(AFP) – Oct 29, 2008
QUANZHOU, China (AFP) — Two months after China's elite athletes dazzled the world at the Beijing Olympics, the sporting prowess of its 900 million peasant farmers is getting its turn in the spotlight this week at China's 6th National Peasant Games.
Crouching at a starting line in a modern running outfit and trainers, Li Quanquan would look just like an Olympic athlete if not for the peasant-style bamboo carrying stick over her shoulders.
With baskets full of fake rice seedlings dangling from either side of the pole, she sprints down a track, then halts to "plant" each one in a simulated paddy field in one of the more bizarre races ever held in a large stadium.
"Back home, life is pretty hard, so this is our chance to show the country and world what we do and our skills and abilities," said Li, 23, whose family grows chilli peppers on a plot in Henan province.
Fresh from hosting the biggest ever Olympics, China also is putting on its largest "Peasant Olympics," a quadrennial event held this year in Quanzhou city in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian.
A record 3,500 athletes are competing in more than 180 events, but these "olympics" come with a barnyard twist.
Besides Li's event -- the "60-metre rice-transplanting race" -- others include the "60-metre snatch the grain and get it into storage," in which contestants load a "harvest" of sandbags onto three-wheeled bikes and sprint for the tape.
There's also the tyre-pushing race and the "water carrying contest to protect the seedlings amid drought," to go along with more common sports such as basketball.
It might sometimes have looked like a bad reality TV show, but competitors took it seriously.
"Although we were not able to attend the Beijing Olympics, this is our dream, our farmer's olympics," said Xie Hong, 22, whose experience on the family's rice farm in southwestern China's Chongqing region helped her win her rice-transplanting heat.
"I do this back home, so it's closely matched to my daily life."
However, it ended in tears for Lin Shiyan, of Hunan province, who was disqualified after mishandling one of the fake plastic "seedlings".
"I'm very upset. I trained very hard for this," she sobbed under a hot sun.
The special attention accorded China's farmers has its roots in Mao Zedong's veneration of the peasant class, a political tradition that the Communist Party keeps up even as farmers are largely left behind in China's economic boom.
This year's games come as an ongoing exodus of millions of rural peasants into cities and industrial regions in search of work raises growing fears that it could hamper the nation's ability to feed itself.
The games are meant to teach peasants about sport, partly to keep them content and on the farm, said Kang Wenbing, 18, who competed in the men's grain collection race.
"If farming life remains all drudgery, of course people will keep leaving the land. There are 900 million peasants in China. They need the release of sport," said Kang, of Fujian province, still huffing after his heat.
Games contestants must hold a residence permit from a farming community and are selected via a combination of tryouts and invitations, organisers said.
But while China's state-run press have given the Peasant Games strong coverage, they look unlikely to even come close to the Beijing Olympics' attendance figures.
Quanzhou's 32,000-seat stadium was virtually empty on Tuesday and no food or drink were provided at venues.
"There aren't enough people coming for that," said a stadium official. "Besides, these are peasants. They would litter the food everywhere."
Once the games are over, people such as Yu Wenfang, a timid 14-year-old making her first trip outside her home region of Ningxia in the country's remote far north, must rush back to the family cornfield.
"The games are a great experience for me but I must hurry back. It's harvest time," she said.
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