Faster, Stronger, Richer
Give Yu credit -- or cash or a check.
The nation, though, expected its athletes to roll through much of the competition in its home Games -- and indeed they finished first with 51 gold medals, and second in total medals, with 100 to the U.S.'s 110 -- and marketers tried mightily to smoke out the next star with publicity-generating prizes. One Chinese liquor company promised a $1.4 million reward to the nation's shooting team if one of its marksmen won the Olympics' first title. None did. Still, the lone Chinese fencer to win gold,
We're seeing the rise of individualism in this society," says
And far from causing resentment, the accounts of athletes cashing in seem to hold endless fascination for the average fan. "Right now the Chinese want to have more of such stories -- fame, money, what have you," Lin says. "That tells you who the real heroes are in society, those who have money or power."
Still, in some ways the athletes were the last to know. They've been so long in the bubble of training and competition, removed from families and isolated from the real world, that the coming windfall seemed a bit unreal. "I didn't think how it would improve my family's life," said Wang, whose family was getting by on $150 a month when her parents turned her over to Coach Yu. "It should."
Qingquan hasn't seen his parents in four years, not since they moved to another province to take jobs in a chemical-supplies factory. Now husband and wife combine to make about $9,120 a year, but "we work 11 hours a day," said Guangwu. "Thirty days a month when there are 30 days in that month, and 31 days when there are 31."
On Aug. 10 Long's parents were able to watch their son win his medal on a 29-inch TV that the county sports administration bought them for the occasion. Qingquan called afterward, but 10 days later there was still no plan for a reunion. He hopes to use his winnings to free his parents of life in the chemical plant, maybe fund a small business for them near the training site in the Hunan capital. "We will do whatever Qingquan says," Guangwu said. "If he ask us to quit our jobs and stay at home, we will. If he tells us to keep working, we will."
But Qingquan doesn't expect his life to change much. "I know I'm getting a lot of attention," he said, "and if I go out in the street -- which I haven't yet since I won the gold -- a lot of people would probably recognize me. I rarely go out anyway."
In fact, there seemed to be little celebrating, and even less relaxation, for the Chinese athletes after the immediate flush of victory. Few parents were seen during competitions, in the stands or on the national broadcast. Most families couldn't afford the cost of travel and tickets. The effect was an odd air of isolation about the Chinese team, and it didn't end when the athletes stopped competing. Right up until the closing ceremonies, all were kept on a short leash. No one was allowed to return home -- not even first-time gold medalist
Reached at her home in a Beijing suburb on Aug. 21, a week after her daughter had finished her Olympics, Zhang said, "She's still with the team. She won't come home until the 29th. There's no exceptions or special treatment."
Whether Chinese authorities wanted merely to maintain control of these tightly controlled games, or to keep the nosy media at bay, or to delay the inevitable changes in the lives of their newest stars isn't clear. Least of all to the athletes themselves. "They tell us there are terrorists out there,"