We’re getting a leg up on the Olympics with a story of a different sort of national athlete. In Zhao Ying’s “Red Bean Sticky Cakes and Running,” a star Chinese runner tracks the source of her success. At seven, Wumi literally goes on the run with her illegally pregnant mother. This inadvertent training, and the resulting mental and physical stamina, jumpstarts Wumi on the road to athletic dominance.
Eluding the authorities, the fleet pair move through a series of safe houses set up by sympathetic friends, running miles through the countryside:
The six months that followed I would’t call endless, but I wouldn’t call them short either. I had to run about once every ten days, suddenly and quickly. As we ran, my mom and I were full of happiness. When we ran together over long distances, Mom was still able to talk to me.
Later, her canny response to a lecherous high school coach converts the childhood spent running from the government into a route to unexpected fortune and fame.
The politics here are both official and sexual, and Wumi and her mother subvert both with their strength and resourcefulness. Throughout, men throw up roadblocks, and women circumvent them with talent and wit. Wumi leaves the doltish, ineffectual men—thuggish father, creep of a coach, layabout husband—in the dust, breaking free to chart her own course at her own pace.
While every Olympian may not have a backstory as compelling as Wumi’s, we’ll be watching for the various international narratives that play out over the next few weeks.
Image: Wilma Rudolph wins the women’s 100 meter dash during the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Wikimedia Commons.