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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.

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 smoke.

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 coach.

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 witnessing.

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 oddly unfamiliar.

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© Peter May 2004