Thursday, January 21, 2016

V 6 N. 3 Beijing: From Running Shorts to The Big Underpants

This article was previously published in The Cross Country Journal
and used with permission from Paul O'Shea

Beijing: From Running Shorts to The Big Underpants
By Paul O’Shea

Edmonton. Paris. Helsinki. Berlin. Moscow. These are cities I’ve visited to attend track and field’s World Championships.  Now Beijing. I recently returned from a trip to China to see the 2015 Worlds, a nine-day feast of running, jumping and throwing by our sport’s finest athletes.  A few thoughts about the rich experience.     

The 6920-mile flight to the Chinese capital from Washington Dulles is long. Very long.  Flying non-stop to London or Paris from Virginia takes something like seven hours. Beijing insists on another seven hours of being squeezed into a Boeing 777 tube.  It’s like being incarcerated in a submarine, but without shore leave.  Seat comfort, even upgrading to Premium Economy ranks with Novocaine-free root canal.  But there were opportunities to meet-and-greet fellow voyagers.  Like on my August 17-18 excursion.

Mid-way through the flight I went to the middle of the plane to use the bathroom.  It was dark, and the small screens on the back of each seat provided movies and other entertainment transfixing my crewmates. As I walked back I noticed a group gathered near the facilities.  Dressed in tracksuits, they were tall and lean.  Aha, I thought: track athletes. I asked one if they were headed to the Worlds.  Yes, they were.  “What event are you running?”  “The 100-meter hurdles.”  I thought I must have heard incorrectly so I said, “you mean the 110-meter hurdles,” the men’s event. No, was the response. “I’m a female.”  Hers were the 100-meter hurdles.

Kierre Bickles

A few days later the lithe Barbados hurdler qualified for the semis, and though she didn’t make the finals, Kierre Beckles ran her round in 12.88 seconds, the fastest a woman had ever run wearing that nation’s colors. A national record. In the 100-meter hurdles.

The Theisen-Eatons
The World Championships drew participants from 205 countries and produced medalists from 43.  There was one World Record set, in the men’s decathlon. American Ashton Eaton received $80,000 for winning the event and a $100,000 bonus for breaking his own mark.Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Ashton’s wife finished second in the heptathlon, earning $60,000. It was a good payday for the Eatons.

Memorably, there was a now-29-year-old Usain Bolt, still a formidable sprinting force, but not quite the competitor who ran 100-meters in 9.58 seconds four years ago.   Measured in MPH that’s twenty-eight miles an hour. In Beijing, the electric Bolt won two events and anchored the winning relay for his Jamaica.  But not without causing instant anxiety in all the branches of the Bird’s Nest after winning the 200 meters.

While taking a victory lap, an out-of-control Segway electric scooter plowed into the icon and knocked him ass-over-teakettle. 
Usain and the Segway 
But not to worry, Bolt was unhurt and laughing about the mishap that could have ended the career of the Human Tesla.

I saw other memorable performances.  The second-longest men’s triple jump in history. The third fastest women’s 200 meters ever run.
Mo Farah
Aries Merritt
Another double-gold medal achievement by the seemingly invincible Brit, Mo Farah.   And an inspiring accomplishment from one U.S. athlete who had more on his mind than a mere championship meet.  Two days after the Worlds were over and after Aries Merritt won the bronze medal in the high hurdles, he was to undergo a kidney transplant, provided by his sister.  Early reports are that the surgery was successful, though there is a long recovery ahead for this inspiring athlete.

Joe Kovacs
One evening at the National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest’s formal name, an ample Joe Kovacs, who had won the men’s shot put for the US a day earlier, visited us in the stands.  I was able to retrieve my hand after shaking his, while he offered my colleagues a chance to see and feel the weight of his gold medal.  Beautifully designed and appropriately hefty for a six-foot, 276-pound athlete.

Attendance was strong, about six hundred thousand over the nine days.  Chinese athletes were wildly cheered—and successful.  The host nation’s men and women won 13 medals, placing them fourth behind the US (first with 18), Kenya and Jamaica.  In coming years, with a population of 1.9 billion China will become a much tougher competitor in track and field/athletics.  
The Bird's Nest
Inside the Nest
Seeing the Bird’s Nest for the first time, built to present the 2008 Olympics, the stadium looked like a bowl of linguine on the outside, cradling a catcher’s mitt.  

To get to the Bird’s Nest, about twenty-five minutes and $8US from the hotel, I often took cabs.  Looking out the window as we flowed by the shops and businesses along Ring Road No. 3, I collected some charmingly named businesses.  Translated into English I pondered Lucky Noodle and Beijing Changing Hospital.  And a promissory You Win Education. Worribank, on the other hand seemed to warrant greater scrutiny.  Had I remained in-country and needed dentistry services, I had my choice of the Enjoy Dental Clinic, or the perhaps ecclesiastically affiliated St. Anne Dental.
Big Underpants

Our hotel, China World, was located in the Central Business District in a forest of skyscrapers.  One nearby structure was known by the locals as The Big Underpants, the massive dark grey headquarters of China Central Television.  Consisting of two slanting 44-story towers joined by a section at the top to form a loop, the effect somehow lacked the elegance of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Meeting new people with a passionate interest in this sport continues to be another benefit from an affinity tour.  On this Track and Field News junket were an Iowa farmer and his wife who farm 850 acres in western Iowa.  A pharmacist confronting drug-abuse by her Florida customers.  A former Romanian national coach.  A retired high school principal who now sits on the El Paso board of education.  A former track and field coach who has toured in over one hundred countries.  And a 17-year-old San Francisco youngster ready to enter Stanford, on the Worlds’ trip with his “Grandpop” who has taken him to other major track meetings.

As part of our tour package we had a day of visiting Beijing sites, and a trip to The Great Wall.  Locally, we went to the Forbidden City.  Unfortunately, because of preparations for the September 3rd commemoration of the end of World War II, we were prevented from visiting Tiananmen Square.

Unrelated to the Worlds, I also met friends I had made in the United States.  As I am, they are members of Families Anonymous, a support group for parents who have children with substance abuse problems.  The husband-and-wife couple lives in Beijing on an assignment from a major foundation. Of Chinese heritage, Zumi prepared a lovely, authentic lunch at their apartment.

One of the frequent questions from people who knew of my trip:  How was the weather?  Translation: what about the smog, the daily miasma that envelops Beijing residents?  The answer for us was that cutting in half the number of cars allowed into the city, the imminence of the forthcoming mass demonstration of Chinese military might and an international track meet brought clear conditions, helping athletes and tourists alike. The atmosphere cleared for two weeks, recalling other rare days when looking up, residents saw what they called “Parade Blue” skies.

And that’s how I spent what could be called, My Summer Vacation.  Not in South China, Maine (pop. several hundred), but in the People’s Republic of China, Beijing (pop. 23 million).  

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