BEIJING – The Chinese government tried to control everything in the run-up to these Olympics. From architecture to air quality, from restaurant menus to suggested interaction with foreigners, everything was weighed against how it would be perceived.
For China, this is not just a sporting event. This is its window for the world, the chance to define itself as more than a mysterious, communist power rising in the East, more than totalitarianism, human rights abuse and choking pollution.
There is simply no comparative event in America that could mean so much or swell such national pride as this. We're an open society. We're a known quantity. We're forever being defined.
China is being defined, too, and on Saturday, the first day of these long anticipated and meticulously planned Games, the Chinese learned a lesson.
As desperately as they try, they can't control everything.
A 47-year-old Chinese man, Tang Yongming, stabbed two Americans, killing a man and seriously wounding a woman as well as their Chinese tour guide at the Drum Tower, a popular 13th Century tourist attraction. The Americans are Todd and Barbara Bachman, the in-laws of U.S. men's indoor volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon and parents of former U.S. women's volleyball player Elisabeth Bachman.
After the savagery, the man committed suicide by jumping from the tower that once served as Beijing's principle clock. And just like that, whatever goodwill a flawless Games was supposed to produce with the United States may have been lost. Just hours after a spectacular Opening Ceremony, things changed.
The greatest loss, of course, is the Bachmans. They were innocent. They were doing just what China has tried to invite the world to do, to "come and see us, come and meet us."
It's a sad and senseless event, the kind that can cast a pall on all the competition.
On all of China, even.
"It makes me very, very sad to hear this," a 20-year-old woman from the Yunnan province, obviously moved when she heard the news while standing outside the Water Cube, said through a translator. "I can represent the Chinese people in saying, 'I apologize.' I feel so sad."
It was a familiar theme among locals around the Olympic complex where Chinese without tickets gathered just to soak in the historic atmosphere. The news of such an act disturbed and shocked many. Some couldn't believe it was even true. Others had no idea how to react.
This was everything they did not want.
"That person does not represent China," said a 20-year-old woman from the Guangdong province. "He may have (mental) health problems. It should not represent China."
It shouldn't, of course. One person should never define a country, let alone one with 1.3 billion people. Inexplicable violence occurs everywhere, and the statistics say Beijing is one of the safest major cities in the world. Crimes against foreigners are particularly rare, and Chinese law punishes such acts with extra severity.
The last time the Summer Olympics were held in the United States, 1996 in Atlanta, an American named Eric Rudolph set off a bomb in Centennial Park. It killed a woman from Georgia. A Turkish cameraman died from a heart attack as he covered the event.
This does little, though, to ease the shock for the family involved or the fears for American athletes who also have family and friends here making the rounds as tourists.
Rapid change – of which China is in the midst of – can breed all sorts of anger and displacement. But did this attack occur because the couple was American? While they apparently weren't wearing anything that distinguished them as such, were they targeted in another way?
There are only questions now, no answers. There may never be any.
For the most part, the Chinese have been unfailingly nice – the smiles and laughs, the almost uncomfortable level of politeness. They care so much about what others think of their burgeoning homeland. The government did everything from banning dog on local menus to cars from the road to dissident voices from Beijing in various public-relations ploys.
Nothing can change opinions, though, like interaction with residents. Whatever wariness the world may have about China's government can be quickly disarmed by China's people.
On Friday, I sat in a refugee shelter home – a single-room box with no running water – in Southwest China and talked to a woman who had lost virtually everything in May's devastating earthquake.
She insisted on being a proper host despite having nothing to offer. There was no tea, no coffee and no food. She decided she would serve me a cup of water from a nearby supply. It was all she had. It was a gesture more meaningful than the most opulent of meals.
That is China, perhaps the true China. It won't get headlines, though.
"This kind of stuff shouldn't happen," said a 52-year-old man from Tianjin. "It's not good for China."
That's the risk of opening up a nation for examination. You can't determine who defines the event, who defines the people. Not even a communist government that believed it had thought of everything.
A billion acts of kindness can be lost in an instant.
On Saturday, there was one American dead, another wounded at an ancient Chinese treasure. There was a grieving, devastated family and a saddened mood on the street, leaving many in this most image-conscious nation suddenly on edge.