Access was opened up considerably for volunteers today.
Thus, Beatlemania. Or in the case of China, Gymnast-mania.
I’ve written a lot about the Chinese infatuation with their athletes. The 12 particular gymnasts representing China in the Olympics won seven medals this year, five of them gold, including both team titles. It’s fair to say that the gymnasts are among the most popular athletes in town.
When the gymnastics gala ended today a throng on volunteers poured onto the field of play — including me. While I was standing on the balance beam I noticed a mob of Chinese volunteers on the floor exercise, and after checking out the situation found that China’s teams were in the middle posing for pictures.
A few minutes later I was standing near the exit to the dressing rooms when I noticed the mob moving closer. I got my camera out — I was intent on trying to get a picture with the biggest Chinese hero of them all, Cheng Fei — and watched. Something was up, though. Some of the volunteers, ones actually doing their job, were trying to separate the team from the rest of the volunteers, now free to openly worship these idols.
The working volunteers ended up surrounding the 12 Chinese athletes and held hands, creating a barrier between the fans and the gymnasts as they exited the field of play. Once they got to a corridor the circle broke and the athletes scurried away; the volunteers made a human wall to prevent any chasers.
We, Jason Borseth and I, weren’t finished though. He was on a mission to get something signed by all of the Chinese and American women in the competition. I was still hoping for a picture with one of China’s greatest celebrities.
The chase took us outside the National Indoor Stadium where the athletes were loading buses to get back to the Olympic Village. It didn’t take long to identify which bus was carrying the Chinese gymnasts. A crowd of at least 30 volunteers was surrounding the bus trying to get to the athletes. We almost gave up here, the gymnasts were locked in this box just looking out as if to tease us.
There was a crowd mystriously forming at one spot on the other side of the bus though. Upon closer look we could see a Chinese man slipping a piece of paper and pen through a crack in the window. A non-gymnast came up to the window and looked like he was going to scold the man, but instead he carefully pulled the paper and pen inside the bus and brought it back to one of the male gymnasts to sign.
I wish I knew who it was, but as we were running around the bus to this barely-cracked window I made eye contact with one of the Chinese male gymnasts, and he smiled at me. I’m not sure what it meant, whether he was smiling at a blond haired fan who was enthusiastic about the Chinese champions or if he too knew that the situation was kind of ridiculous and was smiling at me to acknowledge that he too, understood what I saw. I won’t forget that, though.
When we got to the window it looked hopeless. The other fans had been cleared away and the bus seemed ready to move. A bit later though we went back to that window and looked inside. It was Cheng Fei! Against his better judgment one of the guys on my trip — the only freshman allowed to come — knocked on the window. Cheng Fei looked up with that meek little smile she showed after taking the bronze in balance beam and vault. When she saw Jason’s pen, Cheng motioned to the front of the bus, where an assistant could bring it to her for an autograph.
Jason tried; he stood at the front door of that bus trying to convince the team assistant from English to Mandarin that Cheng Fei had agreed to an autograph, but it was to no avail. The bus hissed a puff of black soot out and started slowly rolling away.
There was a sense of sadness as the bus was moving away. I didn’t get my picture with Cheng Fei, and Jason didn’t get his bib signed. This was the end of China’s 2008 Olympic gymnastics team, and I found myself waving goodbye to the national heroes.
I guess, for this one, afternoon I was Chinese too.
- Chros McDougall