the runner - extract
The guys come
in by the south gate, off Chengfu Lu. A dozen of them, balancing
carefully in the early evening dark as plummeting temperatures
turn the snow-melt to ice under the slithering tyres of their
bicycles. The only thing that can dampen their spirits ahead
of tomorrow's competition is the death that lies in silent wait
for them just minutes away.
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But for now, the guys' only focus ahead is the warm chlorine-filled
air, water slipping easily over sleek, toned muscles, the rasp
of lungs pumping air in the vast echoing chamber of the pool.
A final training session before confrontation tomorrow with the
Americans. A flutter of fear in the stomach, a rush of adrenaline
that accompanies the thought. So much riding on them. The aspirations
of a nation. China. More than a billion people investing their
hopes in the efforts of this chosen few. An onerous responsibility.
They wave at the guard who glares sullenly at them as they cycle
past. He stamps frozen feet and hugs his fur-lined grey coat
tighter for warmth, icy breath clouding around his head like
Turning right, by pink accommodation blocks, the guys shout their
exuberance into the clearest of night skies, the foggy vapour
of their breath clearing in their wake like the pollution the
authorities have promised to sweep from Beijing's summer skies
before the world finally descends for the Greatest Show on Earth.
Past the towering columns of the Department of Mechanics, legs
pumping in unison, they slew into the main drag. Ahead of them,
the ten lit storeys of the master building shine coldly in the
darkness. On their right, the floodlit concrete angles of the
Department of Technology. On their left, the imposing steps of
the Department of Law. The vast, sprawling campus of Qinghua
University, called by one American vice-President the MIT of
China, is laid out before them, delineated in the dark by light
reflecting off piles of swept snow. But it is not a reputation
for excellence in science and technology which has brought them
here. It is another kind of excellence. In sport. For it was
here that John Ma inspired the rebirth of Chinese sport more
than seventy years before, building the first modern sports complex
in China. Snow rests now on his head and shoulders, gathering
also in his lap, a cold stone statue by a frozen lake somewhere
away to their left.
But they are not even aware of this nugget of history, of the
statue, of the old pool where Mao used to swim in splendid isolation
while the building was ringed by armed guards. They are interested
only in the lights, beyond the gymnasium and the running track,
of the natatorium. For it is here they have spent these last
weeks, burning muscles, pushing themselves to the limits of pain
and endurance, urged on by the relentless hoarse barking of their
As they pass beneath the shadow of the athletics stand, a handful
of students bounce a ball around a floodlit basketball court
scraped clear of snow, sport for them a recreation. Their only
pressure is academic, and failure will disappoint only their
families and friends.
The guys park up among the hundreds of bicycles stacked in rows
beneath the student apartments. Washed clothes left hanging on
balconies are already frozen stiff like boards. They trot across
the concourse, swinging arms to keep warm, and push open the
double doors of the east entrance, warm air stinging cold skin.
Down deserted corridors to the locker room which has become so
drably familiar, synonymous with the pain of the training which
they hope will reap its rewards in just a few intense minutes
of competition. The hundred metres butterfly. The two hundred
metres crawl. The backstroke, the freestyle. The relay.
It is only as they strip and drag on costumes that they notice
he is missing.
'Hey, where's Sui?'
'Said he'd meet us here,' someone replies.
'You see him when we came in?'
'No...' Heads shake. No one has seen him. He isn't here. Which
is unusual. Because if anything, Sui is the keenest of them.
Certainly the fastest, and the most likely to beat the Americans.
The best prospect for the Olympics.
'He probably got held up by the weather.'
They pass through the disinfectant foot bath and climb steps
leading up to the pool, excited voices echoing between the rows
of empty blue seats in the auditorium, wet feet slapping on dry
tiles. The electronic clock above the north end of the pool shows
ten to seven.
When they first see him, they are slow to understand. A moment
of incomprehension, a silly joke, and then a silence not broken
even by breathing as they realise, finally, what it is they are
Sui is naked, his long, finely sculpted body turning slowly in
a movement forced by air conditioning. He has fine, broad shoulders
tapering to a slim waist. He has no hips to speak of, but his
thighs beneath them are curved and powerful, built to propel
him through water faster than any other living human. Except
that he is no longer living. His head is twisted at an unnatural
angle where the rope around his neck has broken his fall and
snapped his neck. He dangles almost midway between the highest
of the diving platforms above and the still waters of the diving
pool below. He is flanked on either side by tall strips of white
fabric, red letters counting off the metres up to ten, recording
that he died at five.
It takes all of the guys, the team-mates who had known him best,
several moments to realise who he is. For his head of thick,
black hair has been shaved to the scalp, and in death he looks