These are the four flights of wooden stairs, bordered by shiny steel handrails, which lead on to a blue-carpeted platform 10ft long and 4ft wide. It's like being in the starting hut of the Hahnenkamm, or on the viewing platform of the Empire State: there's a sudden urge to close your eyes and hold on tight to something solid. And, if you can conquer the vertigo, there's a view from here that Fu Mingxia will never forget as long as she lives.
Did Fu take the chance to look out over the towers of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia to the distant hills and the sea? Maybe not. Maybe the only thing she saw, as she stood motionless above the city of Barcelona, was a patch of bright blue water 33 feet below. Eight times she climbed those steps in her progress to the gold medal in the high-board diving final last week, and eight times we saw a tiny body spinning through the air, held against the sky as it twisted and turned, slicing first the air and then the surface of the water with an economy that seemed to leave the elements undisturbed.
Eight times she launched herself, and eight times she moved further ahead of her rivals, who waited behind her on the steps to the platform, lounging against the rails with a self-absorbed nonchalance, like a tableau vivant from a Thirties edition of Vogue.
AN HOUR or so later, we were asking questions of the bronze medal winner, a feisty all-American girl called Mary Ellen Clark, when an urchin in a white singlet and shorts squirmed through the crowd and found a seat on the small stage. There was a little buzz, and although we continued for a minute or two to address our questions to Ms Clark, both she and we knew that the focus had shifted, in more senses than one.
Fu Mingxia is 13 years old, 'almost 14'. Still glowing from her exertions, she looked less like an Olympic champion than a child who had just come in from playing on the neighbours' lawn.
Mary Ellen Clark had already been diving for seven years by the time Fu was born. But it was one of those days in sport, one of those days of maximum unfairness, when experience counts for nothing. Even the American's own coach, Ron O'Brien, had told us that watching Fu reminded him of nothing less than the effect Greg Louganis had on the sport in the early Eighties. 'He took it to another level, and so has she,' he said, and shook his head at the memory of 'that damn back three-and-a- half twister' with which she had paralysed the opposition in the sixth round of the final. Along the platform, Mary Ellen's face seemed to be registering relief that this wasn't a problem she'd be facing for much longer.
Then it was Fu's turn. To begin with, there were questions about her training routine at the Peking diving academy. Was it true that she did a lot of dry-land work, like standing somersaults, and also that she practises in the pool under unusual conditions, such as during rainstorms or with her fellow pupils shouting at her and banging dustbin lids, as a way of developing her powers of concentration? Yes, she said, her serious little face breaking into a child's smile. 'If you can dive in the middle of a storm, you can dive even better when the weather is fine.'
Fu went on to tell us, through an interpreter, that her chief ambitions were to work on her consistency, to increase the degree of difficulty of her dives, and to learn to relax during competitions, and there were relieved sighs in the interview room when an American reporter cut through the mundane technical stuff and got to the serious business.
'Since a lot of young people around the world are going to want to know about you,' he said, drawing a deep breath, 'I'm going to ask you this: what are you going to do with your medal, what's your favourite food, and what do you like to do when you're not diving?'
His colleagues, who knew that here was the real story, couldn't resist chuckling gratefully at the gentle self-parody. Fu, who can't have got the joke, said she hadn't had time to think about the medal, but she liked eating lots of ice- cream and she enjoyed music and maths and books. No one showed much interest in following up the mention of maths and books, but there was a lot of concern to get her to be more precise about the music. Did she mean she enjoyed Western pop music?
'I like listening to Niagara,' she said, via her interpreter. Much furrowing of brows. Niagara? Some new heavy metal band unknown to the middle-aged press corps? 'And Madonna,' she added. The joy of her listeners was hilarious to behold.
In a week when the Wall Street Journal was running a major article about the dubious benefits of the complete and conclusive Americanisation of global culture, here was a perfect example of its effects. The relief with which we greeted the news that a 13-year-old Chinese celebrity admires a Western pop star demonstrated the degree to which we are only really comfortable with foreigners who can show that they are exactly like us.
In some ways, the 25th Olympiad of the modern era is chiefly a celebration of how, over the last four years, the world has been made safe for the giant multinational corporations. Where Marx and Lenin once held sway, now the people's aspirations are defined by Nike and Panasonic. And here in Barcelona, the marriage of competition and commerce is being consummated.
Thus Coca-Cola can use its status as a main sponsor of the Games to proclaim, mystifyingly, that it is 'sharing the Olympic ideal'. What sporting ideal, exactly, can a soft drink share? Thus, too, Mary Ellen Clark could tell us that she plans to spend her time after retirement from competition repaying her debt to the McDonald's Corporation, whose backing enabled her to pursue a full-time training regime in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after her university studies had been rewarded with degrees in public health and physical education. She could not resist pointing out the contrast with her rival. 'We,' she said, meaning the athletes of the free world, 'have to work in order to be able to compete.'
But what is work? And how, now that the Eastern bloc has disappeared, and with it the conquering armies of Soviet and East German athletes, will the teams from the United States - and their noisy, flag-waving supporters - respond to the new reality of competition with a world that now shares its own value-system? How will they manage without the layer of ideological conflict that for so long provided a springboard for sporting aggression? The US is used to telling the world that the American Way is the better way, that the American Dream is the better dream. Better than whose, now that everyone is following the way and dreaming the dream?
THE answer may be in the 4ft 11in, 92lb frame of Fu Mingxia. What the youngest winner of an Olympic gold medal since 1936 told us about her life came as a shock to the Western mind.
Where did her parents live, we asked. What do they do? How often does she see them? She comes from Hubei province, she replied, from the city of Wuhan. Her parents are workers. And she sees them twice a year, when she goes home from the diving academy. Sometimes, in their holidays, they make the journey to see her - a thousand kilometres, 18 hours by railway.
'Workers?' We suspected an incomplete translation. 'What do they do?' Fu Mingxia looked serious for a moment, then smiled her child's smile and said she didn't know.
Here, if they want it, is America's new natural enemy. Here is a nation of a billion people whose sports coaches - like Yu Fen, sitting next to Fu Mingxia on the press conference platform - can take a child from her home at the age ofeight and turn her into the most efficient diving machine ever seen.
TWO DAYS after Fu's triumph, Mark Lenzi faced the press at the Piscina de Montjuic with his gold medal hanging around his neck. A 24-year-old ball of muscle from Fredericksburg, Virginia, born on the Fourth of July, Lenzi had just won the men's springboard title for himself and for the US of A.
On the platform beside him were two people wearing vests embroidered with his name and with the stars and stripes. Bill and Ellie Lenzi, Mark's parents, were in the mood to celebrate and were delighted to give their own interviews to journalists who couldn't penetrate the mob surrounding the new champion.
Ellie, who was also wearing stars and stripes ear-rings, works in a restaurant; Bill is a supervisor at the local US Navy base. A classic blue-collar couple. Their boy had always been keen on sport - baseball, soccer, wrestling. In fact he had won a college scholarship on the basis of his wrestling prowess - until, inspired by Louganis's exploits, he gave it up to become a diver. His parents, with three other children to bring up, couldn't afford to send him to college without a scholarship, and weren't pleased by his decision. 'We had a falling out,' Bill Lenzi told me, 'and he lived away from home for a while.'
Eventually, though, they were reconciled, and the father began to drum up support for his son. 'I wrote to 13 millionaires in Virginia, asking for sponsorship. Five or six of them replied, but none of them came through. Now I'm hoping that this means he'll get some endorsements, to make his life easier.'
It was when he talked about his son's adolescence that the differences between the lives of the American boy and the Chinese girl were most starkly defined. 'We let him alone,' the American parent explained. 'We tried to give him what he wanted, we let him make his own decisions, and we tried to be there when he needed us.'
Fu Mingxia was back in the pool every day after her high-board triumph, practising for tomorrow's springboard event. Using the foot-wheel to adjust the board back to maximum flex after the heavier girls had been using it, she pulled off a series of perfect dives.
The other girls, with their muscled shoulders and thighs, seemed to use their own force to break the surface of the water. Fu just dropped, bending gravity to her will, entering the water like a fast and silent blade. It reminded me of something the defeated Mary Ellen Clark had said, shaking her head in admiration: 'She just doesn't miss a lot.'
That precision was the quality Yu Fen spotted when she watched the 10- year-old Fu at a gymnastics class in Wuhan. 'She stood out,' the coach said. 'When that happens, you rely on your intuition. I had a hunch about her.' Yu Fen's hunch took Fu to Peking away from her family, and she has been there ever since, training in the morning and doing her academic lessons in the afternoon, preparing for the career that reached its first climax in Barcelona.
The world has changed, and will change again. These Games are not like any that most of us can remember. But although Peking may now have the biggest McDonald's in the world, little Fu Mingxia is not exactly like us; not at all.
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