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Today, an 8-year-old Chinese girl completed a run of epic proportions. In 55 days, she has run 2,212 miles. The journey is conceived as a tribute to next year's Beijing Olympics. And it's sparking accusations of child abuse against her father, who is her trainer.
NPR's Louisa Lim reports on the final stage of her run through the streets of Beijing.
LOUISA LIM: Her pink sneakers pounding along the road, this is the equivalent of Zhang Huimin's lack of glory, but her very achievement means this tiny skinny 8-year-old in her orange t-shirt and shorts is running straight into a storm of controversy.
Ms. ZHANG HUIMIN (Chinese Runner): (Through translator) I want to run to the moon. I love running because it's really fun for me.
(Singing in foreign language).
LIM: This child, nicknamed Little Monkey, hasn't made it to the moon, but her journey has been almost as ambitious. As she run, she sings a communist children song, "I love Beijing's Tiananmen Square." This morning marks the symbolic end of her journey to the Chinese capital. She's pounded the tarmac all the way from Chinese southernmost tip in Hainan Island. She's covered about 40 miles a day — and worn out 20 pairs of running shoes in pursuit of a dream.
Ms. HUIMIN: (Through translator) I want to be an Olympic champion, the champion of long-distance running. (Chinese spoken).
LIM: I'm happy, I'm healthy, I'm a little Olympic athlete, she yells while running. But many are asking if that's really her dream or the dream of her father and coach. When asked if she was happy to have arrived in Beijing, the 8-year-old's immediate reaction is telling, as is her own correction.
Ms. HUIMIN: (Through translator) I'm too excited for words because I've finished my task, I mean, I've realized my dream.
LIM: Slow down shouts her father, Zhang Jianmin, who's accompanied her mostly on an electric bicycle. He devised his daughter's strenuous training schedule, waking her up at 2:30 every morning to run. He sustains her along the way with stories, games, a drink made out of milk powder and eggs, and snacks of raisins and beef jerky. She started running at just 3 years old. And at first, he upped the distances slowly. But her father says now she's driven by her own determination.
Mr. ZHANG JIANMIN (Zhang Huimin's Father): (Through translator) Last year, she started increasing the distances herself. She ran further and further. On one day alone, she added more than a mile and a half. I was worried she'd be too sore the next day, but she was self-confident and said no way. As parents, we can only support her. Her gifts are beyond my expectation.
LIM: Her gift is certainly gaining a lot of attention. And the little girl enters Tiananmen Square trailed by a sizable and out-of-breath pack of journalists. In the run-up to next year's Olympics, her father sees this ultramarathon as a tribute to the spirit of the games.
Mr. JIANMIN: (Through translator) I think it's an example of the Olympic spirit. Talking about Olympic spirit is no use. You have to just get out there and do it. And even if she pays the price with her life in the pursuit of this belief, then it's a worthy act.
Unidentified Woman: Welcome to the Flag-raising Ceremony on Tiananmen Square.
LIM: Arriving by the Olympic countdown clock, her father knows he has plenty of detractors who believe his behavior underlines the wrong sort of Olympic spirit. Experts have warned her bone growth could be damaged, as well as her joints and muscles. And many, like Chen Shiyi from the China Association of Sports Medicine, see the tiny distance runner as a symbol of the failings of China's massive sports machine.
Mr. CHEN SHIYI (China Association of Sports Medicine): (Through translator) China's sports system has long concentrated on training athletes from a very young age. And by the time these athletes should be winning gold medals, their careers are already over because they were forced to over-exercise at a young age. The injuries will hit her in two or three years.
As she watches the flag-raising ceremony on Tiananmen Square, this little girl probably has little idea of the national controversy her run has created and it may not be over yet. Her father is now talking of another, even more risky ultramarathon — from the peaks of Tibet all the way to Shanghai.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.
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