Michael Phelps who claimed a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games said it was harder for him to learn Chinese than to win swimming races.
Before the American came to China for the 2008 Games he seriously took a few Chinese lessons. A popular online video shows how hard he tries to imitate the voice of a Chinese learning multimedia software in saying such basic words as "guo zhi" , "nan hai'er" and "nu hai'er" .
But still, the 23-year-old rated his Chinese language studies as the most difficult thing he had tried in his life. "Learning Mandarin is even harder than winning eight gold medals in the pool."
In primary school Phelps took French and German courses, but the swimming ace said, "all the words, characters and pronunciations in Mandarin are so different. All of them are hard to manage."
He was not the only star athlete trying to learn some Chinese language and culture. When gymnast Nastia Liukin arrived back home in Dallas, Texas, with five medals around her neck, the Russian-born blonde appeared in front of her reception wearing a black T-shirt with two big Chinese characters "Beijing" in the front.
"The Beijing Olympics have brought world attention to the Chinese civilization and further enhanced the utility of the Chinese language worldwide," said Zhao Guocheng, the Office of Chinese Language Council International deputy director general.
He called the Games an opportunity for the Chinese language to gain more popularity and for China to be better understood by foreigners.
CHINESE LEARNING AREA
As a direct way for foreigners to gain understanding of the nation's culture and history, Chinese characters are undoubtedly the most accessible signs of the nation.
Some foreign spectators who witnessed the Games' opening ceremony at Beijing's National Stadium were completely puzzled when artistic director Zhang Yimou presented a performance showcasing the country's ancient invention of movable-type printing. The show featured a formation of some 900 men imitating the operation of a printer and creating the image of the Chinese character "he," meaning "harmony," in different calligraphic styles.
Foreigners likely were even more puzzled after they saw the sequence of entry at the athletes' march-in, which was completely different from previous Games. The order of entry was decided by the number of strokes of the first character of a delegation's Chinese name, but not by the country's first English language letter.
Anxious to learn the secrets of the strokes that formed a Chinese character, many foreign athletes and reporters came to the "Chinese learning area" in a corner of the Olympic Village.
Since its July 27 opening, the area had received thousands of visitors from about 70 countries and regions, said an language promotion official in charge of the activity.
With a floor space of about 30 square meters, the area is brightly decorated with Chinese painting scrolls, Peking Opera masks and China knots, a traditional handicraft symbolizing good fortune.
The area, jointly established by the OCLCI and the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games , was designed for foreign athletes, coaches and officials living in the village to learn some Chinese and have a taste of Chinese culture for free.
Zhao said athletes usually learned some basic Chinese such as "ni hao" , "xie xie" and "zai jian" in less than 30 minutes or after a few hours.
"The Chinese they learned proved useful during their stay in China," he said.
In addition, Chinese tutors also taught the visitors how to congratulate fellow athletes or rivals in Chinese, such as "zhu heni" and "ni zhen bang" .
They could also try some traditional Chinese calligraphy and play the guzheng, a stringed instrument of the zither family, or Chinese chess.
Deng Yaping, the Olympic Village spokeswoman and four-time Olympic gold medal winning table tennis player, told the press on Aug. 15 the most popular activity at the area was to get a Chinese name for the athletes themselves or their friends. Tutors usually chose a Chinese name that suited the sound or meaning of the foreign visitor's original name.
The area features a large bookshelf loaded with Chinese-learning materials, and a wall to which more than a dozen brush-pen writings by the foreign learners, carrying either their Chinese names or their blessings to the host city and nation, are glued.
Deng said the area at the Beijing Olympics was something unique that previous Games didn't have.
FREQUENTLY USED OLYMPIC CHINESE
Among the spectators at Olympic venues, a great deal of foreigners were holding large Chinese placards with characters such as "wanmei" , "li" , or "pinbo" while watching the Games.
England footballer David Beckham had his waist tattooed with a Chinese idiom meaning one's fate and fortune was decided by the God.
Chinese-character tattoos also appeared on NBA star players on the gold-medal winning U.S. men's basketball team and a Canadian woman beach volleyball player, who considered the skin art fashionable and auspicious.
Chinese cultural signs such as "blue and white porcelain," Olympic medals of gold inlaid with jade, China knots and jasmine flowers, also became representatives of Chinese culture that left great impressions on foreign visitors during the Games.
Phelps and his mother bought some Chinese character scrolls at Silk Street, a place popular among foreigners looking for cultural souvenirs, as gifts to bring back home and as decoration.