Runner, 8, a symbol of China's Olympic fervor

Zhang Huimin, 8, left, eats breakfast with her father, Zhang Jianmin, in the southern city of Lingao, China, after finishing her pre-dawn run.
Zhang Huimin, 8, left, eats breakfast with her father, Zhang Jianmin, in the southern city of Lingao, China, after finishing her pre-dawn run. Evan Osnos/Chicago Tribune

BEIJING — By most accounts, the wispy 8-year-old girl who sprinted around Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Tuesday after reportedly running 2,200 miles from southern China has become a national symbol. But is it of Olympic fervor — or parental ambition gone wild?

Little Zhang Huimin reportedly spent nearly two months running the equivalent of a marathon and a half each day to reach the Chinese capital. She wore out 20 pairs of shoes.

Spurred on by her father, the 46-pound runner says she hopes one day to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games, the earliest ones she'll qualify for because of her age.

Local newspapers splashed her arrival in Beijing on Monday, and television camera operators have swarmed around her since, recording her as she pounded the pavement at Beijing's most famous square at 5 a.m. Tuesday. She wore red shorts, an orange singlet and pink shoes. Pinned to her chest was a sign that read: "Strong body, defy limitations, honor for the nation, Olympic spirit."

But her reported feat has generated equal doses of admiration and outrage. Some say she symbolizes the fortitude and grit that Chinese athletes need to garner a basket of medals at next summer's Beijing Olympic Games.

Others say that her father, who failed in his own dreams of becoming a star athlete, has been abusive to Little Zhang, as she's known, egging her on not out of Olympic spirit and determination but out of ambition and a desire to harness her fame for profit. They say he may be ruining her slight body.

Zhang Jianmin, 54, dismissed the criticism, saying his daughter was in good spirits and that her health hadn't suffered on the marathon odyssey.

"It's like a summer camp for my daughter, and we are just helping her have some fun," he said.

Little Zhang's summer of reported daily marathons began July 3 on the southern tip of the resort island province of Hainan. Every day, father and daughter awoke at 2:30 a.m. and headed off, escaping daytime tropical heat, according to Zhang Jianmin. He reportedly coasted along on a motorized bicycle while Little Zhang ran an average of 43 or 44 miles.

Through wind and rain, smog and extreme heat, the two wended their way north. A Guangdong province sportswear marketer paid their expenses.

The state Xinhua news agency quoted experts at a Hainan sports institute in early July as saying that Little Zhang's body showed signs of fatigue. They said that her bones, heart and nervous system could sustain damage from such intensive running.

The China Daily newspaper on Tuesday also quoted an expert criticizing the run.

"It is an extremely hard running process even for an adult," Liu Hong, the director of the China School Sports Federation, told the newspaper. "The running will certainly harm her."

Zhang Jianmin disagrees. "The girl arrived in Beijing in healthy condition. And the journey is finished," he said.

This marks the second time this month that the tale of a child running a marathon has gripped Asia.

On Aug. 13, the coach of a 6-year-old Indian boy who became famous for running marathons was arrested and charged with torturing the child. The slum-dwelling boy, Budhia Singh, became a celebrity in India last year when, at age 4, he ran 40 miles in seven hours.

Doctors later found him to be undernourished, and police officers who accused the coach said they found scars on the boy's body, signs of beatings.

If Little Zhang's father has his way, her run to Beijing will pale beside his plan for next year, when he intends to have her run from Lhasa, 12,500 feet high in the Tibetan plateau, to Shanghai, the coastal metropolis, a distance of more than 3,100 miles.

"If conditions are right, then we will do it," he said. "But for now, it is still too early to talk about that."

(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Alexander F. Yuen contributed to this story.)