The Olympics - a high altitude spy report

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Crossing now to the second day of track and field at the Beijing Olympics . . . sorry, the Yunnan College of Tourism and Culture. Today's full programme includes shot putt, long jump, triple jump, high jump as well as a schedule of individual and team track races.

Just to recap, earlier this morning, at the early hour of 8am, the day got underway with the 200m races for men and women. We were not able to bring you full coverage of the morning's events, but can report that one competitor told us - exclusively - that she ran the 200m, was 'not too fast', didn't win, and she subsequently went back to her dormitory and slept.

That same competitor lined up for the glamour 800m event - any event with the number 8 is considered lucky. Dressed in casual day wear - blue jeans, white trainers, a white top - she could rightly claim she was put off at the start of the race when just before the starters gun fired, she noticed the sole foreigner trackside, with a camera around his neck. This may explain her faltering start, almost tripping and stumbling as she veered sideways as the pack of runners headed into the first bend. By the lap bell, half way through the race, she was in what would be called the chasing pack - a line of runners strung out along the gritty track. When it came to finishing, the first runner was nearing the stopwatch officials when she rounded the final bend and headed up the long, long 100m stretch.

As you may know, China is hosting next year's Olympic Games. As foreigners, particularly those working for NGOs, have been labelled economic spies by senior government officials and academics in China, I thought I should add a new dimension to this espionage and become a spy and try to infiltrate the Chinese psyche in regards to sport.

China is a very sporty nation. Sure, they don't have human rights, they don't have democracy, but they do have sport. It is the opium of the people. Chinese are sport-mad, just like us. They can get close to 100,000 fans filling a stadium for a football match between two provincial teams - even though the Chinese team has bombed out of World Cups and Asia Champs. In the cities you'll find grand stadia and sporting arenas. Every no-name village has at least a pool table - possibly a table tennis table if they took away those goods for sale.

Then, there's the contradiction. China is sport-crazy, and there's high hopes that it will haul in the most medals at the next Olympics. But Chinese people - and I am generalising here for 1.4 billion people - are what we might term lazy. It has to do with the desire to conserve energy. To store up one's vital energy and not release it through endeavours that involve sweating.

So the wish to keep one's yin and yang in, and be conservative with movement, expression, behaviour, etc is reflected in sport. The Chinese I know tend to avoid playing any sport, if possible.

If I ask 'what sport do you play?' to my Chinese students and friends, I typically get blank responses like 'I don't like sport' or 'I don't play any sport'.

Many are happy to watch their national team play ping pong, basketball, volleyball, football, etc and this shared activity of rooting for their country's team seems to both nation-buidling (China has 55-recognised ethnic minorities) and patriotic (somehow that government propaganda is working and national pride seems as strong as ever, even as the government's role in people's lives diminishes and free market capitalism becomes the religion of choice).

So, there's some interesting dynamics at work. How is this reflected among Chinese students from all across the nation, competing for themselves and their departments?

From speaking to folk taking part in this annual event, the best thing was to be able to avoid competing. If you can, find a replacement to take your place in the relay. Running towards that long jump pit? - just keep running. Trying to clear 1m in the high jump? - run into the bamboo and land on the matt, or better still, stop just before that bamboo pole and wander back to your friends muttering 'what was I thinking'.

So there seemed to be quite a lot of withdrawals, last minute no-shows, substitutions and avoidance behaviour. Though some were keen to compete and couldn't - one friend who had been in quite serious training picked up a stomach upset and cold just before the sports meeting, and couldn't race.

As for those who fronted up, it must be said that Chinese have an attitude towards sport I find amusing. For every five shirkers, there's one serious competitor. That's the one with all the gear - the trackpants, the right shoes, probably even a coach. And some students clearly had put a lot of effort into training and preparing for the event.

What surprised me the most was how the average competitor behaved. Take for example the 800m race, which is these days considered almost a sprint by professional athletes. For these students, it was like completing a marathon (for the record, it's not too hard, I've done one). By the time most of those runners got into the final stretch, they were hurting. Maybe it was the high altitude - 2400m - and the lack of oxygen. Whatever, everyone seemed to be grimmacing and straining as they plodded on towards the finish line. It's not that they were going fast. I could quite easily walk from one part of the track to the other side and be ready to take photos of the same runner as they jogged around the track.

There was more drama after the finishing line. After the final lunge, the runners would collapse onto the track or grass, or into the arms of their friends, who would support them like they'd just come out after three weeks being trapped in a mine. Gasping for breath, they'd be led to the nearby stands or to the pocked-grass of the football field, where a circle of friends, classmates, room-mates and admirers would show concern that they would pull through.

The most tragic event of the day was in the highly-contested 4 x 100m relay, where it seemd half of China raced. One of the many races was about to start, the runners were ready, the track was clear, the crowds were lining the stands. The starter gives the countdown, then the gun fires and the six lanes of woman runner head out of the blocks. Good starts. Even starts. Except for one. In a lane close to the inner field, the woman in lane two, a short and quite attractive girl, comes a cropper, tripping up as her gym shoes fail to give her traction. She tumbles into the grit and within seconds people rush to pick up back onto her feet and to assess her injuries.

She seems to have grazed her hand. Water is poured onto her hand and she is led away to the safety of the grass as the race continues, without anyone running in the second lane. I peer over at the girl to see how badly she's injured. There's no blood - maybe she'll ave a bruise the next day. Others are looking and sighing and comforting. There's major damage I hadn't noticed. An injury which could rule her out of lots of activities for a long time: that's right, she's damaged the fingernail on one of her manicured and painted fingernails.

Now, you might think this is being a little harsh of some 20-something kids who have been forced to do sport. But here's something even weirder: what they think of us. Even though many Chinese would describe most foreigners as 'strong' the word they really mean is fat. They consider us foreigners are huge monsters. But they also think we tire very easily. Go for a walk with a Chinese person and before long they will ask if you are tired. You might have only gone down the street. They might be tired. You've just began. I guess its some game-playing way of not loosing face, by projecting their tiredness onto you.

Walk onto any campus is the US, Australia and England, and you'll no doubt see some sporting activity, people playing and extrovert in their behaviour. Chinese culture and behaviour seems more introverted. The poker-face, devoid of expression, for example.
While Chinese probably enjoy a far better diet than most other people on the earth - OK, apart from it using too much oil and MSG - the implications of the no-sweat sensibility seem to be manifesting now across younger generations: they are getting fat.

Local Lijiang people tend to be stout or wirey, but some of the city folk from the eastern seaboard of China are podgy, unfit, and unhealthy. Combine the conserve-energy ethos with the 'pale is best' (pale skin shows you don't have to work like a peasant in the sun, or that you are from a place where it is too polluted for the sun to shine, ie, a very progressive, developed Chinese city) seems to be producing new generations of unhealthy and weak individuals. And as my friend said today, "Chinese are weaklings, and the men aren't very macho. They are wimps."

The pressures of a rapidly developing society mean that if you can, you should flaunt your wealth. If you can beg, borrow or steal to obtain a car, get a black one and drive it up and down in front of your neighbours to show how rich you are. To ride a bike or be walking when you can take a taxi is down-shifting - only poor people and crazy foreigners do that.

As in other developed countries, China is pushing its elite athletes - afterall, can any country deny the value of a gold medal in the Olympics. So while the top athletes are being coaches and trained and groomed (and possibly given performance-enhancing drugs), your average Ms or Mr Wong is limited to getting up to find the TV remote, with few sporting facilities available and in most cases, an urban environment that is not appropriate for exercise (unless you want to get new lungs every 10 years).

So what does this mean for the Olympics? Well, the students I saw today exhibited a lot of 'Kodak courage' in surging towards the line. And there was a lot of ra-ra for teams. My predictions for the Olympics, based on this small-town college games, is that there will be a lot of noise and fanfare, and the most important thing will be to appear to doing one's best. Sure, the athletes at the Olympics won't be wearing blue jeans or have their hair permed, braided and groomed like a nightclub dancer, but they will share the desire to do well, for oneself, for one's country. Or at least, to appear to do well.
Tiddlywinks anyone?
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