A Chinese athlete's story was hidden by a language barrier
August 14, 1988

The life of a foreign correspondent is not all trench coats and rendezvous with exotic seductresses, as I learned somewhat to my annoyance on SI's recent expedition to China. Take the matter of language. As a translator, Cao Kang, of the information department of the All-China Sports Federation and the press commission of the Chinese Olympic committee, had only one shortcoming: He did not, by his own candid admission, speak much English. For some reason, I didn't find this especially troubling as Cao, SI photographer Lane Stewart and I taxied over rutted roads through the subtropical south China countryside to the city of Shilong and our scheduled interview with the tiny Chinese weightlifter He Zhuoqiang, who, competing in the 52-kilogram (115-pound) class, had set two world records that June weekend in the 20th Asian Weightlifting Championships.

My thinking was that Cao would simply deliver Stewart and me into the hands of a trained interpreter—probably someone from UCLA. Besides, after several days in Cao's company I had grown rather fond of the man. He was 26, newly married, and bubbling with energy and goodwill. And if his English was far from perfect, he could at least say "Thank you very much" and "Two beers, please" in our language, which was more than Stewart and I could manage in his.

The three of us met the minuscule He, popularly known as the Black Pearl of Guangdong Province, at our hotel in hot and teeming Shilong the following afternoon. The Pearl was accompanied by his coach, Li Shen, who looked pretty much like coaches everywhere. Mr. He, on the other hand, was just 21, not quite five feet tall, and, though pretty well set up for a bantamweight, he looked no more like a weightlifter to me than Michael Jackson does. But He did have one characteristic in common with countless athletes I've encountered over these many decades: He was monumentally bored by the prospect of being interviewed. In fact, he immediately picked up a copy of our magazine, which Stewart had placed strategically on a coffee table, and began thumbing through it as I awaited the arrival of our translator. As it turned out, no such person was forthcoming. Cao would act as the middleman in these suddenly unpromising exchanges.

"Ask Mr. He," I began, "if he was born on a farm." I was hoping by this clever opener to learn if hard work in the great outdoors had given our man the muscles of a champion.

Cao looked at me quizzically, and then directed his version of my question to coach Li, who, unlike the Pearl, was at least attentive. Smiling proudly, Cao relayed Li's answer: "Nineteen-eighty."

I tried again, only mildly disconcerted by He's sighs. "Ask him if he is confident of winning in the Olympics." Much thumbing through a dictionary in vain search of the word confident. "Scratch that," I said, seeking a simpler wording. "Ask him if he will win in Seoul."

The answer came swiftly: "Right shoulder."

What's that? Was it hurt? Was I on to something big here? "Will the shoulder keep him out of the Olympics?" I shot back.

Much laughter at this one. "When he was 13," came the response.

It occurred to me then that coach Li might be under the impression it was he, not He, who was being inter-viewed. This misconception needed to be quashed posthaste. "Ask Mr. He," I said emphatically, "why he is called the Black Pearl of Guangdong Province."

This question so apparently discombobulated both translator and subjects that coach Li unexpectedly rose to his feet and politely shook my hand. Then He reluctantly set down his copy of SI, and both left the room.

Stewart and I caught up with them in the little park across the street from the hotel. Well, here perhaps Stewart could get some pictures of the famous lifter being besieged by autograph hounds. But it didn't take long for us to realize that no one in the park was even remotely interested in the little man. When we were just about to abandon the whole project, a crowd did indeed start swarming around He, eagerly waving scraps of paper at him. He looked as surprised as we by this sudden turn of events. As Stewart clicked away, I glanced off to my left and quickly discovered the source of our remarkable change of luck. There, beckoning youngsters like some Asiatic Pied Piper and handing out paper and pencils to all, was our Cao, a press officer who obviously understood the one universal journalistic truth: that a single picture is worth a thousand words, in any language.

I tucked my notebook into a sweat-soaked pocket and headed back across the street. Cao caught up with me halfway through the crowded intersection. "Yes," he said, "it is true that Mr. He was born on a farm." So I had my story, after all.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)