Olympic Torch Relay
I carried the Olympic Torch today (June 24th), in Xining, China, this apart of the Olympic Torch Relay which included over 100 cities on five continents, covering 137,000KM, and involving 22,000 Torch bearers (me being one of the 22K).
From the Xining Hotel (Torch Headquarters) I rode on a bus to my ‘station’ (number #28), and I’ll never forget one thing.. the ‘sea’ of smiling and happy faces lining the streets, waving and cheering. ‘Jiao! Jiao! Jiao!’ (Go! Go! Go!). Thousands of citizens came out in the rain to partake of their first Olympic Torch Relay in China (Xining). They were waving Chinese and Olympic flags, some attired like fans at a football game. Not even the rain damped their enthusiasm!
Now, here’s the difference between people in the U.S. and China. Chinese people are still without guile, child-like in their appreciation of an event of this magnitude! Note: This is the first ever Olympics in China (maybe some of the difference in response). But, you can’t help respond to this!
It’s kind of strange how I'm treated with such respect in China--it's a little weird! I’ve become a half-assed celebrity, the old ‘loawei’ (foreigner) on a bicycle. Who would have ever thought?
All you’ve heard about China has to do with their Government, not the people! The people are very curious about foreigners, and in spite of what you might think they are loving and kind (at least to me). I marvel at it, as I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such. And they don’t do this to get something, or manipulate you, they do it out of the kindness of their hearts—genuine goodwill describes it best. Of course, I’ve met a few ‘bad eggs’ in the three years I’ve been here in China, but they are few and far between.
The Torch-Relay day began at 0400 for me, although nothing new (I get up this early all the time). We were supposed to be back at the Hotel by 0600 for breakfast. ‘Helen’ arrived early at #242 (my flat/office) to escort me, no doubt excited (for me).
What can I say about ‘Helen’ (Li Ai Ping), but a wonderful middle-aged Chinese woman who pursued this idea (of me being one of the torch bearers). I had never thought it would be possible, plus I didn’t want to ‘bump’ a Chinese person (who deserved it more).
Recently I’ve been interviewed many times, and they always ask me how I felt when I got the news (that I would be included). It all happened in one strange day last week, as in the morning 'Helen' had told me I wouldn’t be in the Relay, and then three hours later a telephone call that said I’d been selected (had to be approved in Beijing). One moment no, the next yes!
The Torch Relay ‘Team’ headquarters was at the Xining Hotel, luckily a short walk from #28 Da Tong Jie. ‘Helen,’ who was responsible for all this, and I walked there in the rain (ugh!). We were some of the first to arrive in the dining room (most of the ‘bearers’ staying in the Hotel slept late). Helen ate breakfast, and I drank some tea (which I was warned against, as no toilets 'out there!'). Rushing to finish, we found out the bus didn’t depart until 0730. The old, 'Hurry up and wait!'
For the most part the Relay was incredibly organized, the Beijing Government sparing no expense. We had been given an orientation the day prior, complete with several videos, literature, speeches, demonstrations, the 'whole dumpling!'
Then at 0715, the bus suddenly started to depart! So much for accurate and timely information. Here I was the first at the hotel in the morning, but ended up being the last on bus #1, and the only foreigner. I was slightly embarrassed.
I had met my 'bookend' runners (#27 and #29) at the orientation, so easy to find my seat. Additionally, the seats were numbered, so we would egress in sequence. I had thought they would drop us off at our ‘stations/numbers, painted on the street’ (#28 in my case) early and we would have to stand around and wait. But, no... They had it all timed out, so we were dropped off just in time to wave to the crowd, before #27 came running towards me with the lighted Torch!
We were not allowed to wear a hat, scarf or anything other than the prescribed outfit (supplied by Adidas), not even a jacket in the rain. They even requested we wear white shoes, but I wasn't about to buy white shoes to run 50 meters! Individuality is a new idea in Chinese culture.
We also had been instructed how to how hold the Torch, how to start and finish, hardly anything left to our imagination (me wanting to ‘shoot’ POV video but against the rules). The Beijing Government massively uptight about the Olympics, hoping to pull it off flawlessly (after spending billions of dollars).
Generally speaking Chinese people are not very organized, and always late (not clock watchers Xu Tan once explained)! But, they were not late this day, as supposed to begin precisely at 0808 (Chinese think #8 a lucky number)!
Helen was there behind the barricade as pre-planned, so when I got off the bus I handed her all of the things they didn’t want to have (jacket for one). I’m a ‘hat guy,’ (even before losing my hair) so not wearing a hat I felt naked! Nonetheless, the warmth of the crowd made up for it.
While waiting for #27 to bring the lighted Torch, I tried to respond to the crowd who were taking pictures, smiling and waving as if I were someone important! Amazingly, you would have thought I was Jet or Gong Li! I've never been treated like a celebrity before, but standing there on the street waiting for the Torch, was like being on the red carpet prior to the Academy Awards telecast! Cameras took my picture, hands reached out to shake my hand, all screaming 'Jiao,’ their expressions and enthusiasm saying it all, 'We’re proud of you!'
Then here came #27, a young Chinese man with the lighted Torch. I don’t know how mine was lit, except for a man appeared with a key just before we were supposed to touch torches together, and I supposed his lit mine (the key releasing the propane gas). My biggest fear prior, except for having to find a toilet with several thousand watching, was that my torch wouldn’t light. How would you like to be the only runner out of 291, to carry an unlit Olympic Torch? You would forever be ‘cursed,’ as the Chinese very superstitious.
They didn’t allow me to marvel long, however, as a schedule to meet. With mouth open (see picture) I was amazed at the flame shooting out of my torch. But, a man directed me forward, so off I went waving to the cheering crowd. It was over in seconds, as it doesn’t take long to jog 50 meters. Here was #29, a young Chinese woman and again we hugged, she sped on, and I was ushered to the sidelines by a ‘keeper’ who immediately put out my flame. I had had my ‘15 minutes of fame!’ (Andy Warhol says everyone gets.)
It wasn’t long afterwards that our bus appeared and I got on for the ride back to the Hotel. On the bus one of the ‘keepers,’ took my torch, pulled it apart, removed the propane tank, and I was given a box to keep it in. I was also given an ‘official’ certificate proving I had been a runner in the 2008, Beijing Olympics Torch Relay!
That evening we had a party, for some sixty guests!