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Kristi Heim: The World in China

Seattle Times reporter Kristi Heim explores a changing China on the world stage.

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August 18, 2008 10:06 PM

Liu Xiang and Chinese "national glory"

Posted by Kristi Heim

If it wasn't clear from the 70-pound pixie gymnasts already, Liu Xiang's saga shows how an athlete's life here, his body and his glory or failure, do not really belong to him. They belong to his sponsors, the media and the state.

Liu was the center of an elaborate show where his success was used for larger purposes, mainly overcoming deep national insecurity, and of course making money. China is different from both the former Eastern bloc's authoritarian control and U.S.-style commercialization. It's both of them and more.

Even while plagued with injuries, which his coach blamed on training too much due to the pressure, the event was so over-hyped that Liu had no choice but to enter the field and make his pain public. Today a full page spread in the China Daily turns his tragedy into an ad for Nike: "Love sport even when it breaks your heart," it says.

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Liu's Website makes the point that he is "the first Chinese man to win a gold medal in Olympic track and field, first Asian man to win an Olympic sprint competition, and first athlete not from North America or Europe to win an Olympic medal" in the hurdles. His success was meant to prove the strength of Chinese bodies, the individual as a metaphor for the national.

After winning a gold medal four years ago in Athens, Liu himself seemed surprised "Given the Asian physiology, few expected that a Chinese would ever be able to run under 13 seconds," he said. "I believe this is like a sort of miracle."

Following his departure from the race yesterday, as Liu sat depressed and avoiding the public eye, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping conveyed official wishes to him through China's sports ministry. "We hope that after he recovers, he will continue to train hard and struggle harder for national glory," Xi said.

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August 18, 2008 8:12 AM

Video: China's biggest Olympic hopeful walks away

Posted by Kristi Heim

This is a shock felt around the country. Chinese superstar Liu Xiang bowed out of the Olympics this morning because of a longstanding injury to his Achilles tendon. As the icon for Chinese sports, Liu faced enormous pressure to bring home gold. In Beijing's National Stadium, 91,000 fans watched as Liu limped back after another athlete's false start in the men's 110m Hurdles. He grimaced in pain, then walked off the track. I spent the day talking with fans, who were crushed by the news but also eager to voice support for him.

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August 17, 2008 7:13 AM

Chinese want to study Michael Phelps' genes

Posted by Kristi Heim

After Michael Phelps hit the magic number "8" in gold medals, the most of any athlete in Olympic history, a question started to form in the minds of people in China: Where can we get those genes?

A TV commentator suggested Phelps' mother Debbie should stay in China so people here can study how she produced such a great son. "She should be checked to find out how she's different from other people," a local friend of mine said, welcoming the idea. "How can she make Michael Phelps?"

"Big Fish," as Phelps is called here, "isn't from the Earth, he must be from another planet," a Beijing newspaper quipped.

Since Phelps won eight medals in eight different swimming events, another idea was proposed in a joke circulating on the Internet. Chinese could win more medals if only they had different versions of ping-pong (Table Tennis as it's known officially). There could be ping-pong with a vertical paddle, ping-pong with a horizontal paddle, etc.

If the number "8" signifies good luck in China, "it's a lucky number for me now, too," Phelps said in a press conference. "Seeing 8-8-08 and opening ceremonies starting at 8:08, I guess it was maybe meant to be. For this to happen, everything had to fall into perfect place. If we had to do this again, I don't know if it would happen the way we wanted to, to the T."

Speaking of gold, Phelps also shared a good lesson for life: practice is like putting money in the bank. When he was tired and didn't want to keep training that day, his coach prodded him, saying it was "like making a deposit," Phelps said. So he kept socking money away each day until the Olympics, and then withdrew "just about every penny."

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August 16, 2008 7:15 AM

Scenes from Beijing Nightlife

Posted by Kristi Heim

It's a good thing I don't live in Beijing. I might never sleep.

Everything that goes on in any hip city around the world is going on here, only pumped up on EPO.

Club Suzie Wong is designed to look like an old opium den, but somehow it also hosts "Riviera Pool Parties." GT Banana, a megaclub that holds 2,000 people, boasts a decor of "Hollywood meets luxury space shuttle" (no economy class space shuttles, please).

Factory 798 took an old East German and Chinese factory compound and transformed it into an artist mecca with more than 100 galleries and performance spaces. Beijing also has hundreds of spas, massage parlors and tattoo shops, but many of them have been shut down around the Olympics for the intolerable crime of appearing seedy.

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I started one evening's entertainment at a Xinjiang restaurant. That's the province in the far northwest of China home to the Uyghur ethnic group. The sprawling place had two floors of seating and a stage. When the band came on play "Xinjiang music," they turned out to be very well versed in the Gypsy Kings.

Next stop was the grand opening of a nightclub inside a huge new shopping mall (actually there are no shopping malls in Beijing that are not huge and new). The club put on a "high heels contest" and local would-be models and actresses turned out in droves. I met a guy who was getting rich as a middleman in oil sales, who said he met a table full of people in the same business.

A woman sitting next to me kept flashing her Mercedes car keys, and a guy with low-slung pants kindly bent down right in front of me without my having to ask. Are those Spiderman boxers? But come on, if you don't need an extra hand to hold the jeans up, they don't even count.

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August 15, 2008 8:57 AM

Spectacular volleyball and good sports: US vs. China

Posted by Kristi Heim

Basketball is a new love, but volleyball has long been dear to Chinese hearts. That's why it was no surprise to see a packed Capital Gymnasium for tonight's U.S. vs. China women's volleyball match. Local news media had billed the event "The Battle of Peace." Tens of thousands of fans turned out, as did China's President Hu Jintao. The teams did not disappoint. They played each other set for set and sometimes point for point, trading wins and working the crowd into a frenzy until the Americans finally prevailed in the fifth set.

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The teams had something in common: "Jenny" Lang Ping, China's star player turned U.S. coach who is beloved by both sides. She guided the U.S. team to victory, but the Chinese crowd roared when she entered the gym and again when she left it.

After the match, Lang said she treated the game like any other. She said she was an excitable player in China, but now she has to bring balance to a U.S. team that is "more emotional, very passionate, -- but sometimes too much."

"I think she's torn when we play China," said Heather Bown. "She has loyalties to her home country, but she believes in us. I'd rather have her on my side."

After the game I met a group of Chinese volleyball cheerleaders called the China Dolls. I saw President Hu and his entourage being whisked away in a fleet of black Audis.

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Outside, practically everyone I ran into remarked about the results. "Congratulations," one man in his 20s said while waiting for a taxi outside the gym. He offered us the cab he'd been trying to hail. "Our China lost. America played so well," a taxi driver said. "The Americans were great," the hotel doorman said when I mentioned I had been at the game. No matter how loud the shouts of "Go China!" in the stands, they were nothing to match the power of humility and good sportsmanship in those words.

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The match came down to the final set, which the Americans dominated, 23-25, 25-22, 23-25, 25-20, 15-11. The United States improved to 3-2 in pool play while China, the defending gold medalists, fell to 2-2.

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August 14, 2008 12:20 AM

Looking at protests in China, then and now

Posted by Kristi Heim

Once upon a time the Chinese government actively encouraged freedom of speech and solicited public criticism about the political system.

It was called the Hundred Flowers Campaign, begun in 1956 with a poem "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend."

The movement went along for about a year until Mao felt his power threatened. Then, with their identities and opinions exposed, many of the critics were rounded up and jailed, and the chilling effect on dissent was felt for years to come. Some say that was the intention all along.

That piece of history is interesting to think about in the context of events over the last week.

A grassroots legal activist, Ji Sizun, is being detained after he applied to demonstrate legally in one of the designated "protest zones" established for the Beijing Olympics, according to Human Rights Watch. Ji, 58, went to a police station in Beijing for a permit to hold a protest, stating he would call for greater participation of Chinese citizens in the political process, and denounce official corruption and abuses of power. He was arrested on Monday when he returned to check on the status of his application.

There were other incidents, including the arrest of two Christian activists on their way to church and the manhandling of a British TV reporter by police. Ji's case conflicts directly with promises Beijing made to the International Olympic Committee to allow protests in public parks with prior approval.

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The topic came up in a heated news conference this morning, when several reporters grilled IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies and Beijing Olympic Committee executive vice president Wang Wei about the issue. One reporter repeatedly asked Davies whether the IOC was embarrassed about the failure of those pledges.

Wang, who was secretary general of the committee that bid for the games, responded with an impassioned speech.

China enjoys greater freedom today than it has in the last 30 years, he said. "Everybody is happy. People are optimistic about their own future," he said. "Of course there are exceptions like in any other country," he added. "Some people are not satisfied. That's true."

Wang said that while "we welcome suggestions, constructive advice from all the people, a few people come here to be critical, to dig into small details to find fault. That does not mean we are not fulfilling our promise."

The media should pay more attention to the prevailing sentiment of ordinary people, he said. "You cannot underestimate the wisdom of the Chinese people."

If that's true, then it would make even more sense for all of them to be heard.

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August 13, 2008 5:03 PM

Video: A look at traditional sports in China

Posted by Kristi Heim

The first morning I arrived in Beijing, I took a long walk through Ritan Park and shot some video of ordinary people exercising. I was astounded by all the different activities. My personal favorite (sorry, didn't get it on the video) is walking backwards. It should really be an Olympic event. Turns out this was the only sunny day we've had the entire trip.

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August 13, 2008 11:27 AM

Russia and Georgia face off on the beach -- sort of

Posted by Kristi Heim

Associated Press

Russia's Natalya Uryadova, right, walks away as Georgia's Christine Santanna, center, and Andrezza Chagas, hug after their volleyball match.

Less than a week after Russia and Georgia faced off in a sudden war over a disputed province, their national athletes faced each other Wednesday in what was expected to be an emotionally charged Olympic competition.

In one of the more surreal moments of the Games, cold, hard geopolitics landed in the middle of a beach volleyball match, with bikini-clad rivals, "beach girl" cheerleaders, riffs of AC/DC over the loudspeaker and mountains of sand forming a fake beach in downtown Beijing.

The mostly Chinese crowd cheered excitedly for the Georgian team, the underdogs in politics and volleyball -- except their players were actually from Brazil.

After the game, a media swarm focused on how the Georgian athletes were coping with war back home. It turned out that Russian player Alexandra Shiryaeva was the one who had family members in Georgia. Georgian teammates Cristine Santanna and Andrezza Chagas, both born in Brazil, have dual citizenship but have only visited Georgia twice.

Santanna goes by the name Saka, and Chagas by Rtvelo, chosen by their coach. Their names put together form Sakartvelo, the Georgian word for Georgia. The pair were invited to play for the team by the Georgian president and his wife, a beach volleyball enthusiast.

At the start of the game, Santanna, 29, and Chagas, 31, crossed under the net to give their Russian opponents a hug. But Georgia's first serve hit the net and the team went on to lose the first game 21 to 10. They fought back, rallying intensely and hammering spikes to the back court to win the next two games and the match.

After the game, the Russians' exasperation spilled into a testy exchange. They were unhappy to lose the match and see what would be their first Olympics mired in politics.

Santanna called the victory "special" because of the ongoing conflict and the possibility of Georgian athletes having to leave the Olympics to return home. "Yes, I feel more Georgian now," she added.
"If they are Georgian they certainly would be influenced, but they're not," a dejected Natalia Uryadova, 31, retorted.

"These girls are Brazilian," Shiryaeva said. "I don't think they even know who the Georgian president is."

In the end that didn't matter, because the win trumped everything.

"Right now even a little success for us is very important," said Giorgi Tschanishvili, press officer for the Georgian team. "There is an abnormal situation in our country. The athletes -- they can't concentrate. Our judo wrestlers they lost.

"The athletes are too distracted thinking about what's happening at home," he said. "It's absolutely crazy. We know that some of them lose their friends, their family members... This win, maybe it will help us."

Although Georgia's beach volleyball players live in Brazil, they also felt the weight of the situation, he said.

After scoring the last point, their nervousness gave way to elation. Still coated in sand, Santanna and Chagas held the white and red Georgian flag, posed for pictures and signed autographs for Chinese and foreign fans.

"We fought two years to be here," Santanna said. "I'm very proud today, not only because it was against Russia. It's a tough competition."

Santanna praised her opponents. "I want to compliment them. Despite where we come from today, we had a good match back there," she said. "I don't want this to become a war between us. I respect them as players."

Shiryaeva, 25, also struck a conciliatory tone and asked the media not to exaggerate the conflict in the sporting arena.

"We play against the team, not against Georgia," she said. "I want you not to make like a continue of the war. It's just a game."

But she had real worries, too. "I hope the conflict ends... many of my relatives live in Georgia," she said. "I know this must stop."

In Beijing, relations between the athletes at the Olympic Village have been so positive, she said, "If I don't have Internet and TV, I never see there is conflict between Georgia and Russia."

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More from this blog

Recent entries

Aug 24, 08 - 07:30 AM
Closing ceremony: Chinese youth culture and a double-decker bus to London

Aug 22, 08 - 11:06 PM
An Olympics beyond gold medals: one alternative view

Aug 22, 08 - 08:46 PM
Three countries borne by one athlete

Aug 22, 08 - 06:23 AM
A patch of green in a sea of gray

Aug 21, 08 - 11:50 AM
A personal quest for Hope







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