Chapter Eight – Passage Two
“Civilization,” Jack says to us airily, “needs its monuments to human progress. Testaments that remind us all how far we have risen as a society. That while alone we may be specks of dust in the wind. But together, we bend the arc of history towards communism! To the Chinese Dream!” He sweeps his arm expansively. “These, my friends, are The Games.“
I’m unsure what I’m expecting exactly. But what I see before me at the center of the Xi’an Coliseum certainly does not disappoint.
Laid out at the center of the Coliseum is a padded obstacle course– very similar to an old American television show that I’d once watched clips about on YouTube: American Gladiator. There were apparently seven teams competing for eternal glory. But in order to be crowned the victor, they had to cross, relay-style, nine different obstacles in their paths. The obstacles, it appeared, increased significantly in difficult as the course progressed.
“That first one is a cakewalk,” Jack explains. The man consumes liquor like water and so despite it being only midmorning, he’s already three sheets to the wind. “All you need to do is cross the 30 meter-long beam without falling into the mud pit below. It’s a piece of cake.”
The starting pistol goes off and we watch the contestants fly off the starting blocks. They are kids, basically, supposed eighteen years old but they honestly look much younger. To indicate their team, they all wear matching colored shirts and shorts. They look like an army of miniature Power Rangers.
With an agility and speed that I didn’t think possible, they sprint across the 30-meter high beam with zero difficulty and hand their batons off to their teammates, who then take off sprinting.
“Next,” Jack commentates, “you’ve got the net-rope-wall.”
Indeed, the next obstacle is a vertical wall of netting that looks like it was requisitioned off some 14th-century pirate ship. The kids reach the netting all at roughly the same time and begin scampering up it like monkeys. The dexterity is inhuman.
“This is crazy,” Coleman says. “How are these kids in such insanely excellent shape?”
“Well, you’re saying the Championship Round,” says Li. “So they are the very best of this year’s crop. That said, the CCP expects all of its citizens, men and women, to be of a certain physical condition. It’s mandated by the state.”
I think back to my days of youth. Most of my days were spent playing Xbox or PlayStation. And while I was never exactly fat, per se, I also could never in a million years navigate an obstacle course replete with rock climbing walls, giant foam battering pendulums, springboards the way these kids are doing.
Finally, on the fourth obstacle, the course takes its first casualty.
The challenge is to navigate a series of monkey bars like you’re at the jungle gym. For the life of me, I can’t imagine even attempting the challenge– the upper body strength you’d need must be spectacular. A girl in a red shirt who’s maybe in third place finally loses her grip after trying to swing from one bar to the next and plunges in the muddy depths, ten meters below and there’s a collective gasp of both awe and disappointment from the crowd.
“This is unreal,” says Deepak looking around at the crowd who are on their feet cheering. “In India we also have national service but it’s nothing like this. I think I spent my time digging ditches. You guys have gone ahead and turned it into a full-sail spectator sport though. This is unbelievable.”
“All in the name of national cohesion,” Jack says without taking his eyes off the games. “Might as well kill two birds with one stone, right?”
Looking around, I also see that all eyes are on the games. This is spectacle with purpose. The Chinese bystanders are totally absorbed; all their attention fixated. For many of them, in this city with no electricity, this event was probably the highlight of their week. At least until next week. Apparently, this is how you keep peace in a land of billions.
On the fifth obstacle, the boy wearing a blue shirt mistimes his step and gets full-on body-slammed by the foam wrecking ball. He goes flying into the mud pit ten meters below. Such a shame too because the blue team was in the lead with only two obstacles left. The crowd collectively wails in disappointment.
“So sports betting is a thing?” says Kristen looking around. Tons of people are throwing away their ticket stubs in disgust. It’s down to the yellow and black teams who are vying for the lead into the final stretch. Apparently, the teams save their more athletic and best for the final leg of the relay. They’re neck and neck– the final obstacle is apparently an Indiana Jones-inspired obstacle– you need to make it across a platform of tiles and inscribed on each tile is a number. Spy the pattern to step on the right tile. But step on the wrong tile and it crumbles beneath you, plunging you into the mud pits below.
“Jesus, this is unreal,” says Coleman. “You’ve gotta solve brain teasers too?”
“All part of the curriculum,” Li says, shrugging. “Not just about brawn. You gotta be able to think fast on your feet.”
Their pace have slowed considerably and all of the teams are at the final obstacle now. I can’t make out the exact numbers on the tiles but I guess it must be something like figuring out the next number in the Fibonacci sequence or something. Or maybe they’re multiplying giant three-digit and four-digit numbers together in their heads. Who knows.
The girl in the yellow shirt and a boy in a black shirt are virtually tied. And the crowd is at this point on its feet cheering. They’re a mere several meters from the end.
Two tiles from the finish line the girl in the yellow shirt steps on the wrong tile and it crumbles beneath her; she hurtles down into the mud pit, arms reaching upwards, her face a mask of shock. The crowd goes absolutely insane.
The boy in the black shirt makes it to the finish line and wins the event. He grabs the golden trophy that’s sitting on a silver pedestal awaiting the victor and thrusts it up into the air, victorious and triumphant. The crowd roars and I can feel the stone amphitheater shake beneath me. It’s complete pandemonium and my ear drums feel like they’re about to burst. I don’t know it until then, but I suddenly realize that I am too am on my feet, apparently swept away in the moment like everyone else.
The rest of the world slowly comes back into focus and I look over at Jack who’s beaming.