The story assignment was easy. Go to Chaoyang Park, the site of beach volleyball. Catch some games, capture the atmosphere and most importantly, watch the beach girls shake, gyrate and draw the rapt attention of every male in the stands.
This story was going to be a day at the beach.
I traveled to the beach volleyball venue Tuesday afternoon to see what all the hype was about. Most people who attended a beach volleyball match over the weekend loved it. They enjoyed the action (especially Americans who watched Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh roll to 2-0); the interaction as the announcer hyped the crowd and implored for louder cheers; and the entertainment as cheerleaders danced during time-outs and in-between matches.
This was a beach party, complete with bikinis, cheep beer and shirtless men. Did I mention there was a volleyball match?
But as I was walking around the stadium, something caught my eye: A group of Chinese schoolkids with the day off, still dressed in their uniforms, were watching the Chinese duo of Penggen Wu and Linyin. It was the ultimate field trip. They were sitting along the concourse, finding shade beside the stadium and drinking cold green tea and basking in China's win over the team from Estonia.
The scene itself wasn't peculiar. Many students had days off to attend the Olympics. But among the group of black hair and uniform white shirts was a mop of blond.
Tobias Harens, 15, from Holland was sitting in the middle of the group chatting with one of the female students, 9-year-old Zheng Mo Xuan. They had met when they both were seeking respite from the heat. Xuan approached Harens, crouching down to engage him in conversation.
Xuan asked about Holland in perfect English. Harens remarked how large China was compared to the Netherlands as the girl nodded her head: "It's very big."
"She speaks better English than I do," Harens said.
Despite all the cynicism, turmoil and controversy surrounding the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, here was a pure moment outside the glare of the spotlight and spin, on the concrete outside the stadium. If the Olympics still aspires to the universal ideal of harmony and acceptance, this connection between a Holland teenager and Chinese schoolgirl is one reason why the Games are still relevant.
"We were talking about our different cultures," said Harens, who was wearing an orange Holland Heineken House T-shirt that was one size too large.
After nearly 30 minutes of conversation, Harens and Xuan parted ways — but not before trying to exchange gifts. Harens tried to hand Xuan 5 RMB so she could buy herself something from the snack shop. She refused the money. She gave him a handmade trinket and a Chinese fan, which he tried to refuse. It was a stalemate until Harens' father stepped in and bought an Olympic souvenir flag and gave it to Xuan.
She accepted the flag, not the money, and Harens took the macramé. He patted her on the head and they shook hands as classmates and teachers snapped photos of them. Chinese-Dutch relations had never been stronger.
Once Harens left to watch the Brazil-Argentina match, I asked Xuan a few more questions. What else did they talk about?
"We talked about everything," the third-grader said.
What does she want to be when she grows up?
"I want to be a teacher."
What did she think of Harens?
"I think I have a new friend."
The music and cheers from the Brazil-Argentina match echoed from the concourse. The announcer introduced the beach girls for another performance. Inside the stadium, fans were enjoying the beach party.
Outside, the Olympic spirit was alive and well.