Life in Beijing

Paralympic athlete Claudia Biene, Blysse and Ellie
German Paralympic athlete Claudia Biene, Ellie, and Blysse

At 60,000,000 souls, China’s “disabled” population surpasses that of many great nations.  Until recently, despite the installation of wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, and other infrastructure upgrades mandated as part of the package to allow Beijing to host the Olympic games, along with the accompanying Paralympic games, actual sightings of differently-abled people has been rare indeed.  As with all things China, however, the 2008 Paralympic games have witnessed the greatest support and attendance of any such events in history.  Athletes from around the world have been astounded to behold venues packed with spectators, hooting, hollering, and cheering the efforts of all athletes, regardless of nationality, in what may well be one of the best displays of spectator sportsmanship in history.

This is indeed a startling development.  Deng Xiaoping, one of China’s greatest leaders, who almost single-handedly ushered in a new age in China’s development that led to greater international cooperation and the unique state-controlled market economy that is growing like gangbusters, did what he could to foster sympathy and understanding for those whose unique physical attributes don’t quite fit into the norm.  During the cultural revolution, his eldest son, Deng Fupang fell from a high building and, having been branded as a counterrevolutionary did not receive medical attention and was basically left to rot, along with the other counterrevolutionaries, ultimately leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.  When his father secured his place as China’s next great leader, he appointed Deng Fupang as the head of the new China Disabled Persons’ Federation in 1983.  Even such support from the highest echelons of political power in China did little to further the path to acceptance of those with differing abilities among the general population. Indeed,echoes of  残废 (can fei) or “useless cripple” likely still reverberate in the ears of those who are skeptical of the sudden acceptance with which they are greeted.  Still, such acceptance was no easy accomplishment in any other country, and better late than never.

So, whatever the premise, the fact that millions who have been marginalized are now seeing new-found opportunities is cause for celebration indeed!  I was privileged to attend a party thrown by my friend Joerg who is hosting the parents of  a Paralympic athlete throughout the duration of the games, and had a chance to talk with Claudia Biene, a bronze medalist in the Athens games.  Claudia is fortunate enough to be equipped with one of the most advance prosthetic legs in the world. I mentioned to her that I recalled hearing that a man with two prosthetic legs was able to outrun the fastest “able-bodied” man, to which she replied, “That may be true, but I can assure you that prosthetics are never comfortable.”  After our conversation I recalled one of my favorite childhood programs, The Six Million Dollar Man, where an astronaut was equipped with “bionic” limbs after suffering an accident, and I had to wonder… at what point are the “typically-abled” (yes, I have coined a new phrase, and I freely offer it to the world) going to voluntarily elect to amputate their limbs and replace them with artificial technology that they perceive as “better, faster… stronger”?

My sister Alysoun works at Wright State University, a humble Ohio academy that none-the-less was the first in the world to enable a paralyzed person to walk through the use of technology.  Her daughter, my niece Heidi, is an incredibly bright and beautiful girl, blossoming into a woman.  Alysoun understandably has mixed feelings about China, because she knows full well that if Heidi had been conceived in China, they would have almost certainly have forced her abortion, as Heidi was born with spina bifida and has been wheelchair-bound since early childhood. Alysoun acknowledges that few countries can offer the kind of attention to Heidi that has enabled her to lead the quality of life she has in the US - her helper dog, Madrid, alone cost as much as a car. Few who have ever met Heidi would question her abilities, nor the brightness of her future.  Still, Alysoun can’t help but be moved but what has occurred as a result of these Paralympic games. Heidi told me herself a few weeks ago that she longs to visit China.  The fact that the country is fast on its way to becoming one of the most accessible in the world, along with the new found respect for the abilities of those who have previously been considered cursed, are sure to make that visit one of the most memorable of her life. Reddit Slashdot Digg Facebook Technorati Google StumbleUpon Furl Yahoo Ask Mister Wong China Newsvine Simpy Spurl Wink Rawsugar Squidoo Fark

2008 Paralympic mascot Funiu

Things are finally approaching normalcy again in the capital city after the years of build up to the Olympics.  Many are complaining about post-Olympic depression, which often seems genuine enough.  Still others are jubilant about the cessation of invasive searches, including metal detectors and dog sniffers, just to go into their office buildings.  Well, for those who just can’t get over Olympic withdrawal, there is hope… the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games are only 5 days away!  Running from September 6-17, 2008, the Paralympic games should offer plenty of excitement for spectators worldwide, with fewer of the security hassles and smaller crowds to contend with than the Olympic games.

When I volunteered for the Olympic and Paralympic winter games in 2002, I was trained as a dedicated assistant for the Olympic games, and was really looking forward to cozying up to some influential Japanese hotshots, as my proficiency in the language and knowledge of the culture had landed me perhaps the most enjoyable gig for a volunteer.  Unfortunately, with the 9/11 attacks and subsequent cancellation of attendance by most of the visiting Japanese VIPs, my opportunity literally went up in smoke.  My experience volunteering for the 2002 Paralympic games then proved altogether more satisfying than I could have imagined.  Rather than visiting fancy restaurants and clubs with big-spending hotshots, I was assigned to drive a truck; ironically, transporting the sledge hockey equipment for the Japanese team.  As I drove the equipment from the airport to the coliseum I remember being impressed that they would trust me with such a task, and it occurred to me how other individuals also possessed the ability, if they perversely chose to act upon them, to really mess things up in a big way.  This far less ego-gratifying, indeed quite humbling experience helped me go on to really appreciate the Paralympic games, and I attended far more events than I might otherwise have.  Each of the athletes has had to overcome considerable challenges, no less formidable, and often more so, than the Olympic contenders.  For those who attend the events, I guarantee a moving experience.

Yesterday, after eating at the newly re-opened Kro’s Nest, in the shadow of the Worker’s Stadium, a major Olympic venue, which had thus led to the temporary closure of Kro’s in the first place, my kids were momentarily mesmerized by the playful antics of the Funiu on the stadium big screen.  I mean… literally mesmerized.  I yelled at them from across the parking lot in an attempt to drag their attention away from the gargantuan TV screen at the top of the stadium, but they stood transfixed until the introductory cartoon was over and they visibly regained their senses.  Ellie then ran up and told me she now wants a Funiu… which is how I learned the name.  I had commented to my friend Dan, who was patiently observing the loss of faculties as the children’s minds were momentarily seized by the mammoth marketing device, that the color scheme of the Funiu is far more Chinese, and if the Olympic ring colors hadn’t been pre-ordained, this is probably more what the Fuwa would have looked like.  Very cute, and obviously designed by the same folks… and only one!

So, for all those who have not yet got their fill of the mascot shopping extravaganza… Never fear!! Funiu is here!! Reddit Slashdot Digg Facebook Technorati Google StumbleUpon Furl Yahoo Ask Mister Wong China Newsvine Simpy Spurl Wink Rawsugar Squidoo Fark

China and the US both win the Olympics

I never actually intended to leave Beijing during the Olympics. I can only blame fate for the timing. Back in 2001, I visited Beijing for the second time, the first having been in 1994, and noticed one day that they had started to put up decorations in the streets along the major thoroughfares. I then found out that the IOC was visiting Beijing for a final inspection to see if they would be worthy to host the games. The rest is truly now history. The build up to the games was at times bemusing, often frustrating, but mostly, admittedly, exciting. I had volunteered for the 2002 Winter games in Salt Lake, and had witnessed the transformation of Salt Lake City into something almost cosmopolitan, and enjoyed witnessing the same phenomenon on a hundred times larger scale occurring in Beijing. But, fate conspired to have me in the US during the actual games themselves. Which actually turned out to be a good thing on many levels.

First of all, I don’t watch TV, especially when I’m traveling, so what coverage I got of the games usually happened when visiting others who were watching them, or catching glimpses from the street at coverage in sports bars and the like. The biggest advantage, from my perspective, was that the coverage in the US was all in English and showed fairly balanced coverage of the championships, of course, favoring US competitors. From what I’ve heard, coverage in China was similar but biased toward Chinese participants. Hardly surprising. When I was in Japan, coverage often favored Japanese competitors who were rarely in the medal rounds. I was gratified to accidentally bump into plenty of coverage of Michael Phelp’s amazing Olympic feats, which I’m sure did not receive the same ad infinitum replay treatment in China. I was pleased to see that the announcers were either politically neutral, or even attempting to dispel some popular myths about China and genuinely educate viewers on the complexities of the country. Then things started to get ugly.

About halfway through the games it seemed I couldn’t escape stories about scandals. The fireworks footsteps were a digitally enhanced fake!! The little girl singing at the opening ceremonies was a fake!! There is no way the gold medal gymnasts could be 16!! Fake!! What else did they fake!?!?! The honeymoon was over. Relations between China and the US were back to normal.

The most interesting thing of all was when I returned to China to find out that China had won the games! The rest of the world, at least as far as I know, generally considers the total medal count when scoring the games, which makes sense to me. Otherwise, why not just give out gold medals and nothing else? Olympic records consider getting any medal in many of the records, not just gold. By this tally, the US “won” the Olympics with a total of 110 medals, bettering China’s total of 100. This alone is quite a feat. China has never finished in second place before. At the last games in Athens, China finished third, bettering Russia for the first time ever. Before that China had never finished higher than fourth. It is highly possible that China will finish on top at the London games and forever dominate afterwards. Considering the population and the resources the Chinese government is willing to spend on the producing world class athletes, along with the draconian conditions said athletes are willing to endure, this seems almost inevitable.

In terms of gold medals, however, China overwhelmingly came out on top. So, it is not too surprising to see that if you visit the official Olympic site in China, you will see that China “won” the Olympics. Aside from total medal count scores, coverage of the games have often used a scoring scheme that awards 3 points for a gold, 2 points for a silver, and 1 point for a bronze. By this method the US scored 220 and China 223, a close call match indeed!! So, in two out of three methods, China comes out on top… just not by the most popularly accepted method.

Most disappointing upon my return were the total lack of blue skies my friends in Beijing reported during the games. All I see are the same muggy, grey, dreary skies of old. Sure, the roads are still empty, and will likely stay that way during the Paralympic games, but I really feel I missed something by not being here. I am not holding my breath that any of the measures which magically produced such great weather will actually stick around, though I may feel like doing so as the air clogs up again. Of course, I gained plenty by being back in the US and do not regret the trip in the slightest, but, not for the first time, I wish I could have split myself in two and enjoyed both perspectives. Reddit Slashdot Digg Facebook Technorati Google StumbleUpon Furl Yahoo Ask Mister Wong China Newsvine Simpy Spurl Wink Rawsugar Squidoo Fark

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