Playing with pain is a slogan in America. But in China, it's a way of life. Nothing is a greater badge of honor in this culture of top-down masochism than bearing the unbearable and carrying out the unreasonable and unthinkable -- whether in legend or in the burdens of daily life.
Traditionally, though less so these days, masters pass down their wisdoms and craft (from Peking opera to Peking duck) through a time-honored process of initiation in which apprentices are expected to put up with insults and beatings. It's worse than hazing in a frat house, where the watchword since Maoist days has been "Dare to struggle, dare to win!"
That's why the biggest fuss of the Olympics thus far here was hurdler Liu Xiang's failure to compete in Monday's 110-meter heat. Among the deluge of gold medals and collective exultation, his was scripted to be the most golden moment. Since winning the first track gold ever for China in Athens, Liu has by far been China's most recognizable celebrity. Forget the ping-pongers and pimply gymnasts. Those are a dime a dozen. Liu, with his mop of hair and mottled good looks, was not just quick but cocky, less a patriot than a perfect icon, the first Chinese to really look just right in Nikes.
He had already parlayed his status into millions of yuan, as the spokesman for just about every Chinese product, and was slated to not just earn zillions more but a place in some eternal pantheon by winning his ultimate race before his own people.
Never mind that a young Cuban had already beaten him this year and that Liu was already having problems with a pesky tendon. The hundreds of volunteers at the Olympic press center, people all over China, stopped dead Monday morning to watch Liu. When he started grimacing, even overgrimacing, it seems, to lay the groundwork for his case for quitting, they hardly took note. He tested the injury in one false start, grabbing his ankle in pain, then tore off his numbered bib in disgust, walking off the track almost nonchalantly toward the lockers. But everyone stood still and waited. The public couldn't accept what it was seeing.
All day, Chinese TV replayed the story of Liu's life, interviews with his parents, past race victories. They also showed his coach breaking down in tears hundreds of times over. On Web sites, some accused him of being a coward, a quitter, betraying the fatherland. Even if he crawled on his hands and knees, he should have crossed the finish line. Perhaps, in a certain sense, the same cool modernity that had made Liu a symbol for the new China was exactly what it now couldn't accept.
He had listened to the best advice, he had cared about his own health over medals, and he had done the rational, realistic thing in a country that loves to get swept up in the irrational.
Given all this, it was actually a relief to retreat into a hospitality center for the American team's families and friends, sponsored with great fanfare and frequent branding displays by Bank of America. Set near a far more exclusive and snobby USA House run for official IOC functions, the bank had also commandeered one of Beijing's larger and more modern multistory restaurants, around a peaceful artificial pond on the grounds of the Workers' Stadium -- ironically, the scene of many mass rallies against the "running dogs of American imperialism" back in the 1970s, when this was the one passable sports facility in town.
In a city too spread out for central meeting grounds and too beset with security barriers, many Olympians were using the bank's largess. In a brief time, I met top volleyballers, softballers, even just-defeated sprinter Lauren Williams and her smart, sassy schoolteacher mom (who, under her breath, admitted that she'd already seen enough of what she felt was a very unexotic and unfun East). Beyond the many TV screens, all the comforts of home were here, from Internet access to the salad bar that one media rep told me was the hardest reach for local cooks.
And here, in what felt instantly to me like some Midwest main street or Southern California mall, the talk wasn't about medal counts or national honor, but best friends from high school and trips to the Great Wall. Aside from Michael Phelps, the U.S. has had a tough ride here -- with plenty of spills, injuries and upsets. But I didn't sense any resentment around the pitchers of Thousand Island dressing.
After a lifetime of rooting against my own country, of faithfully identifying with underdogs like Cuba, Thailand or Ethiopia (was there anyone at these games who could approach distance-runner Kenenisa Bikele in sheer ease of greatness?), I couldn't help feeling that years of being the top dog didn't just inculcate arrogance, but also a certain amount of class, the humility and good manners that come with having already been at the top, already won enough to see that winning isn't always enough.
Sometimes, I had to admit, there was something admirable and tangible about that "cockeyed American optimism." But being a reporter at these games has felt like the most futile of many futile attempts to influence the world through native acts of witness. These games will be declared a success because they must be a success, for the Chinese government, for the Chinese people and for all those planning to make millions here. What was the "One World, One Dream" in Beijing's slogan if not the dream the world shared of cashing in on China's boom?
Yet, as Liu Xiang's sudden fall proves, the appeal of the Olympics is the constant threat of unscripted failure. Sports get to the common man because the line between winners and losers, glory and oblivion, is even thinner than in our lives. To paraphrase the great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: "Games thus appear to have a disjunctive effect. They establish inequality where there was the previous appearance of none." And no one, not even the world's fastest man, can outrun the principle of the Tao.