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But when asked whether the regulations on athletes' outside endorsements have been made any more explicit since Tian's departure, Guo says, "I don't know. I don't know about the rules."
It's the day after Guo sealed her place on the 2008 Olympic team with a first-place finish in the three-meter synchronized springboard at a national-team competition in Foshan, 1,200 miles south of Beijing. She wears a diamond-studded bracelet on her left wrist, a gold watch on her right and a Christian Dior bag over her shoulder; beneath the national flag on her official team warmup is an advertising patch for a Chinese electronics company. Guo ticks off some of her endorsement contracts-- McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Li Ning, Chinese milk and food companies--before trailing off with a bored "and many more."
Guo splits her endorsement money with the national diving team and the National Sports Administration. Asked if, a few days hence, she'll join other athletes going to Hong Kong for the 10th anniversary celebration of that territory's return to Chinese control, Guo says, "I don't really know. I just do whatever the National Sports Administration tells me to do."
Tian Liang wasn't in Foshan. The day the team arrived there, he took part in one of those surreal scenes that make you wonder if you'll ever get a handle on China. At a packed hotel ballroom in nearby Guangzhou, one flight up from a lobby filled with Americans posing with their newly adopted Chinese babies, Tian kicked off an auction for an official Beijing Olympics commemorative porcelain plate. The theme from Star Wars played, a model slinked about in a low-cut dress, a sign in Chinese demanded, WHAT OTHER�COLLECTOR'S ITEM�WILL APPRECIATE AT�7000 RMB [$926] A DAY? Inside the journalist packet was a red envelope containing 200 RMB, about $26. HAPPY NEY YEAR, the envelope read in English. BEST WISHES FOR YOU.
Tian signed 200 plates and said a few words as infants cried; the Games' five fuzzy mascots cavorted on the carpet. "The Beijing Olympics is an Olympics for humanity, so for me this is very meaningful," Tian said.
No one, least of all Tian, seemed to find it ironic that an athlete barred from the Games for commercial 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: a beautiful shot of the Games' centerpiece, the $400 million Beijing National Stadium, a woven web of curved steel girders commonly known as the Bird's Nest.
Designed by a pair of Swiss architects, the 91,000-seat Bird's Nest is a haunting structure that seems destined to symbolize something about China and these Olympics. And so you sneaked onto the construction site more than once in your time in Beijing and wandered around it, your shoes disappearing in the dust. After a fierce rainstorm one Sunday morning, a workman stood below the unfinished roof and picked up a fallen sparrow, still chirping. "It happens all the time," he said. "There are a lot of nests up there, and when it rains some of them fall." The workers put the sparrows in a little box and feed them bread crumbs, he said, and in time they fly away.
You can't help yourself: 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 in the new China? Isn't everyone trying to find his niche, to build a nest in the sharp angles between its interlocking beams, even as construction hammers pound and the winds of change swirl and gust? Whose nest will be strong enough to withstand the next storm? Who will fall? Who, if anyone, will come along to pick them up?
Once again you're someplace 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 out of the elite-athletes' cafeteria--all make it quite clear that you've broken protocol in attempting to so much as speak to Liu Xiang. In a country where media access to athletes has been steadily increasing, the state still guards its Olympic champion hurdler like some priceless jewel.
"As we all know," says Cheng Wei, the vice director, " Liu Xiang is simply different."