Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Flying with the Home Team

Yesterday I was one of the 39,000 people expected to depart from Vancouver International Airport or YVR after the Olympics was over.

We were warned to get to the airport at least four hours in advance and so I did, only to find there was hardly a lineup for the Air China flight. After passing through security (the full body scanners haven't been installed yet) and the duty-free shops giving travelers a last chance to snap up Olympics souvenirs, I ended up at the appointed gate to find most of the passengers were from the Chinese team.

I managed to recognize a few of them, including Wang Meng, the triple gold medalist in short track speed skating, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo who won gold in pairs figure skating, and Wang Bingyu, the skip for the women's curling team who clinched bronze.

They were hard not to notice in their sharp white, red, orange and yellow track suits complete with "China" on the back. And many Chinese travelers didn't lose the opportunity to try to take photographs with these national heroes while waiting at the gate. At first the athletes politely obliged, giving their frozen smiles as people would take turns standing next to them. But after a while, people like Wang Meng were tired of having to pose and scampered off to hide among the rest of the pack.

Many of them had lots of duty-free bags -- filled with Olympics souvenirs -- specifically the mascots. They got long rectangular boxes of the ones featuring one of each mascot, including Quatchi, Sumi and Miga, while a few people got large fuzzy Quatchis or Mukmuks. Perhaps there will be a Quatchi invasion in China...

When we boarded the plane, it seemed like the top Chinese Olympic Committee officials got to sit in business class, while the rest of the contingent including coaches were relegated to economy.

As it turned out I sat right behind the figure skating duo who had specifically come out of retirement for these Games and helped China clinch gold for the first time in the event. And now having reached their goal (or was it a national one?) Zhao, 36 and Shen 31, were retiring for good. During the flight, many Chinese athletes approached them, asking for autographs which they politely signed, but probably would have preferred more time to sleep.

Towards the end of the flight some of the athletes got ready, combing their hair, brushing teeth or changing their slippers into the prescribed Anta sportswear and running shoes to prepare for their close-up.

Once the plane docked at the gate, us non Olympics passengers were asked to step aside so that the athletes could go first and get photographed by the media, but in the end we were ushered out of a different exit. After passport control, they too had to retrieve their luggage with the rest of us and in the end some exited at the same time as me. Some people were at the arrivals area just to photograph the athletes, having been tipped off on the time the flight would arrive.

Ah, the life of a Chinese athlete. Secluded from the public most of the year in training and face intense media exposure during competition, they must feel like they live a strange existence few can even begin to appreciate or understand.

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