Hurdler Liu Xiang may have been the main draw at last week's China Athletics Open at the Bird's Nest, but another group of athletes were the real darlings of the tournament.
The athletes from Sichuan province, the area hardest hit by a disastrous earthquake earlier this month, were routinely cheered and warmly applauded throughout the competition by the tens of thousands of fans in attendance.
The largest outburst of support came when Sichuan's men's 4x100 relay team unexpectedly won its race on Sunday night, defeating both the Chinese and Japanese national teams.
"The whole world has felt the earthquake in Sichuan, and we are representing all the Sichuan people and the image of our province," said Yin Hualong, the anchorman of the relay team. "When we stepped onto the track, we knew we would try hard until we crossed the finish line."
The eight-team men's relay final was considered a competition only between the two national teams. But in the last 100 m, the Chinese side dropped the relay baton as Sichuan's anchor Yin made one final spurt to overtake the Japanese and win the race in 39.45 seconds.
When the results popped up on the big screen in the stadium, the four young men from Sichuan received a standing ovation from the crowd, as Yin shouted excitedly at the camera and pointed to the Chinese characters for "Sichuan" on his jersey.
"We didn't think we would be able to win before the final, because we are not powerful enough," Yin admitted. "But we trusted ourselves and we believed we could only achieve our goal if we gave our best effort.
"All the people in Sichuan are backing us."
The 8.0-magnitude tremor struck Sichuan on May 12 and has claimed more than 60,000 lives so far.
Yin said he hopes the team's victory would be an inspiration for the residents and relief workers in the region.
"We want to express our heartfelt thanks for all the people that have helped and supported Sichuan," said Yin, whose hometown is Shifang, an area hit especially hard. "Sichuan will never crumble and we will be even better in the future."
Most of the event's participants showed their support for the people of the quake-hit region during a mourning period held on Thursday morning. The stadium was also equipped with several collection boxes for people wishing to donate money.
"All of us athletes want to do something for the quake-hit region, whether it is volunteering or donating blood," said Liu Jing, a women's hurdler from Sichuan, who arrived in Beijing several days ago. "But now we are preparing for the Beijing Olympic Games and our responsibility is to win glory for our country. We believe that is another way to support the people in our hometowns."
According to Xinhua News Agency, no provincial-level athletes were injured or killed in the earthquake, though some lost relatives and homes.
"The athletes who were preparing for this summer's Olympic Games in Sichuan when the massive earthquake hit, have been evacuated from the southwestern Chinese province," Xinhua quoted one sports official as saying.
Sichuan sports chief Zhu Ling said 15 out of China's 34 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions are currently hosting Sichuan athletes who are preparing for the 2009 National Games or striving for a berth to the Beijing Olympics.
(China Daily May 27, 2008)