Skip to main content
Original Issue

Olympic China

Lost in transition, S.L. Price ponders revolutionary ideas and harmonious thoughts deep inside the Bird's Nest

"Please don'tmake me do this," the woman says. "I can't talk to foreign media."¶ She's right in identifying you, at least. You are distinctly foreign and,notebook in hand and photographer by your side, obviously media, but what shehasn't picked up on is this: Here in China you feel about as threatening as aninfant. A first-time visitor from the U.S., you don't know the language ormores; you can't even begin to have a feel for subtleties three millennia inthe making. You may as well be deaf, dumb and blind for all the good yoursenses have done you these past two weeks as you've tried to take the measureof a burgeoning nation preparing to stage the costliest, most anticipated, mosttransformative athletic event in history.

Yet the nosestill works, because it twitches, journalistically speaking, at the words yourinterpreter has just delivered. Can't talk to foreign media? This is the firstofficial push-back you and your photographer have encountered in a five-city,2,700-mile jaunt down the country's east coast, the first hint that thePeople's Republic of China--under fire of late for everything from failing tostop the genocide in Darfur to exporting lead-tainted Thomas the TankEngines--might well be a touchy host for the 2008 Summer Games due to springopen, like the well-oiled drawer of a cash register, one year from now.

You're noWoodward or Bernstein, but even the lowliest sports hack knows to go when thesign insists stop--if only to see what happens next. Didn't the Chinesegovernment announce last December that it was relaxing rules on foreignreporters in the run-up to the Olympics: no minders, no interference, noproblem? Yet here you stand just inside the doors of a third-rate mall in eastBeijing on a Saturday in June, looking for a word with former marathoner AiDongmei, a 26-year-old woman caught in the gap between the old state-controlledsports system and today's furiously churning market economy. With few skillsbeyond running (she finished sixth in the 2000 Boston Marathon), she has in thepast year sold children's clothes on the street, put her medals up for saleonline, sued a former national-team distance coach for embezzlement, opened asmall apparel shop and told her story--through her blog and Chinese newspapersand television--to an astonished nation. But for us?

"Nochance," says the interpreter.

You sag. Thephotographer, whose instinct at such moments is to drive his head through thenearest plate-glass window, mutters ominously. To gather yourselves, the threeof you wander around the multicubicled mall fingering what appear to be HelloKitty knockoffs and fake Mickey Mouse notebooks. Two uniformed men in olivedrab begin trailing you, setting off internal alarms: This is a politicalsystem, after all, whose censors still black out CNN's signal whenever someoneout of Hong Kong uses the word democracy. It seems clear the men are present tomake sure that Ai, puttering about her third-floor store, never says a word toimpugn the state.

That seals it.You step on the escalator going up to the second floor. Two more uniformed menpick you up the instant you alight. As the photographer lifts his camera, onerushes forward. "No photos!" he says in English.

The photographerlooks him in the eye. "Why?" he says.

"Don'twhy!" the uniformed man snaps, and then whispers into hiswalkie-talkie.

A plainclothedman walks up. "Buddy, don't take pictures," he says in Mandarin."They've got closed-circuit cameras here, and the company willknow."

The company? Notthe government? Wasn't this supposed to be a scene out of a Le Carré novel? Asyou head up to see Ai, a third pair of guards joins in tailing you. You figurethat the regime must indeed be behind this, that when you walk into Ai's shopthe old game of Communist cat-and-mouse will kick in; maybe there'll be anarrest or two.

Instead,something strange: As you and the interpreter step into Ai's shop, thephotographer wanders away and all four uniforms follow him--more intent, itseems, on shielding the sellers of bogus goods (from overseas watchdogs lookingto protect their copyright) or enforcing some curiously paranoid rules than onsilencing a former athlete.

Ai, meanwhile, ispleading for us to go, but it's unclear whether she fears retribution from thepowers that be, worries about jeopardizing her financial settlement with theformer coach or simply doesn't want to embarrass a nation that seemsuniversally proud to be hosting the Olympics. "Please," she says."Don't get me into any trouble."

So you look attwo of her running medals displayed in the store, her small corner ofenterprise, and understand for the first time, perhaps, that your bewildermentcan be nothing compared with that of the Chinese people themselves. It is they,after all, who must live out the contradictory mash-up of repression and thefree market, who must navigate the unprecedented churn of a society undergoingboth industrial and information revolutions, who see daily their downtownsbristling with cranes, their skies a polluted haze, their governmentexperimenting with an economic cocktail that the Soviet Union and Cuba neverdared mix. It is they who will have to figure it all out long after you and theOlympics are gone.

Ai's shop hasbeen open a month. She brightens only when asked the question that, in Chinathese days, matters most: How's business?

"Notbad," she says.

In trying tounderstand sports, culture and life in China today, it's tempting to grasp atthe huge numbers: 1.32 billion people; seven million more cars on the roadeach year; a wildfire 11.1% annual growth in gross domestic product that overthe last quarter century has helped lift more than 225 million people out ofpoverty. China is spending $60 billion on Olympic-relatedpreparations--four times as much as any previous host--and expects Beijing'sGames to attract four billion TV viewers, the largest audience for any eventever. Come next April, a record 21,880 relay runners will carry the Olympictorch for 130 days over a six-continent, 85,000-mile route that includes a stopatop Mount Everest, 20,000 feet above piddling Olympus.

But after a fewdays inside the country, talking with athletes, agents, sports officials andaverage citizens, you begin to notice two other, much smaller, numbers--six andeight--bobbing up in the subtext of every conversation.

Since antiquity,six had been the most prized number in numerology-obsessed Chinese culture, thetraditional symbol of smoothness, stability and luck. For the older generationsnothing has changed; in a country where the well-to-do sometimes pay thousandsof dollars to customize their cellphone numbers, it's no shock to hear that thefather of superstar hurdler Liu Xiang has a number ending in 66666.

But in the 29years since then-leader Deng Xiaoping threw open China's economic doors,eight--the symbol of prosperity, money and, even more telling, the notion ofgetting rich quick--has supplanted six as the preeminent lucky number. Thephenomenon spread north from Hong Kong and southern China, where Deng'scapitalist experimenting began, and assumed semiofficial status the momentOlympic organizers chose to hold next year's opening ceremonies on Aug.8--8/8/08--at 8 p.m.

"Twenty yearsago, the major concern for people was to find food and feed the family,"says former gymnast Li Ning, who won six medals at the 1984 Olympics and whoseeponymous sportswear company is the largest in China. "When I left the teamto set up Li Ning [Co., Ltd.], many people couldn't accept it, saying, 'Thecountry trained and nurtured you for so many years, but you start your ownbusiness?' But now it's all about personal choice."

"The changeis volcanic," says Dahai, the one-word-named president of NahaInternational Sports Management Co. "And the pace of change is so intense.It's impossible to adapt to. You can't control it."

That tectonicshift of values--from six to eight, from stability to ambition and evengreed--has produced not only a growing and prosperous middle class but alsovictims. A recent study by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights andEvictions (whose findings were dismissed by the Chinese foreign ministry as"groundless") stated that 1.25 million people had been displacedfrom their homes by the eight-year urban renewal makeover that is transformingBeijing in advance of the Olympics.

When you visitGanjing Hutong, one of the historic alleyway neighborhoods in south Beijing,only a third of the residents remain, and buildings have already been leveledto make way for an upscale development. The government is offering the evictedonly about a third of their homes' value; soon they will be forced to move outof the city, away from the place they've lived all their lives. "We don'tknow what to do," says one woman.

An evictionnotice is tacked to an outside bulletin board, citing the project's importancein beautifying the area in time for next summer's Games. Next to it, written inchalk on a blackboard, is a message in Chinese: WELCOME THE OLYMPICS. IMPROVEMANNERS. FOSTER NEW ATTITUDES: I CONTRIBUTE. I ENJOY.

My lucky numberis seven," says two-time Olympic diving champion Tian Liang.

That this is thefigure he has chosen for himself is only appropriate: Tian tried to navigatethe terrain between the old and new eras, to cash in after the 2004 Games witha slew of endorsements and found himself in no-man's land.

Intending to sealhis legacy with a triumph in Beijing, the 27-year-old onetime Diving Prince wasinstead kicked off the national team in 2005 for indulging in what a Chinesesports official termed "too many commercial and social activities."After two years of seeing his comeback rebuffed by diving authorities, Tianretired in March. In China seven is an ambiguous figure that symbolizes, amongother things, ghostliness. The old saw--athletes die twice--applies, but evenTian is unsure how to characterize the death of his career.

"It's hard tosay whether it was murder or suicide," he says. "But in the end, inorder to push the system forward, I felt like I should commit suicide. It wasthe best way. There will be many cases like this in the future; many athleteswill have conflicts with the system. I [retired] so people will seethat."

Other Chineseathletes, such as Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, have gotten rich withoutretribution, of course. And still others, such as Tian's former diving teammateand ex-girlfriend Guo Jingjing, ran afoul of the regime for the same reasons asTian yet remain cogs in the Big Red Machine. But unlike Tian, the 25-year-oldGuo--a 10-time world and Olympic champion and potentially her country's biggestfemale star at next year's Games--was quick to bow to the system's primacy inJanuary 2005 and take part in the classic Communist humiliation known asself-criticism. "She even apologized on CCTV," the state-run TVnetwork, says Zhou Jihong, team leader of the national diving program.

Tian insists thatthe diving federation never posted any rule regarding a limit on commercialactivities. He never, he says, received so much as a warning that he wastreading on dangerous ground. Zhou denies this, saying the team's rules areclear and that Tian is "making excuses."

But when askedwhether the regulations on athletes' outside endorsements have been made anymore explicit since Tian's departure, Guo says, "I don't know. I don't knowabout the rules."

It's the dayafter Guo sealed her place on the 2008 Olympic team with a first-place finishin the three-meter synchronized springboard at a national-team competition inFoshan, 1,200 miles south of Beijing. She wears a diamond-studded bracelet onher left wrist, a gold watch on her right and a Christian Dior bag over hershoulder; beneath the national flag on her official team warmup is anadvertising patch for a Chinese electronics company. Guo ticks off some of herendorsement contracts--McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Li Ning, Chinese milk and foodcompanies--before trailing off with a bored "and many more."

Guo splits herendorsement money with the national diving team and the National SportsAdministration. Asked if, a few days hence, she'll join other athletes going toHong Kong for the 10th anniversary celebration of that territory's return toChinese control, Guo says, "I don't really know. I just do whatever theNational Sports Administration tells me to do."

Tian Liang wasn'tin Foshan. The day the team arrived there, he took part in one of those surrealscenes that make you wonder if you'll ever get a handle on China. At a packedhotel ballroom in nearby Guangzhou, one flight up from a lobby filled withAmericans posing with their newly adopted Chinese babies, Tian kicked off anauction for an official Beijing Olympics commemorative porcelain plate. Thetheme from Star Wars played, a model slinked about in a low-cut dress, a signin Chinese demanded, WHAT OTHER COLLECTOR'S ITEM WILL APPRECIATEAT 7000 RMB [$926] A DAY? Inside the journalist packet was a red envelopecontaining 200 RMB, about $26. HAPPY NEY YEAR, the envelope read in English.BEST WISHES FOR YOU.

Tian signed 200plates and said a few words as infants cried; the Games' five fuzzy mascotscavorted on the carpet. "The Beijing Olympics is an Olympics for humanity,so for me this is very meaningful," Tian said.

No one, least ofall Tian, seemed to find it ironic that an athlete barred from the Games forcommercial activity had been called into service to hawk Olympic merchandise.As he spoke, the slide show on the screen behind him ended with a flourish: abeautiful shot of the Games' centerpiece, the $400 million Beijing NationalStadium, a woven web of curved steel girders commonly known as the Bird'sNest.

Designed by apair of Swiss architects, the 91,000-seat Bird's Nest is a haunting structurethat seems destined to symbolize something about China and these Olympics. Andso you sneaked onto the construction site more than once in your time inBeijing and wandered around it, your shoes disappearing in the dust. After afierce rainstorm one Sunday morning, a workman stood below the unfinished roofand picked up a fallen sparrow, still chirping. "It happens all thetime," he said. "There are a lot of nests up there, and when it rainssome of them fall." The workers put the sparrows in a little box and feedthem bread crumbs, he said, and in time they fly away.

You can't helpyourself: You have six and eight, and now you clutch at a Bird's Nest metaphor.Isn't that intricate, improbable, absolutely riveting stadium just like life inthe new China? Isn't everyone trying to find his niche, to build a nest in thesharp angles between its interlocking beams, even as construction hammers poundand the winds of change swirl and gust? Whose nest will be strong enough towithstand the next storm? Who will fall? Who, if anyone, will come along topick them up?

Once again you'resomeplace you shouldn't be. The guard at the gate of Shanghai Sports School No.2, one of the school's vice directors, the panicked staffer who chased you outof the elite-athletes' cafeteria--all make it quite clear that you've brokenprotocol in attempting to so much as speak to Liu Xiang. In a country wheremedia access to athletes has been steadily increasing, the state still guardsits Olympic champion hurdler like some priceless jewel.

"As we allknow," says Cheng Wei, the vice director, "Liu Xiang is simplydifferent."

Cheng asks you toleave the grounds, but you take your time, soaking in the cyclists circling thevelodrome, the crumbling concrete of a 20-year-old institution that looks twodecades older, the massive signs in Chinese: be positive. WORK HARD. CLIMB THEHIGH MOUNTAIN. WIN GLORY FOR THE COUNTRY. Photos celebrating Liu's world recordof 12.88 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles, set in July 2006 in Lausanne,Switzerland, hang on nearly every wall.

The 24-year-oldShanghai native is indeed something new in Chinese sports: After shocking thefield by winning the 2004 gold medal in Athens, Liu spoke openly about how hiswas a victory for all "the yellow-skinned people" who never thoughtthey could compete with American--read: black--sprinters. He was instantlyviewed within China as the greatest leap forward yet for a nation long saddledwith an inferiority complex toward the West: a champion who beats theestablished powers at their own game, the embodiment of China's long-awaitedemergence as a force on the world stage.

"Never hasany person in China had a chance to do something like that," says Ren Hai,director of the Centre for Olympic Studies at Beijing Sport University."Liu Xiang has become part of our cultural identity. He is a symbol."As such Liu will feel a pressure unlike any other Chinese athlete in the yearto come. "There's nothing I can do about it," he said in a Q-and-Asession with Chinese students at Columbia University in May while he was in NewYork City for the Reebok Grand Prix meet. "It's only when an athlete sleepsthat the pressure eases." He paused and smiled. "What can I do aboutit? Can you tell me?"

One solution:Whenever Liu returns to China after competing abroad, he might appear on TVsinging karaoke, but he is otherwise enveloped by the bureaucratic equivalentof the Great Wall. It's not that he's being silenced, necessarily (even themost recalcitrant official tells you to grab Liu for an interview when hecompetes overseas); it's simply in no one's interest to buck the system. Whenyou approach Sun Haiping, Liu's coach, outside the training facility, he shakeshis head sadly. "If we were in the States, we could talk to you," hesays as Liu strolls past en route to the track. "But we're in China now.You have to go through official channels."

Four phone callsup the ladder end with a woman from China's National Sports Administration, whosays, "It's going to take a long time to make a decision on your request.More often than not, the answer is no."

The fact is,interviews are a distraction with the Games just a year away, and everybody inChina has a vested interest in keeping Liu's focus on the track. The Chinesefinished only four gold medals behind the U.S. (36 to 32) in Athens and thirdin total medals (63 to the U.S.'s 102 and Russia's 92), and they will needevery victory they can get to move to the top of the standings in Beijing.Though Liu's face is all over China, used to promote everything from Visa cardsto his country's version of FedEx, it's not worth arguing that an interview inan American magazine could help open a new market for him. In the ongoingChinese battle between the free market and state control, there's no questionwhere the ultimate power lies.

"At themoment," says Lu Hao, who handles marketing for China's track and fieldfederation, "the state is going to win."

Few men knowbetter. With his track connection and role as Yao Ming's domesticrepresentative, the 41-year-old Lu could well bill himself as the most powerfulagent in China. But though his cellphone rings constantly, he hardly carrieshimself like the Middle Kingdom version of Scott Boras; asked his feeling abouthis industry's future in the world's most populous nation, he says, "Moreanxiety--more confusion--than hope.

"Professionalsports in China is in its early stages still, so it's very difficult for us todo business here," Lu says. Example? Lu represented Chinese basketball'shottest new property--forward Yi Jianlian--from 2004 until one day in early2006, when Yi's team, the Guangdong Hongyuan basketball club, decided that itwould serve as Yi's agent. Any agreement between player and agent wasmeaningless. Lu was out.

"I don't knowhow to explain it," says Lu. "In the NBA the players, agents and pressall have their own rules, and there's a legal guarantee behind those rules. Inthe Chinese Basketball Association there are no [such] rules."

In a few daysLu's former client will be selected sixth in the NBA draft by the MilwaukeeBucks. For one of the first times in memory, you find yourself feeling sorryfor an agent. That's a mistake.

"To me, LuHao is a winner," says fellow agent Dahai, 35, whose marriage to 1992Olympic gold medal swimmer Qian Hong gave him an entré to the national swimmingscene that he has parlayed into ventures such as a new, privately controlledpublic sports park in suburban Beijing, the exclusive license to market TYRswimsuits in China and the premiere of a Grand Prix-style swim meet in Beijingon Aug. 9. "For now, it's all about trade-offs. He said, 'I'll give up Yi,but you give me more young basketball players.' All of them can generate moremoney than Yi alone."

Dahai has beenburned by the system himself. In 2002, with permission from the country'ssports administration, he organized a national swimming and diving competition,lined up television partners, set a date. "Then right before, an officialcalled me and said, 'Dahai, this competition is for the nation to do, not foryour private gain.' So they gave the competition to a spin-off group from theChinese sports industry. Typical. This is not a normal market."

That episode costhim some $200,000, but Dahai shrugs off the loss. Unlike Lu Hao, he's energizedby the lack of standards; for those who can work the angles, such a vacuumopens a world of possibility. "With the Beijing Olympics approaching,there's great opportunity for someone working in Chinese sports," he says."Lu Hao knows what he's going to do. He's actually setting up the rules andstandards for [marketing in] basketball himself. And I'm setting up the rulesfor swimming."

But the fissuresin the state sports monopoly aren't forming under pressure from the marketalone. Long the sole route to the national team, the network of around 3,000sports schools that has identified and nurtured talented athletes--and alsoserved as the incubator for the steroid scandals that plagued Chinese runningand swimming in the 1990s--has come under attack too. Embarrassing accounts ofundereducated and struggling ex-athletes have become common in recent years,and a 2005 lawsuit in a Beijing court is seen as a huge step towardlegitimizing one effort to address the problem and create an alternative avenueto the top level of Chinese sports.

Technically, thesuit pitted Tsinghua University against the family of one diver--Wang Xin,current world champion in the 10-meter platform--who had bolted its prestigiousprogram. But in truth the adversaries were coaching legend Yu Fen, head of theTsinghua diving program, and the national sports administration that spawnedher. No one of such stature had ever taken on China's sports system before,much less won.

As a onetimecoach of the national program, Yu had for a decade guided the careers of stardivers such as Fu Mingxia and Guo Jingjing. Yu parted ways with the nationalteam in 1997 and, disillusioned by a system that produced not only Olympicchampions but also burnouts with no skills other than diving, founded a programat Tsinghua that stressed time in the classroom as well as the pool. But as herNCAA-style approach grew more successful, Yu found her divers--more than adozen--pulled back into the old system, poached by the national team. "Wehad to do it," Yu says of the lawsuit. "If we hadn't, it would be hardfor us to have a team at all."

The courtactually ruled against Tsinghua in Wang's case, but public pressure forced thesports administration to send two divers back to Yu's ranks, tacitlyestablishing the university team as an alternative to the sports school. Italso made a blending of the two seem inevitable. "Ten years ago, it wouldhave been impossible for Tsinghua to sue some other powerful organization,"says Ren Hai. "It means the legal system is changing; that's a good sign.Because with the old system, the athletes who quit their careers cannot getvery good jobs. It's become a big problem, like Ai Dongmei. If we don't combinethe educational program into the traditional system, there will be nofuture."

The integrationis already happening in fact if not in name; this year, for the first time,Tsinghua-trained divers are openly competing for spots on the national team,under the thin guise of their regional squads. "We're two differentsystems, and the big question is how to make the two coordinate," Yu says."It's almost a year to the Olympics. Everyone should listen to what thenation says. To benefit the country: That should be the priority."

On a JuneSaturday in Beijing you find Xia Song overseeing the cleanup of an Olympic Dayfun run in which 4,000 people have jogged the leafy paths of a college underthe auspices of McDonald's, Panasonic and Coke. Xia, an unabashed booster ofthe Beijing Games, is one of China's top sports agents and marketers. He isalso one of those people whose life uncannily tracks the history of histimes.

His father'sfamily, living 80 years ago in the nascent republic's star-crossed capital,Nanjing, had ties to both Sun Yat-sen's struggling administration and therising Communist party, and was forced to flee when the Japanese brutalized thecity in 1937. Like many intellectuals, his father, a veterinarian, and mother,an agriculturalist, lost their primes in the mindless furor of Mao'ssocioeconomic overhauls, relegated to work on farms for reeducation until theCultural Revolution fizzled out in 1976. "My parents got [into] some reallyserious trouble," Xia says. "I don't want to mention too much aboutthat, but they were pretty much depressed for 20 years. It's been a big shadowin their whole lives."

But throughAmerican basketball, their son was able to see some light. In 1982, at age 11,he was waiting for an old anti-Japanese war movie to start playing on a screenhung from the trees in his remote southern hometown of Guiyang. A differentfilm came on first, highlights of a recent exhibition game of NBA All-Starsheld more than 1,000 miles away in Beijing. Julius Erving soared and scored,big and black and handling the ball like no one in Guiyang ever dreamed ofdoing. That's funny, Xia thought. That's not the way basketball is played.

Xia beganshooting every loose minute of the day. He wore Erving's uniform number--thelucky 6--at the sports school he attended in the afternoon and later at BeijingSport University, where he studied basketball coaching. He wears it now, at 37,whenever he has the chance. "For everything," he says in English."Just because of Dr. J."

In 1997 aroommate pointed out a want ad posted by Nike, which was looking to hire ahoops representative in China; the clinching question in Xia's final jobinterview concerned Erving. "You asked the right guy," Xia said.

Three years laterhe began representing Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer, the first and secondChinese players to play in the NBA, respectively, and expanded into sportsmarketing. As you chat with him at the Olympic Day run, you ask about the faceof China, morphing so fast, and he tells how a month ago he took his father,80-year-old Xia Guangqiang, back to the old neighborhood for the firsttime.

"Some oldfriends, the neighbors, we called and said, 'We want to see our old home,'" Xia says. "They said, 'You're right on time! If you came two dayslater, your home would be gone.' We drove there, and I was asking, 'Where arewe?' They said, 'Where are you? Look: That's your home.' "

Only the firstfloor remained of the two-story apartment building where he'd lived for 19years and his father for 42. Neither recognized it. Around the wreckage: newapartments, a park, malls. They felt the dislocation so common now in a Chinain which neighborhoods, even whole cities, seem to rise in a blink of an eye."It's unbelievable. This is where I was born," Xia says. "Buteverything had changed.

"Anotherthing: That home, when they tore it down? They built a basketball court. Youknow where my bed would be? In the paint. Under the f------ basket: That's mybed."

Don't get himwrong: Xia is more impressed than saddened by the phenomenon. Change is whatenabled one sister to move to Beijing and another to Las Vegas, what allowedhim to fly his parents there and watch them lose $100 in a slot machine, whatsparked him to take that vision three decades old and make it real. In 2003,when the Beijing authorities sought celebrities for a campaign to assuretourists that the city was safe after the SARS epidemic, one name came to mind.Having met Erving in 2002, Xia invited him and Clyde Drexler to Beijing. Theycame, filmed the spot, held a clinic and, the night before returning to theStates, sat on Xia's couch in his Beijing apartment.

Lucky number? Sixate all of Xia Song's fruit. Six smoked a cigar, signed a number 6 jersey thathangs there still. "I was standing back looking that day," Xia says."I could never imagine this: Dr. J, and now he's with me. I've never toldhim what he's done for me."

And change, ofcourse, is what allowed China to dream of hosting the 2008 Olympics, an eventthat has buoyed national spirits despite the human and economic costs."Because this is about China," Xia says. "It has nothing to do withpolitics. The 1.3 billion people here, they want to see the best happen andthis thing handled by themselves. I'll work for the Olympics for free, as avolunteer. This has been a thing with Chinese people for the past 30 years,when we see how all foreigners think China's a different world--strange place,strange people. Now we're going to show you what we can do. This is not aboutcounting money in the pocket. It's about heart."

Xia Song's fatherhas a room in his daughter's Beijing apartment. Each day the old man wakes upand squints out the 11th-story window and sees it: the Bird's Nest, glimmeringin the haze. "It's very new, very modern, very original," XiaGuangqiang says. "After the whole thing got built I liked it."

He has beencharting its progress for three years, this vision of China rising. The outsidelatticework is all but finished. The men hustling over its skin look likeants.

When the worldcomes to Beijing next summer, it will hear one phrase over and over from theChinese crowds. "Jia you!" fans will scream at the diving well, at thetable tennis competition, on the night of the 110-meter hurdles at the Bird'sNest. "Liu Xiang, jia you!" The phrase (pronounced jah yoh) is acolloquialism meaning Come on! Step on it!, but the literal translation is mostappropriate for these times: Add oil!

Watching Chinawork is not like seeing a sleek laptop process millions of bytes of informationper second. It's like witnessing a giant turbine, circa 1965, belching smokeand shooting out sparks; you're not sure how close you want to get, but youcan't take your eyes off the thing because it's whining louder by the secondand the ground is shaking and--wow!--it keeps producing more and more money.After the recent spate of stories detailing nightmarishly lax food-processingstandards and labor abuse, it was not unusual to hear Westerners compare thecountry to Upton Sinclair's turn-of-the-century America: China, the newJungle.

So early oneFriday evening you head over to the Bird's Nest again and slip through a fenceto the workers' quarters. China is in many ways still a developing country,and, yes, you can smell the evidence: the stench of sewage wafting over thepaths between the three-story temporary housing units. It's dinnertime, so someworkers are lined up with tin bowls for the ladled stew. The rest squat ontheir haunches in the dirt, already eating.

Yet the men aresmiling, laughing even, which you think must be because you're a foreigner andthey don't want to make waves. You go up to room 426, where 12 men sleep inbunk beds on mattresses of plywood, earning $50 apiece for their seven-day,63-hour workweek. "It was such a surprise to come here and work on theNest," says Tang Yonggang, a steelworker who has been on the site for 2 1/2years. "I couldn't believe it. It's the best job I've ever had."

Tang, 26, hailsfrom Henan, one of China's poorest, most corrupt provinces. A decade ago heleft a job harvesting wheat and corn in his hometown of Puyang and came toBeijing as part of one of the great migrations in history, the ongoingflow--120 million and counting--of Chinese workers from rural to urban areas.He has been home just twice to see his wife and baby daughter since he startedworking on the stadium but figures the $700 he sends back each year makes itall worth it. The Bird's Nest job, Tang says, is his first tenuous foothold,his first real piece of China's market economy. "For sure there's moreopportunity," he says. "Everybody has to fight for chances inlife."

Night has alreadyfallen over Beijing, streetlights buzzing in the thick air. You drive back toyour fine hotel, where one day you saw former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrookeand the next you saw Yao Ming, and you pass the Silk Street Market, with itsstalls of counterfeit goods and the massive mural that in English neatlysubverts the official Beijing Olympic motto from "One World. One Dream"to "One Dream. One Shopping Paradise."

Next to the wordsare the photos of an unidentifiable hurdler and the Bird's Nest, and you thinkagain of Tang's obvious pride, and how he said he'll be watching the openingceremonies next August--maybe in Beijing, maybe back in Puyang--and thinking,All the world's athletes, and I helped make it. Part of the Olympics ismine.

And you try tosleep, but that irresistible energy, the simple force of a billion peoplebelieving for the first time in history that they have a shot at somethingbetter won't relent, and four words keep thrumming through your head: Don'twhy. Add oil! Don't why. Add oil!

Day breaks tooearly. You throw open the curtains and stare out at the city, trying to get aglimpse of clean sky. You squint, you blink, but only one blunt fact presentsitself, obvious at last. For the next year, at least, it's morning inChina.


America's Best

Get the latest news on the U.S.'s leading Olympichopefuls.


China is spending $60 billion to get ready, FOURTIMES as much as any past Olympic host.

Because eight is the new culture's lucky number, theGames will open on 8/8/08 AT 8 P.M.

Diver Tian tried TO CASH IN after the 2004 Games--andfound himself in no-man's land.

Before Yu, no one of stature had TAKEN ON China'ssports system, much less won.

Hurdles champion Liu is THE EMBODIMENT of China'semergence on the world stage.

The crowd chant "Jia you!" means Come on! Butthe literal translation befits the new China: ADD OIL!

"We're going to show you what we can do,"promises Xia. "This is not about money. It's ABOUT HEART."


Photograph by Guang Niu/Getty Images


As a diver trains at a Beijing sports school with China's flag as a backdrop,his country puts the finishing touches on 31 Olympic venues--and countsdown to Games that will begin one year from now.




At the centerpiece Bird's Nest stadium, sparrows--one of the Games' fivemascots--have indeed taken roost.




Yao lit up last month's launching of the search for 21,880 runners to take partin the six-continent torch relay.




Superstar Guo (top) avoided the same fate as Tian by going on state TV for theritual of "self-criticism."




Though government sports schools still dominate, young athletes now have otheroptions.




Liu's face appears all over the country, selling everything from sneakers toVisa cards to shipping services.




Among the activities not fully explored in Mao's Little Red Book: cheerleaderpractice at the beach volleyball venue.




At a mini-Olympics in April, Beijing kids looked ahead to next year'sU.S.-China medals battle.