the most intense I’ve ever seen, and that’s including rowdy Bulldogs at Harvard-Yale tailgates. At the handball game, the Korean fans were particularly hardcore, a hundred or more sitting together outfitted with national-team gear and noisemakers, cheering loudly every time their team scored a goal. At basketball, it was the Lithuanians. And at water polo, it was the good ol’ Americans. At every event, national cheering was crazy, but it was always prideful and never obnoxious — a fine line that Olympic fans skillfully never crossed, which impressed me given the prevalence of brawls at various sporting events. The Olympics bring out the best — not just athletes, but surprisingly also the fans.

Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008

Water polo was another highlight — I was able to watch China versus Italy, and the U.S. versus Australia to see who would advance to the gold-medal matches. Exciting game-time aside, seeing China’s water polo team made me think about China’s sports training program. In their quest to dominate the medals chart, China has been investing in training hundreds of elite athletes in recent years. I expected China to dominate in their go-to sports of ping pong and badminton, but seeing China perform so well in traditionally Western sports like water polo and beach volleyball was a big surprise. I kept asking myself, “Where in China did they find people who play these sports? And how did they build up such strong teams so quickly?”

China sends people to cities and villages all over the country, recruiting athletes as young as six years old, and sends them to state-run boarding “schools.” At what is essentially athletics boot camp, athletes intensely train for the majority of their waking hours, many without personal free time, and only short breaks for meals, maybe some time for studying. China’s performance this summer proves that this sports program is effective, but at what cost? The Los Angeles Times reported on Chen Ruolin, a 15-year-old diver who stayed at 66 pounds by skipping dinner for a year. Guo Jingjing, who won a diving gold medal, is said to have poor eyesight to the point that she has trouble seeing the diving board. Li Fenglian, a doctor for the Chinese national diving team, reported that 26 of China’s 184 divers had retina damage, a common problem due to diving training before the eye has fully developed.

So what do these athletes do it all for? Athletes across the world compete for their countries’ honors, but for Chinese athletes, is it worth their freedom, happiness and health? Perhaps it is the Western bias of an American to ask such a question, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s all worth it. It has always been Chinese philosophy to put national glory and honor before the individual, but at what point do you draw the line? The Olympics have certainly brought China the attention it’s wanted, and it does deserve applaud for the progress it’s made in many aspects of Chinese society. But on the other hand, the Olympics have also brought to light the many areas where China must improve, and for that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008

After flying home to California on Friday, I’m watching the Closing Ceremonies from the comfort of my living room couch. After a summer of Chinese newscasters, I’ve missed Bob Costas as my host for the Olympics, and I’ve missed the NBC Olympic song even more. The ceremony itself is amazing, of course, and I can’t help but marvel at the power of the Olympics to draw together 10,500 athletes, 550,000 international visitors and 2.4 million of China’s own people for the party of a lifetime. As the credits roll and epic music plays, images of the Olympics come on screen: Every athlete has his or her own story — just from our country alone, athletes range from Jason Lezak, the swimmer who pulled off the race of a century in final leg of the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay, to Lopez Lomong, the Sudaenese refugee turned U.S. track athlete and flag-bearer. Lomong didn’t have to win a medal to win the hearts of people everywhere.

And that my friends, is the beauty of the Olympics. It’s not just a game — it’s sport.