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Human Faces

Created on 20/8/2008

No one can criticize the Beijing Olympics for their efficiency, scope or scale. It is simply awe inspiring and magnificent. Nevertheless its enormity renders it impersonal and somewhat robotic.

It was refreshing to watch the men’s second round table tennis (ping pong) match between an Austrian and a Croat. One of them, it doesn’t matter which, calmly informed the umpire that he had double hit a shot, and forfeited the point. This honesty was so refreshing it shocks the viewer. The TV announcers, both experts in this sport, then made it clear that this is the level of honesty shown by every participant in table tennis. It’s wonderful to witness that the true Olympian spirit is alive and kicking in the world of ping-pong.

Despite the energetic efforts of the Chinese hosts to smile their way into our hearts there’s something too mechanistic about them and this is strangely disturbing. Have you noticed the young women who participate in the medal awarding ceremonies at every event? All these girls look like a giant cookie cutter originated them. They act in accordance with a totally regimented script.

I was discussing this with someone over the last few days and they suggested that the Chinese authorities must have had their elegant dresses designed and manufactured in one size and the girls were selected to fit the dresses.

It’s odd to see every hand gesture, each smile and every walk to all the podiums to be so exactly choreographed with no deviations whatsoever. It is clearly meant to be charming but the result is faintly disturbing.

When you compound this with the wind machines that kick in, out of camera shot, to give the flags of the medal winning nations an heroic look and you have a display that some feel leaves nothing to chance and to me leaves no humanity.

That is why the other face of these Chinese Olympics was a relief to witness. I don’t rejoice in the fact that their athletic superstar, Liu Xiang, the previous Olympic and World Champion in the 110 meter hurdles had been forced to withdraw at the last moment. His face was a picture of dejection and despair. He was, above all, a human being, reacting like us poor, weak humans do. These moments of humanity are far more appealing than a million men banging drums in regimented harmony.

You have to feel sympathy for Liu Xiang and for China. China Daily, the national newspaper, described the hurdler's crash from grace as "shattering billions of people's dream."

The entire Chinese nation seemed to be crying for Liu as he limped from the track. They didn't witness Liu rushing into the runner's call room, dropping to the floor and sobbing for a half-hour with his jacket yanked over his head.

CCTV, The state-run television network broadcast Liu's coach, Sun Haiping, weeping in his hands. A normally taciturn reporter wiped away tears on the air; robotic anchors discussed this national humiliation in the sonorous tones more befitting a funeral; CCTV’s viewers were treated to Liu in pain graduating to distress and then pulling up lame, all accompanied by violins.

Maybe China’s overwhelming love smothered Liu to the extent that he had no choice but to enter the race although clearly not ready and try to defy reality. After this his only escape, after being unable to beat his body, was to break down, if only to retain his sanity.

"I am still very sad for dropping out of the race and disappointing everyone," Liu said, "As I have won more and more championships and more and more people have paid attention to me and supported me, I have faced more and more pressure and disruptions to my life. I can't have happy get-togethers with my friends like other people my age, and I feel the expectation from the entire country at every moment. I know that yesterday everyone was enthusiastically expecting my appearance and I wanted to cross the finish line like I've done so many times before. But it really was because of my foot. Please believe me that the sadness and pain that I feel is no less than yours."

Poor Liu, poor China: If only they understood. For both this man and his country, this injury was probably the best thing that has happened to them at these Olympic games.

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