sábado, 9 de febrero de 2008

Colgando de un hilo

La web de la cadena americana ESPN ofrece un amplio reportaje de Wright Thompson sobre la vida de diferentes deportistas chinos en vísperas de los Juegos Olímpicos que se celebrarán en su país. Dos de ellos son marchadores: Yu Chaohong y Jiang Qiuyan. Son atletas del Estado, a la vieja usanza, y su futuro, una vez dejen el deporte, pasa por lograr una medalla en Pekín. El Gobierno chino, como todos los regímenes totalitarios, sabe recompensar a aquellos que logran que su bandera ondee en lo alto de un mastil a la vista del mundo entero. (Para empezar, como se cuenta en el reportaje, en China un medallista olímpico ni siquiera necesita pasar examen alguno para ingresar en la universidad.)
Yu fue cuarto en Atenas en los 50km, perdiendo la medalla de bronce en los últimos metros. Once segundos le separaron de una nueva vida y de un trabajo que ya le habían prometido. El mismo trabajo que espera que le ofrezcan ahora si consigue hacerse, esta vez sí, con la medalla de los cojones.
Jiang era la favorita en las pruebas de selección chinas para Atenas, pero el día de la competición sufrió de dolores menstruales y ni siquiera pudo tomar la salida. Ahora espera una segunda oportunidad. Pero, por si acaso, estudia por correspondencia.
The starting gun... and before
Eleven seconds. That's it. Eleven seconds separating Yu Chaohong and a new life. He cannot stop replaying those 11 seconds. Four years ago, in Athens, he was coming down the stretch of the 50-kilometer race-walking final in third place. Fifty meters to go. His legs ached. Every breath burned. He entered the finishing chute. Almost home. The footsteps behind him kept getting louder. Faster! his mind screamed. His legs didn't listen. They felt like they were attached to sandbags. The footsteps turned into a man, who came even, then passed him. Yu watched the man walk away with his dream, crossing the finish line, almost close enough to touch. Eleven seconds later, he finished fourth.

In China, an Olympic medal gets you admission to any university in the country, no entrance exams required: a free ride, no GPA or SAT scores needed. Your salary multiplies tenfold. A big bonus check gives you security. Endorsements come, and with them a ticket to the New China. Instead, Yu fell 11 seconds short and went back to the sad algebra of his life: a wife he can't live with, a 10 p.m. curfew he can't break, a ninth-grade education. He went back and began anew. What else could he do? He'd learned no other skills besides race walking. He figured when he retired, he'd coach or handle logistics. Take the job he'd been promised. Now he's 32, hanging on to the only dream he has ever known. The sports system that has been his life is about to change, and when it does, he could be left out in the cold, a widower of sorts. Until then, he's here, in a building at his training complex, the high-altitude race walking headquarters, located on the Tibetan plateau. There are 30 light fixtures in this room. Two are turned on. His training complex has a countdown clock, too, only here they cannot afford digital. Theirs must be turned by hand.

"Only 11 seconds," he says, sighing.

All the way across the country, outside the postcard city of Hangzhou, another race walker, Jiang Qiuyan, gets used to her new digs. This training center has been open a little more than a week; the race-walking team is the first national team to occupy it. She's 24. Three years ago, she suffered heartbreak, too. On the day of the trials, she got menstrual cramps so bad she couldn't compete. There were no second chances; despite dominant times all year, she couldn't earn a place in Athens. Since then, like Yu and any other athlete denied glory, she has burned for redemption. But she has done something else, something Yu and most other athletes don't do. She has enrolled in correspondence classes, the only member of her team who is pursuing an education, who can see beyond the next competition. Already, she has earned a bachelor's degree and is at work on a master's. "It's win-win," she says. "When I retire, it will be easy for me to find a job. Otherwise, I will just be left behind."

The finish line, and after
Three steps a second, honest as a metronome. Jiang takes her laps easily, her breathing controlled, her hips moving in that idiosyncratic race-walking swivel. She's wearing a pink track suit. Her neck muscles strain with each step, the only sign she's exerting energy at all. A thousand miles away, Yu Chaohong is doing the same thing, step after step, kilometer after kilometer. Their lives, for the moment, are similar, studies in simplicity. It is after this part of their life ends and the next begins that the gap between race walkers Yu and Jiang will widen, she being pulled into the future, he sinking further into the past.

He gets up at 7 a.m. For a decade, it was 5:30. Then, five years ago, after afternoon practice, the coach simply announced that, henceforth, the athletes could sleep an extra hour and a half. No warning. No real explanation. First thing after breakfast, he trains, and after lunch, works with the medical team on any nagging injuries. The rhythm never changes -- lights out at 10, payday on the 19th. On payday, the canteen where the athletes eat is empty. But on the 18th, he says with a laugh, it's packed. The only money he spends, other than meals out with friends, is on his cell phone. All the people he began with are now gone, into the real world. The stats say between 30 and 70 percent of the athletes end up jobless, depending on the province. Not much of a future, which is why he can't bring himself to leave. He walks down past the dorm, into the small canteen, with a long blue buffet table and eight round tables with lazy Susans. He cracks a joke with some ladies and takes two bowls and a pair of chopsticks, moving slowly and methodically past the incredible spread of food and drink: milk, orange juice, Sprite, Pepsi, apples, bananas, oranges, a big steamer of rice, two Szechuan hot pots with all the usual fixings, a beef dish, a fish dish, potatoes, dumplings, biscuits. This is the good life. Content, he sits down to eat.

She gets up at about 7, too. Well, as close to it as possible. One of the first tasks upon changing training centers is to figure out the last possible moment you can wake up and still get downstairs. The team has to be lined up, from shortest to tallest, outside at 7 sharp to march to breakfast. This is how they walk everywhere, to show discipline. She obeys, but she mocks, too. "We feel like we're in kindergarten," she says. The coach determines everything. The athletes even bring dates to meet him before going out, like they would a parent.
"Sometimes," she says, "the coach tries to match-make the best male and female athletes." For years, her coach even read her diary, which she keeps to vent anger, to talk about happy memories. Two years ago, after she'd begun to imagine a life for herself that didn't involve the micromanagement of the sports system, she stopped letting him.

Both Jiang and Yu have a date in April circled on their calendars: the Olympic race-walking trial. They need to finish in the top three to earn a spot on the team. If they make it, the dream continues. Until then, they live the life Chinese athletes have lived for 20 years, for a little while longer at least. If they ever forget, they have to look no further than the clocks, his manual, hers digital. His says 271 as he tries to outrun the pain of 11 seconds. Hers says 270 as she imagines a life after sports.

Ah, un año después de lo de Atenas, Yu Chaohong fue descalificado en los 20km del mundial de Helsinki. Resulta que Yu Chaohong marcha así:

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