Then she started crying and I started crying and my sister started crying

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:00am

If the Bird's Nest and Water Cube define Beijing 2008 and modern China, as the hosts want us so desperately to believe they do, then US swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt define modern Olympians - and 21st century sport.

Games organisers Bocog and the IOC have long been saying these Games are simply about sports, not that other annoyance - dreaded politics. Within just over 12 hours, Bocog and the IOC have helped deliver two of the most memorable sporting moments of our time.

First it was the mischievous fastest man on land, Usain Bolt, who stole the show in the Bird's Nest on Saturday night and showed Beijing how to party.

Then yesterday Michael Phelps ripped through the Water Cube and drowned all the records in his wake. And then he hugged his mum as the watching world welled up a tear with them.

Any lingering envy of a podium place or regret over what might have been, were dispelled by the gathered international athletes as they watched history unfold. For the past seven years, few in the international community have joined in unison to applaud the Stars and Stripes and hum The Star-Spangled Banner.

No need to remember the words of the anthem yesterday. Watery eyes were adequate enough and many tried to disguise a small dam burst when Phelps parted the sea of photographers and made for his mum in the stands.

Yesterday, we saluted the nation that produced a global inspiration. We saluted the coach, Bob Bowman, who drove Phelps from the age of 11 on and on to achieve the ultimate.

And we also applauded Phelps and his mother, Debbie. We witnessed family aspirations winning over disappointment, the struggle of everyday life being won (for today at least); the quest that starts at the breakfast table from our parents, who attempt against the odds to advise us to do what is best each day, and try to be our best, amid the chaos of existence.

'She just said congratulations. And then she started crying, and I started crying and then my sister started crying. We haven't really had too much time together,' Phelps said of that special moment.

The Baltimore boy who 'just wants to go home' has had his fair share of teenage trials, tribulations and family strife. The thing that separates Phelps from us mere mortals is his incredible talent and perhaps the luck that ensured Bowman happened to be in the pool that day he spotted a future legend.

Phelps' emotions and that of his mother and sister, and the strangers huddled together to watch him step into the pantheon of sport, bonded us all.Of course, there is a gulf between the many cultures gathered here.

The difference between the sets of fans - even the scalpers - is something to be celebrated, too, as we all gather as one under the Olympic family at this special, memorable time.

But how refreshing it would be to see a Chinese athlete break from the cold protocol they have seemingly been subjected to and do likewise; cave in to spontaneity, give way to emotions, brush off the stone-faced security officials and volunteers to clamber over the seats and seek out their mama or papa. And weep publicly.

Phelps and Bolt prove that though an athlete needs to give their life over to daily training and dedication to be a champ, they can also still be seen as ordinary humans making the mistakes we all do.

China and its emotion-sapping centralised sports machine is proving its [revised] Project 119 is a success. There are always the odd exceptions, of course - Lin Dan stood out yesterday, joyously throwing his shoes into the crowd after winning badminton gold - but, generally, Chinese athletes do not appear to, or are told not to, do emotions. Sport brings the world together to play on an emotional level playing field. Win or lose, to cry is to unite us. Much to our sadness, the architects of China's runaway success seem to believe sport is not always fun.

We know all there is to know about Phelps and Bolt. And that's just on Wikipedia. We are only left wondering if we have a sporting talent, and would we exploit it to the success of this pair if we did.

But we know little about most of the 639 chosen ones of China, forbidden as they are to mutter anything beyond the banal 'everything is going satisfactorily' or (if we are lucky), 'everything is going smoothly'.

There can be no triumph without tears. And these need not always be shed in pain. We, and the Chinese, need a high profile, joyous weeper - someone who if we can't recognise, we can still identify with.

We need someone like Liu Xiang to shed some tears of joy on the cheeks of their loved ones, as well as on the soil and flag of the motherland.

Not just a handshake for the poker-faced suited officials.

China's delegation numbers: 639