BADALING, China — Imagine Genghis Khan at the Juyongguan Pass. Again.
Eight hundred years later, imagine the mighty Khan standing at the Great Wall of China once more. Imagine him gazing upon the same mountains, the same grounds that he once traversed — and breathing the much dirtier air — on his way to conquering Beijing.
This is where his victory began. This is where his general Tsabar told him of a hidden path. This is where the Mongols penetrated the wall on horseback, single file, then turned and attacked the guards from the rear.
Then, imagine the amazed look on Genghis' face today as the bicycles whizzed through the arch beneath his feet.
Men's cycling at the Olympics turned hundreds of years of Chinese history into another road race Saturday. There in the shadows of the Great Wall, where the Chinese once poured molten iron upon the Mongols, bikers in jellybean-colored helmets flashed by.
It was a jolting contrast to the image, the sweat of modern-day athletes pouring onto the history of a nation. This time the assault on the wall came two wheels at a time.
Imagine Khan on top of the arch, the cyclists racing beneath him. They sell popcorn and candy bars on top of the Juyongguan Pass these days. They sell T-shirts. They sell Coke Zero. Ming, what a feeling!
Overhead were helicopters and a camera sliding on a cable. Nearby were a cable car and a bungee jump. And the bicycles kept coming, with riders from Spain and Italy and the Netherlands and all the far-off places that Khan never quite got around to conquering.
Of course, Khan's warriors didn't have bikes.
If they had, the world might have been his.
Can you imagine using the pyramids as a skiing venue? How about putting a tennis court in the middle of Stonehenge? That is how oddly magnificent the race was. As the cyclists approached the past, the storied wall stretched sharply on each side of them until it disappeared into thick smog. Fortunately for Khan, he didn't have to deal with that, either.
"It was almost like an amusement park," said the United States' Christian Vande Velde, who finished 17th. "It was the most epic place I've ever ridden."
Yeah? And just imagine if Vande Velde had been able to see his surroundings.
That's how bad the smog was. The best air around the riders was in their tires. The day was gray and ugly, and the air stung your eyes and burned your throat. You felt as if you could break off a chunk of it and use it for a sponge if it had been cleaner.
"It feels like you have hot cream all over your body," said Juan Jose Haedo, a rider from Argentina who didn't finish the race.
Of course, IOC honcho Jacques Rogge refuses to use the word "smog." He calls it "fog." Others called it "haze."
"It's best to give things like this a happy name," said American David Zabriskie, grinning. He didn't finish the race, either.
Zabriskie knows bad air. He's a Californian, and as such, he has spent a lot of time around Los Angeles and that chunk of smog. "It was … familiar," he said.
""It's going to affect you later. It's an aftereffect. Wheezing, irritated throat, swollen tongue, skinny nose."
And have you suffered from that after training last week?
"A little bit."
For the record, Zabriskie said he was told to speak carefully because of an incident last week in which four of his cycling teammates had to apologize for wearing air-protection masks as they exited the Beijing airport. And it was obvious that the Americans were trying hard not to confuse the afternoon air with the exhaust that comes from a 1954 Nash Rambler. So let me say it for them: Tommy Chong doesn't have air like this.
Given a day like this — broiling heat, prehistoric humidity and choking smog — it's easy to wonder why athletes should be made to compete in such conditions. It was like holding a bicycle race in a giant George Foreman grill on top of a giant history book.
The wall deserves better. The Olympics do, too.
Of course, if Zabriskie had had his way, neither one would have been here. As for the race, Zabriskie would have preferred to stay home in California. As for the wall …
"It's impressive," Zabriskie said, "But if I was in charge back then, I wouldn't have built something like this. It seems like a waste of time. I would have put the research into something else. I mean, you can get over it with a grappling hook and a ladder, right? It's best if everyone is just nice to each other, then you don't need anything like this?"
Wait a minute. You would try to make nice with Genghis Khan?
"Sure," Zabriskie said. "Party on, man."
Ah, Genghis. Just wait until you see how these guys roll. Smoke, spokes and all.