YOG: Publicity drive goes the extra mile

Huang Haitao and family promoting the YOG to some American tourists in Austria.

In the past two years, many have labelled Jiangsu native Huang Haitao a crazy man.

Often, he would also question his own sanity.

There was otherwise no way to explain why the 45-year-old would pack up his life and family and drive around China, then head to Europe from his home in Nanjing and back, to promote the Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

Travelling in his trusty Toyota Tundra, he - plus wife Furong, daughter Xinyi and niece Peng Xinyao - covered all 22 provinces, four municipalities and five autonomous regions within mainland China, before visiting more than 30 countries in Europe.

The 18-month journey spanned some 120,000km and cost the Huangs - the Nanjing Games' only "Volunteer Family" - about RMB 1.8 million (S$360,000), with more than half going towards paying for the pick-up.

Huang and his 38-year-old wife gave up their jobs as school teachers while the teenagers, now 15 and 14, deferred their studies.

But to him, it was a small price to pay for the experience they have gained.

He told The Straits Times: "Travelling is a great way to learn life lessons and increase your social awareness.

"The YOG tied in very well with what I wanted to teach my kids.

"The Games puts a lot of emphasis on friendship and education. It gave our journey so much more meaning and life, and the kids learnt so much."

With their pick-up plastered with stickers of the Nanjing Games logo and carrying banners in their hands, they had a plan for each stop they made, giving out pamphlets in public squares and visiting schools to give talks.

Huang began planning for the trip in 2010 when Nanjing won the bid to host the event, making sure he had a wide range of information, from the exact locations of petrol stations along the way, to basic medical know-how and spare parts for the vehicle.

Clothes for all four seasons were packed into the back of the pick-up, together with a stove, rice cooker and essentials like chilli, fermented beancurd and even a soya milk machine.

To save money, many nights were spent sleeping in tents or inside the vehicle when there were no safe camping sites.

It was simple living - many meals were self-prepared - but it led to many unforgettable experiences and new friends, with whom they are still in contact.

"Many locals were incredibly hospitable and insisted on bringing us to their homes after hearing our story," said Huang who was the only one behind the wheel.

There was an elderly Norwegian woman in Oslo whose farm they worked on, fertilising the fields and milking the cows.

There was also a rainy night in Tibet when the snores of wild boars sleeping outside their relatively warmer tents startled the family awake.

Said Huang: "I wanted to give the children an objective view of the world. It's experiences like these that they will remember their whole lives."

But there was also danger along the way.

Stopping at Jostedal Glacier National Park in western Norway around May last year, Huang's daughter fell through a frozen lake, with her leg losing sensation almost immediately in the water beneath.

Huang, tying himself to his pick-up with a rope, was able to get her out. But it was not until he had spent two hours rubbing her legs with his hands that she regained sensation in them.

Huang admits there were countless times they wanted to return home. He said: "You get homesick. You call yourself crazy for giving up the comfort of home to come out and do this."

Each time, their desire to complete their mission of promoting the Games spurred them on.

"I think our efforts made a contribution. When we started, not many knew what the YOG were.

"But by the time we got to the fifth province in China, word of what we were doing had travelled," said Huang.

He estimates they dealt with no fewer than 1,500 media outlets during their travels.

His wife had also said: "Having the theme of the YOG was also a source of courage for us when things got tough. It was the spirit of our whole journey."

This article was first published on August 23, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

More about
Youth Olympic Games