|Chen Guanming has become an iconic figure in London's Chinatown. (Photo: Gui Jingwan)|
The mildly famous Chinese rickshaw driver who won over admiration from world audiences with his presence at London 2012 is not ready to throw in the towel on his years-long Olympic journey just yet. The 57-year-old man plans to continue his three-wheeled adventure that began in 2001 from his East China hometown to the 2020 Games, whether they be in Tokyo, Istanbul or Madrid.
After 2020, Chen Guanming will be well into retirement age and might be starting to tire from spending nearly two decades on the road. But until that time comes, the Olympic enthusiast is only taking a short break, resting in London's Chinatown, showcasing his three-wheeler and telling passersby of his most recent adventures - a two-year pedaling trip from his village in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province that took him through Europe as he spread the Olympic spirit to people in more than 20 countries on his way to London.
With a canvas cover printed with photographs taken by Chen in different countries along the way, the mobile home of the white-bearded man who never married and is without children is "everything he needs in life."
With a tanned face and an arresting smile, fans are drawn to him and his stories with some of his more lively achievements including pedaling his rickshaw up 7,000-meter-high Himalayan peaks and surviving his about of being stranded in the hills of Turkey in -39 C weather.
The local farmer never thought he would ever have the chance to experience such worldly experiences, let alone explore any landscapes beyond his small village - until 2001. It was that year when China won the bid for Beijing to host the 2008 Olympic Games that changed everything for Chen.
"After the news came, I suddenly felt this strong urge inside, like I had to answer the call of the Olympic spirit and do something to help my country in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we were getting," he told the Global Times.
And so, with 7,000 yuan ($1,145) in his pocket, he left home on his rickshaw to promote the spirit of the Olympics, encouraging local residents everywhere he went to prepare for visitors.
It was on his way, a route that eventually led him to every province and region in the country, that he began collecting trash off the streets, hoping to make for a cleaner environment when guests arrived - and realized he could also promote the simplest form of environmental protection on his quest to welcome the world.
As the event drew closer, he made his way to Beijing, picking up garbage near the Olympic Park for six hours a day in the months leading up to the 2008 Games.
"I wanted to help put on a good show," he said. "When foreigners come and see garbage everywhere, it's not shameful for the country, but it's people."
To fund his expedition, Chen would transport people to where they wanted to go for a fee since he was never paid to clear trash from the streets. In cities that prohibited the unauthorized service, he repaired bicycles to earn enough money to get him to his next destination.
But despite his attempts to make an honest living, the fact is that Chen lacked the permit required to run his rickshaw business in the places he went, nor did he have the registration required to set up a stall to receive customers wanting their bikes fixed.
All of this led to many conflicts with chengguan (urban management officers) nationwide - there was even a time when the officers smashed his rickshaw in Anhui Province for reasons that he is still unsure of - and in the capital, where things were especially strict as the grand event neared. Chen said that he was repeatedly harassed by chengguan who wanted him to stop "meddling."
But Chen said that he never let those obstacles drain his spirit.
"I still kept continuing because in my heart I knew what I was doing was important," he said.
Though he could not afford a ticket to the Bird's Nest to witness first-hand the epic opening ceremony that impressed the world, he watched the live broadcast on a giant screen set up in the city - remembering just how jubilantly proud of his country he felt that night.
"I didn't want to lose that feeling, so I decided to carry the spirit to London," he said.
In May 2010, Chen departed his hometown once again, this time pedaling through Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, then headed west through Turkey and Greece, Italy and France before arriving in London, the host of the 2012 Games.
Chen said that he often asked border security officers to check reports about him online when he had trouble passing through.
"That way they knew who I was and what I came for," he said.
In London, Chen was linked up with local businessman John Beeston, who helped UK media find Chen and after London media shared his story with the world, press from other countries swarmed him. In a way, his story helped justify London 2012 to a lot of people, Beeston told the Global Times.
"Before the Olympics took place, there were a lot of mixed feelings in England about the event," he said. "But with Chen, suddenly there was this story of adventure and persistence, which really brightened morale."
Though elementary school is the highest level of education Chen has completed, he said that what he has learned on his travels to spread Olympic cheer has taught him far more about geography, environment and culture than he could have ever managed in any classroom.
"For me, the Games have taught me how to respect others from different countries and cultural backgrounds," he said. "The Olympics is a holy event and an occasion for people to practice the Olympic spirit, which we see is strong enough to even see that warring nations cease fire."
"This is why I do what I do," he added. "Each day for me is like the Olympics, and I wish it could be like that for the entire world, too."
Chen next plans to tackle Canada by rickshaw. Then its the rest of North America until 2015 before moving on to Latin America, in time for Rio de Janeiro 2016. And "maybe, just maybe" after the 2020 Olympics are over, he'll consider retirement.