We were on another long-distance bus in the middle of nowhere, this time in heart of China’s Yunnan province. Heavy, sporadic rains danced on rice terraces whose luxuriant greens complemented the surrounding hills of red clay. It was just another iconic, beautiful moment on our journey through China.
Then came the symphony of throat-clearing and phlegm-dredging; pools of mucous-laden saliva slowly crept along the metal crevices in the aisle.
Until that moment, we had observed our share of spitting in China – from Kashgar in the West to Beijing in the East – and began to expect it wherever we went. On the streets, in trains, in buses, in restaurants –- yes, even in restaurants. The Chinese government’s efforts to curb this behavior clearly didn’t extend outside of China’s high-traffic tourist corridors.
But this time there was something different. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Rather than cringe in disgust, as my instincts urged me to do, I seized the opportunity to engage my fellow passengers and discover more about this little known and misunderstood national pastime.
I put a question to the man across the aisle from me who had just emptied the contents of his throat (and possibly his lungs) onto the floor just a few inches from my feet. “Why?” I cried.
“Let me explain,” he offered.
It so happens that Audrey and I had boarded a bus carrying the southern contingent of the Chinese Olympic spitting team. They were on their way to train at the national facilities a few hours down the road.
“Olympic sport?” you ask. I had no idea either. Turns out that Spitting will be trialed as an Olympic event at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
“The great thing about spitting is that we really don’t need formal facilities to practice,” he said. “Take this bus, for example. This is a perfect environment – one that we are accustomed to. It’s probably even better for the development of our form than the new national competitive spitting facilities where we are headed. And both men and women participate, making it the first Olympic sport where both genders compete as equals.”
I was intrigued and wished to know more. “I’ve noticed some fascinating spitting techniques. Can you tell me about the different events?”
“No problem,” my newfound athletic friend offered. “We can show you all the different styles of spitting that we compete in.”
“Wow. Fantastic! I can’t think of a better way to spend the next ten hours on this bus. Let’s get the demonstration started.”
I can’t speak Chinese, but through patience and perseverance – mine and theirs – we all bonded and I very quickly began to appreciate the intricacies of this new Olympic sport.
As the chorus of hacks and gargles continued to rise and fall around us, here’s what I gathered regarding the different events, including how each was to be judged and scored.
Dredge and Drop – Also known as the Classic Spit. The objective here is to gather as much build-up in the throat before launching the product (referred to as the payload) as far as possible. Competitors are judged on technical merit – payload volume and distance – and awarded points for artistic merit based on build-up and delivery (also known as dredge and launch, respectively).
Duck and Drop – This event combines the Dredge and Drop with an artistic component that requires the competitor to produce sounds from his throat and mouth approximating that of a distressed water fowl. Thus, “The Duck.” Competitors scores are based primarily on artistic merit with technical points awarded based on payload.
The woman sitting behind me, dressed in the traditional royal blue garb of her Hani ethnic group, was diligent in her practice of this event. I expect that she’ll be an exceptional and consistent performer in this category.
The remaining events essentially break down the above combined events into their component parts:
1. The Dredge – competitors are given up to 30 seconds to collect build-up (also called dredge) in as artful a manner as possible. Based on the demonstrations I witnessed, artistic merit points are awarded for throat noise variation, vocal volume and facial expression.
2. The Launch – the focus of this event is distance – no matter how small the payload. The payload must not evaporate mid-air, be visible and land. Foot-fault fouls apply.
3. The Loogie (not to be confused with the luge) – as the name suggests, the focus of this event is entirely on the payload. Smoking cheap, high-tar Chinese cigarettes in an air-starved long-distance bus seems to be the technique of choice to optimize results in this event.
Bonus Event: Shot Put – as the name suggests, this event is distance-focused. The objective is to launch the payload the furthest after quickly rotating the body 180-degrees on a circular toe-board. I’m told that this event will not be trialed at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. However, it is under continual consideration and refinement by the Olympic rules committee.
The passengers’ dedication to the sport was certainly impressive. If their bus-bound practice session was any indication, these Chinese competitors were well poised to deliver gold medals in this new sport.
As we exited the bus at Xishuangbanna (our destination), we bid farewell to the Olympic competitors and wished them success this August at the Games. As they performed one last round of demonstrations outside the bus for our educational benefit, I wondered: “Which country will get the silver?”
Place your bets.