BEIJING: The grieving coach called his players Saturday night. They were in the athletes’ village, their Olympic lives turned upside down on the first weekend of the Games. Hugh McCutcheon somehow found a few minutes to think about volleyball, to refocus his team, before returning to the insanity that has enveloped his life.
On the day after McCutcheon’s father-in-law was murdered in central Beijing and his mother-in-law was gravely wounded while his wife looked on, the United States men’s volleyball team had to go five sets before defeating Venezuela in a preliminary-round game. The team leader, Rob Browning, said before the game that there was no talk of postponement, only the team going forward, one sad step and spike at a time.
"The boys have done a great job of dealing with it," Browning said, adding that tragedy had not only gripped the men’s team, but the women’s team as well. Elisabeth Bachman McCutcheon, the coach’s wife, is a former United States national team player, and the team is close to the Bachman family.
The awful news came late Saturday afternoon, while the men’s team was training at Beijing Normal University: a Chinese man named Tang Yongming attacked and then leapt to his death from the second floor of the 13th-century Drum Tower. Crime happens even in big cities controlled by authoritarian governments, but this time the victims were connected to an Olympics the Chinese had vowed would be safe.
Late Saturday night, the United States Olympic Committee confirmed the death of Todd Bachman, who was attacked from behind. His wife, Barbara, underwent eight hours of surgery after rushing to his defense.
Hours after the grand pageantry of a lavish opening ceremony, we had the worst kind of Olympic controversy. We had Peter Ueberroth, the USOC chairman, releasing a statement about "sadness" and "shock." We had an unwelcome storyline Sunday to compete with Michael Phelps’s first gold medal and a highly anticipated basketball game, the United States versus China. We had death, with the Friday night fireworks still ringing in our ears.
The bureaucrats love to make speeches about the Olympics as a global agent for peace, brotherhood and change. In the glow of ceremonial choreography, it always sounds promising, even inspirational. But the reality is that outside the Olympic bubble, the world typically keeps wobbling and warring. Inside, too.
While Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was waving to the happy marching athletes Friday night, Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia, a disputed territory of Georgia. Civilians were dying in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, just as heads were being lowered here to receive the first gold medals. In China, meanwhile, explosions continue to rock a province in China’s restive Muslim region.
How will the Olympics foster peace and harmony when it can’t even get the antagonists to take a 16-day timeout?
It used to be easier to cover the Games, to become immersed in the rhythms and the rhetoric, before there was access to the Internet with a few computer clicks. That has all changed now. There is no such thing as an Olympic cocoon anymore, especially when the bad news comes three miles from the stadium core.
The Beijing authorities cleared the messy evidence from Drum Tower, but the effects of the tragedy were in the back of the American players’ minds.
"Obviously, learning the news was tragic, stunning," the American captain Thomas Hoff said after the game. "You’re thinking, What can I do? What can I offer? The best thing we could do was come out here and try to play volleyball."
Without Hugh McCutcheon, who according to Browning has not made a decision on whether to return, the Games went on, as they always do. Phelps was in the pool, winning a gold, breaking a record. The Chinese team began stockpiling golds, as expected. But there was also an anxious wait for information, the fear of terror on the minds of many considering domestic threats already made. Did the madman have a motive?
Twelve years ago, in the middle of the Atlanta Games, a bomb exploded on an early Saturday morning in a crowded Olympic park, killing two, wounding dozens. I was in Columbus, Georgia, a few hours’ drive, reporting on women’s softball: a thrilling United States-Australia game during the day the American pitcher Lisa Fernandez lost a perfect game in extra innings and a politically intriguing showdown between China and Taiwan at night.
Two quality Olympic stories rendered instantly meaningless by the intrusion of reality. The most brilliant choreography sometimes isn’t enough to safeguard the Games and the illusion of what they mean.