So the Chinese turned Beijing into a stage set for the Olympics, and the mass media went along with the deceptive reality show. NBC’s camera operators kept their lenses so carefully away from the horizon that even during the marathon run through the city I could only occasionally get a glimpse of the grey soup obscuring nearby buildings.

The front-page Olympics wind-up story in The New York Times sounded as if the writer had suddenly become a psychoanalyst, hoping that the Games had provided renewed confidence and self-esteem to the Chinese so they could loosen up their police state. Times sports columnist George Vecsey that reporters had tried to get Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, to comment during his last press conference about China’s refusal to allow any public protests during these games; police even arrested two elderly women whose Catch 22 crime was applying for a permit to protest. Vecsey side-stepped making any criticism himself, instead asking readers to wonder how we would feel if Rogge had been asked to comment on our unprovoked war with Iraq.

Let me answer. I’d feel proud. I’m proud that we still can criticize our government any time, and almost any place (not the Great Lawn in Central Park, of course, or outside the actual venue of an event, as police-state thinking chips away at our liberties). Our freedom to assemble and dissent and to use the legal system against our government at all levels has saved us from the environmental destruction now suffered by the Chinese. I’m thankful for the Green Peace volunteers who put their bodies in the way of polluters and hunters of endangered species. I’m grateful to the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the many other organizations of their kind who’ve worked so hard to keep us all from being poisoned by pollution.

For their troubles, of course, these folks get called wackos and communists and bubble-heads and tree huggers and worse, and rarely get interviewed by any major news organization. But these Olympic games made me more proud of them than Michael Phelps.

If we Americans take away a challenge from these Olympic games, I hope it’s not that we win more medals the next time around. I hope it’s that we meet the challenge of global warming and become a beacon of environmental responsibility that puts polluters like China to shame. It’s OK with me if they’re better at ping-pong.