Beijing Olympics Unexpected Visitors
Greg Baker  /  AP
Workers Wang Sheqi, left to right, Yun Fangzhi and Zhang Yanqun walk outside the National Stadium in Beijing.
updated 8/18/2008 2:34:04 PM ET 2008-08-18T18:34:04

Two bricklayers, a security guard and a cement buyer walked across the vast Olympic Green they helped build, holding some of the games’ hottest tickets in their deeply tanned hands.

About 300,000 migrant workers helped build the Olympics venues. None was expected to watch them. Many left Beijing this summer — no longer welcome — as construction stopped for the games, forcing them to look for work elsewhere.

But these four men returned, brought back by a chance encounter for a taste of Olympic victory and bitter defeat.

A year ago, a Chinese artist found them on their lunch break and asked them to pose for a portrait. He made a promise: If he could sell the painting for enough money, he’d get them tickets to the games and pay for their expenses.

The men were making $5 a day and just working and sleeping. They’d never even seen the Great Wall. They simply didn’t believe him.

But the painting sold for more than $4,600, with an art collector adding 2,008 yuan (about $290) to the asking price in honor of the Olympic year.

China has 140 million migrant workers — equal to the population of Russia — who have abandoned hardscrabble farm lives in rural areas for factory or construction jobs in the big cities and coastal areas.

They spend years toiling in low-paying, backbreaking jobs in the hopes of saving enough to support relatives back home but are often treated like second class citizens by white-collar urbanites who blame them for petty crime, crowding, and lost jobs.

There is also some sympathy and gratitude for the migrants — the human fuel behind China’s white-hot economy.

So on Monday the four workers were on their way to watch sports history in the making.

China’s most popular athlete, hurdler Liu Xiang, would defend his gold medal in front of a full Bird’s Nest stadium of 91,000 people. The men had first-tier seats, 29 rows from the track. Outside the gate, whispering scalpers were asking nearly $300 for seats much higher.

The migrant workers had arrived two days earlier for their first real vacation. They’d seen the Great Wall and eaten Peking duck. Now they’d be sports fans.

“Let’s see how long the money lasts,” said the artist, Su Jian. “I’m paying for everything.”

They hurried toward the stadium, where Olympic volunteers checked their tickets and called them “Sir.”

Little Chinese flag stickers covered the men’s faces.

“I’m tired, sure, but I’m very happy,” Yu Qingzhu, 40, said as they approached an already roaring stadium. His new haircut left him pale around the ears. “Wah! Did you hear that?”

Slideshow: Emotional moments Yu was the most outgoing, and he’d stepped in to write another man’s travel expenses in Su’s notebook when it became clear the man could only write his name. Yu hadn’t seen anything of the Olympics yet. His new workplace in a province northeast of Beijing had no television.

“Hey, run!” shouted Zhang Yanqun, 24, up ahead in his new white sneakers.

They didn’t pause to admire their work on the Olympic Green. They pointed in the vague direction of their old work site, somewhere behind the stadium, and hurried on.

Their Olympics tickets were a deal from an insurance company, which asked that the men each buy a year’s worth of coverage. They’d never had insurance. Su paid.

Su said he just wanted the migrant workers who helped to build the Olympics venues get the attention they deserved. He got his own share of press, but Zhang Shihe, a well-known blogger who follows Beijing’s migrant workers, said in a phone interview that it didn’t matter. “Even if he wants publicity, he’s still a great guy,” he said.

After posting an online plea — “To be able to save more money for seeing the sights, we’ll go sleep in a tent or a train station” — Su found someone to donate an apartment for the men. It’s in one of Beijing’s nicer neighborhoods, with landscaping and residents walking pet poodles.

“This is great!” said Wang Sheqi, 50, who arrived Saturday on an overnight train with a set of new clothes in a tiny shoulder bag. “I’m on unpaid leave, but it’s worth it. There are so many people who have no chance to watch the games.”

The men entered the stadium and paused as the view of the track opened before them. Their seats were just in front of three foreigners. The men settled in, cheering when the crowd cheered, learning how to do the wave.

Yun Fangzhi, 46, had been the quietest, coming to Beijing with nothing but his ID card and some money stuffed in the pocket of the striped polo shirt he wore every day. The pack of Chinese reporters following the men had been concerned.

“Didn’t you even bring a toothbrush?” a China Central Television reporter asked. “I’ll buy one,” Yun replied.

As the men’s triple jumpers paraded onto the field to cheers, Yun stood up uncertainly, then sat down.

“I’m not sure whether they’re into these events,” Su said. “But it’s all about the atmosphere. I just wanted to bring them here. And surely they know about Liu Xiang and the hurdles.”

They did. Liu was their favorite, they said. His heat was the final event of the morning.

When Liu appeared in a red track suit, the stadium roared. Quietly, Yun worked his way down to the second row. Zhang and Yu followed. Wang sat back, looking at home with his dress pants rolled up to his knees.

The hurdlers settled into the blocks. Wang carefully aimed the digital camera Su had bought for each of them.

A pistol, a false start, then the injured Liu suddenly limped off the track.

The crowd gasped, paused, then started to leave. The migrant workers’ Olympics were over.

“This is it?” Wang asked finally. “Not bad. I feel really terrible about Liu Xiang, though.”

Beside the track, Zhang and Yun stood staring. Their cameras were idle in their hands.

Zhang looked around at the empty seats and asked, “What do we do now?”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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