Olympics – a different view from Beijing or just outside it

I don’t usually do “you must read this” posts, but this article from the New Yorker by Peter Hessler (courtesy ESWN) really impressed me.

Not only is it acute, but (as you would expect from both the New Yorker and Hessler) it is very well written.

What I particularly like is the narrative/dramatic [which do I mean? what the hell] structure of the article.

Hessler starts near the Great Wall somewhere not far out of Beijing with the rather homespun security precautions which have been made near the house which he routinely rents there. He then flashes back to his flight into China on the same flight as the US cycling team (the ones who caused the trouble by wearing their masks) before returning to the village view of a bicycle race – a bit like the view of the sermon on the mount from the back of the crowd in Life of Brian. He persuades his local friends to make the big trip into town to the games with him. Cue Act II.

There, after another brief flashback to his trip to Beijing in 2001 at the time that Beijing was bidding for the games, Hessler focuses on the Chinese spectators. Hessler zooms in on Chang Aimei, a peasant whose son, Chang Yongxiang, is representing China in the Greco-Roman wrestling. This is only the second time Chang Aimei has seen his son wrestle – the Chinese system takes its recruits away from their families at an early age. He watches from right up the back so as not to put his son off. He passes the exciting news blow by blow (OK, throw by throw) to family and friends via his mobile phone. These are the final paragraphs:

It was early in the day, and the athletes were working their way through the rounds. At the Olympics, Chinese men had never done better than bronze in wrestling; nobody had ever made the finals. In Chang Yongxiang’s second match of the morning, he defeated a Peruvian to qualify for the semis. When it came time for his next competition, I made my way to the far corner of the arena. His father was still there, sitting alone.

Chang Yongxiang was matched against a Belarusan named Aleh Mikhalovich. The crowd had grown louder all morning, and now they chanted, “China, go! China, go!” The Belarusan threw Chang out of the ring almost immediately, scoring four points, and won the first period. But then Chang seemed to gather himself. He was stocky, with thick thighs and a square jaw. He had bristly black hair and after every clinch he shook his head like a bull. He evened the match with the second period. Now the spectators were on their feet; the school group from Changping screamed and banged their thunder sticks.

Behind them, Chang Aimei remained seated. His legs were crossed, as if he were relaxing after a day’s labor, and his belongings were neatly stacked on his lap: towel, flags, pamphlets. He had not moved a muscle since the match began. His eyes were fixed on the distant mat, and he said nothing. But I could hear him breathing—steady, steady, steady. In the third period, the Belarusan took the initial point. Deeper now, deeper now. The match continued with Chang Yongxiang in the lower position; he escaped and scored a point. Inhale—almost a gasp. Another point, and then it was over, and the referee was raising Chang Yongxiang’s arm.

Eventually, Chang lost to a Georgian, taking the silver medal. But on the day of the semifinal he left the ring triumphant, already the most successful Chinese Greco-Roman wrestler in history. At the top of the arena, safely out of sight, Chang Aimei still looked relaxed. He was silent until he took out the cell phone. “Wei!” he shouted. “He just won again!”

Brilliant! But there’s a lot more to the piece than that and I’d urge you to take a look for yourself.

3 Responses to “Olympics – a different view from Beijing or just outside it”

  1. Victor Says:

    Thanks for linking the article. I lived in Beijing between 1980 and 1982 and this not only brought back great memories for me but also was a terrific read.

  2. marcellous Says:


    have you ever or often been back?

  3. Victor Says:

    No, unfortunately I haven’t been back.

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