by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

DAY 12: Major duds and a major dud.

BEIJING – In a moment, we will get to the injury and abrupt quit of the biggest sports star in China, an event that, on Monday morning, brought this nation of 1.3 billion people to tears. But first, the big news: The suits are back, and they fit great!

So do the shirts, which I bought five more of, along with three more suits, two more sport coats, all handmade, and I think I got change from my dollar.

Say what you will about small trifles like air pollution, population control or that China’s national hero didn’t make it over a single hurdle. You can’t beat the shopping here. I picked the fabric, picked the style and had a whole new wardrobe waiting for me three days later in the Ya Shi Tailor Shop, where Hannah, the saleswoman, stood with pins in hand for my “second fitting.”

“Look good,” Hannah said.

I think she meant the suit. That, or her country’s chances in table tennis.

(By the way, “Hannah” is not Hannah’s real name. I doubt I could pronounce Hannah’s real name. Chinese workers, in an incredible act of selflessness, take on Western monikers to be more accessible to Western visitors. You see a bellman in the hotel lobby with the straightest black hair, high cheekbones, a thin frame and a face full of Chinese features, and when you ask his name, he bows and says, in total seriousness, “Kevin.”) The morning workout

There is, in fact, a “Kevin,” a “Joey,” a “Nan” and a “Chris” who work in the gym in the basement of my hotel, which is called The Opposite House, and is only the greatest hotel in Beijing.

I’m not kidding. I could move here. The name stems from some sort of feng shui thing about a guesthouse and a main house, but I believe it is called The Opposite House because the service is as opposite from an American hotel chain as you can get.

For example, the gym I am talking about, in the basement, is consistently empty of guests, yet the Gang of Four – Kevin, Joey, Nan and Chris – stand waiting for me each morning, like an eager family at the airport gate, hoping I will need help with the buttons, or the towels, or the water fountain, or something. I don’t actually need help with anything, but this does not stop them from swarming me the moment I get on the elliptical trainer. Joey fidgets with the headphones that hang on the bar. Chris slides my room key a half-inch over. Kevin examines the video screen, perhaps deciding, yes, this screen needs a wipe, let me do that. Nan tries to take my tissues before I have used them.

“Still clean,” I say, smiling and snatching them back.

She looks vaguely disappointed, and I think about blowing my nose just to accommodate her. But then she smiles, steps back and says a phrase repeated all day long: “Anything more I can do please ask.”

Honestly, if they could, they would exercise FOR you. So many people, so little room

This brings me to the wider issue of personal space, which in China is actually a narrower issue. You don’t come here if you’re into “boundaries.” You get no boundaries in Beijing, unless a half-inch counts. Anything farther, you’re liable to smack into someone trying to help you.

Let’s take the simple act of going out to dinner. The hovering begins in finding a cab. You tell someone where you want to go, and a Shriner’s Convention breaks out. Suddenly, you are swarmed by a dozen buzzing workers, all of who seem to be quarrelling, except I am told that normal Chinese conversation as well as angry Chinese conversation sounds, to the Western ear, exactly the same. So a man and woman talk here, voices flaring up and down, and I’m convinced they are saying, “The heck with you, too, Frank, let’s call this relationship dead right now!” But they could be giving directions.

Anyhow, once in the cab, your new “boundary” consists of the width of the steel of the car, which gets close enough to tourists, cops, construction workers and pedestrians to scratch their ears. As for other cars? Ha! Just sit through one left turn in Beijing. You go left, everyone else goes left, or right, or straight, you’re like a bag of jellybeans squirming around each other, and here comes a grandfather on a bicycle, balancing a roll of carpet. It is best, if in the back seat, to simply shut your eyes and imagine Kansas.

Finally, you reach the restaurant, where they almost run out the door to grab you, then send five people to the table with menus, water, bread, then someone to take away the menus, the water, the bread, someone to fold the napkin in your lap, to refill your water, to refill the bread, to take the order. And I won’t get into how many cooks are in the kitchen. The star of stars

But all right. Why am I telling you this? Because if they make that kind of fuss over just another American tourist, imagine the kind of pressure that was on the shoulders of 25-year-old Liu Xiang as he lined up in the starting blocks of the 110-meter hurdles Monday.

Liu is no tourist. He is, in China, Michael Jordan and Mary Lou Retton combined, the best in the world and a national treasure. He achieved this status by sprinting over 10 hurdles faster than anyone in Athens four years ago, winning China’s first-ever gold medal in men’s track.

For that, he has earned a fortune, including more than $20 million last year, according to the China Daily. (That’s dollars; we don’t have room for how many yuan it is). Liu’s face is everywhere in this country, on billboards, on bus stops. He is bigger than Yao Ming. (And that’s saying something.) He has endorsed products from soft drinks to cigarettes. People go nuts when Liu is within range, screaming and waving and fainting.

I don’t think the average American could name a 110-meter hurdler if life itself depended on it. But China – a country that eschews deity – does deify its sports heroes, at least in certain sports. Table tennis, diving, gymnastics – all are kingmakers. But the reason Liu is even bigger is because he won gold (and later set a world record) in a sport in which no Chinese ever had excelled.

Simply put, China doesn’t win at track. It doesn’t produce sprinters. It doesn’t manufacture hurdlers. The factory has no factory for speed.

And yet here is the best sprint/hurdler in the world, and he is one of them. He is living proof that China can compete with the Western powers in going fast, not just being precise.

So with 91,000 fans in the Olympic Stadium, some of whom had paid thousands of yuan for a ticket, Liu – like Elvis – was introduced for the first heat of his event, and then immediately began an exit that couldn’t have been more dramatic if it came in an opera. By any other name

Liu grimaced while stretching. He seemed in pain in the blocks. He limped out during a false start, clutched at his right leg, then peeled the competitors’ adhesive number off his leg, as a billion people sucked in their breath.

He exited down the tunnel.

Elvis has left the building.

People cried. Honestly. Reporters cried. His coach, Sun Haiping, broke into tears when explaining the pain Liu had been dealing with. The guy had not raced in three months after a hamstring injury. His progress was a secret the way nuclear warheads are a secret. People were told that he would be ready. As late as the Monday morning papers here, Liu was quoted as saying he was set to take on his formidable competition.

But it was clear the guy could barely run. His coaches told the media he was “shivering” with pain. An Achilles tendon injury that reportedly he has been battling for – I’m not kidding, this is what they said – six years was hobbling him.

“Liu would not withdraw unless the pain was intolerable and there was no other way out,” said Feng Shuyon, the Chinese track team’s head coach.

That seemed to be the sentiment around the country. Liu would have run with a bit in his mouth if it made the pain tolerable. Still, the disappointment was everywhere. People actually left the stadium, having only traveled there to see the superstar perform. Blogs on the Internet contained countless gushing well wishes for Liu’s recovery (imagine if there were an Internet during the Beatles’ heyday and you get an idea of the tone). There was also some questioning of how the athlete was handled by the coaches.

Liu’s golden run was set to be the signature event of these Games for Chinese fans, sort of like Sinatra doing “My Way” to close the show. A TV reporter said Liu’s quitting was like discovering “that a god was just a man.”

Personally, I can’t imagine the pressure this guy was under. To have waited four years, to be the centerpiece of your nation’s global coming out party, and to wind up as a horse that never left the post, well, that’s beyond harsh. Liu, who as of this writing hadn’t been seen, was said by his coach to be “depressed.”

Monday night, in the lobby of The Opposite House, I asked one of the workers what he thought of Liu’s exit and he said, “Sad.” Then I asked him his Chinese name, which was something I couldn’t pronounce, and then I asked him his Western name, and he said, and I’m not kidding here, “Owen.”

And I thought, if Liu Xiang could switch identities like that, he’d do it in a heartbeat.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Missed a day of Olympic columns? Go to


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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