A World Class Triathlon Experience
By Catherine Martin
“My dear friends,” our smiley Chinese tour guide, Lucy, shouted over the bustle of tourists as we gazed up at the iconic Great Wall. “Go left at top of stairs because lesser people, yes.”
We stood at the entrance of the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China just northwest of Beijing. A mix of Team USA triathletes of all ages and their loved ones, we were ready to take advantage of the few days leading up to the 2011 ITU World Championship by visiting the most famous historical and cultural sites the capital city had to offer.
As we began climbing the first of many steep stairways, Lucy counseled us to take it easy because after all, we were on vacation. But telling a group of triathletes not to exert themselves is like telling a panda not to be adorable. Needless to say, everyone hiked onward and took in the views, descending the Wall an hour-and-a-half later sweating and reveling in another amazing experience.
I’d arrived at Loong Palace Resort, Team USA’s five-star accommodations, two days earlier as a tag-along; my older brother would be competing in the age group Olympic distance triathlon on Sunday. From the moment my family and I stepped off the airport shuttle, the hotel staff treated us like kings, or at least über-wealthy expatriates. Bellmen swept up our luggage, men in pressed suits greeted us at the door — one of whom personally showed us to our two-story suite the size of a condo — and later at one of the hotel restaurants, four waitresses lingered around our table ready to remove our plates the second the last bite was taken.
I was initially uncomfortable with the level of service and felt they were putting in too much energy. Employees acted apologetic when they struggled to respond to our questions in English, yet I was the one in their country equipped with a pathetically lacking vocabulary of “Ni hao” and “Xie xie.”
But I soon realized how much pride our hosts took in impressing their American guests. Beaming smiles met our compliments and thank-you’s. They made every effort to ensure our Beijing experience was a good one. When my parents informed the concierge that a taxi driver giving us a ride downtown had charged 150 yuan when the meter clearly read 73, he promised to “solve the case” by tracking down the driver. We had a refund by that evening. Then on the morning of my brother’s race, staff came in early so the breakfast buffet would be ready at 4 a.m. sharp.
Each of our first few days in Beijing, we rose early to hop on a tour bus and listen to Lucy or another guide, Nick, explain Chinese symbols, recount traditional stories and convey the complaints of modern-day city dwellers. While the tour guides were eager to highlight their country’s rich culture, they were just as enthusiastic about talking with us and hearing our viewpoints. Both said they like their job because it allows them to meet people from many countries even though they don’t have the means to travel much themselves.
To my surprise, Lucy brought up the student killings of 1989 en route to Tienanmen Square, saying, “It is very sad, but you know, whenever society goes through change, lives are lost.” She also glazed over another of the city’s controversies: the smog. “People have realized through traffic restrictions that they can protect the environment,” she said. “But it takes time; just give us a few years.” I knew our guide was sometimes presenting us tourists with a cleaned-up, idealized version of Beijing rather than a comprehensive picture, but I felt uplifted by her desire for visitors to value her society as progressive.
When the bus dropped us off, spectators had already lined the street to watch the foreigners march to the stadium where the Opening Ceremony would be held. I wasn’t an athlete so I felt strange walking in the parade to cheers from the crowd. But I figured this was the closest I’d ever get to being famous, so I might as well enjoy it. People waved and snapped photos; one little boy shouted all the English phrases he knew. “How are you?” he yelled, “Good morning” (though it was past 5 p.m.). I felt incredibly welcomed.
From what my brother tells me, this year’s Opening Ceremony was more elaborate than previous ones he’d attended. I can say for myself it was a true spectacle. A circle of all the participating countries’ flags hung from the ceiling. The mayor of Beijing gave a speech (“You are truly the Iron people!”) and traditional dancers performed. The eyes of the triathlon world were upon the Chinese, and they used it to share their culture and hospitality.
The athletes would be racing on the same course as the 2008 Olympians, a unique experience for most of the competitors and a source of renewed pride for the Chinese. The Olympic legacy was evident everywhere in Beijing. The city had been essentially transformed four years ago; our guides constantly pointed out this park that was built specifically for the Games, that neighborhood that was revamped prior to the event, and this historical monument that was repainted — guess when? — just before the Olympics. Obvious from all the banners around the race site and the grandeur of the Opening Ceremony, the organizers of this world championship wanted it to be as much a success as the Beijing Olympics and for it to represent the same things: international friendship, cooperation and respect.
Race day arrived, and the event ran (and swam and biked) smoothly. Hundreds of young Chinese volunteers in red t-shirts did every job from distributing water bottles to directing traffic. On my way out after the race, a couple volunteers with hopeful expressions approached me. “Photo?” one of the girls asked. I smiled, nodded and posed beside her while the other took our picture. “Thank you!” they exclaimed, thrilled to have had this small international encounter. I continued towards the bus thinking that this event, this chance for people to come together from around the globe, was a gift to everyone involved.