Last July, artist Su Jian set up his easel at a building site in Beijing and asked the foreman to find him volunteers. He wanted to paint a portrait of some of the migrant workers who were building the Olympic Green.
Five men agreed to model for Mr. Su. In return, he made them a deal: If he sold the painting for enough money, they would be going to the Olympics.
On Monday, Su made good on his promise.
Four of the five men trooped into the iconic Bird’s Nest National Stadium and sat in the front tier, trading their hard hats for casual clothes and red Chinese flags.
It was their first time at such a sporting event, their first real vacation after years of hard work on construction sites. (The fifth man declined to attend.)
The workers were among an estimated 300,000 migrants who participated in the construction of Olympics sites and infrastructure. Migrants are known as China’s “floating population,” men and women from the hardscrabble countryside whose toil in cities and factories helps to sustain the country’s economic boom.
Last year, Beijing’s official count of migrants was 4.2 million, out of a citywide population of 16.3 million. Those who study the population believe the real number is probably much higher.
In recent months, their numbers have fallen sharply as construction sites and polluting factories fell silent under a pre-Olympics beautification drive. The government also drove out migrants peddling fruit and begging for spare change before the Games.
Back in the 90,000-capacity stadium, a men’s 200-meter race was under way. The men who built the Olympic facilities were finally getting an up-close look at their work – and at the glittering spectacle that has captured the world’s avid gaze.
It was a moment that none is likely to forget.
“I had dreamed of coming back one day to see the stadium … [but] I’m just a worker,” says Yun Fangzhi, a bricklayer, who arrived in Beijing after a six-hour bus ride from his village with only the clothes on his back and his identity card. He now has an Olympics T-shirt, thanks to Su, and a toy for his son.
“I’ve never been so happy in my life as when I was cheering for China in the stadium. It was best time in my life,” he says.
Mr. Yun expected he might get to join a guided tour of the site long after the Games had finished. Instead, he had a front-row seat Monday as Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang dashed a nation’s dreams by pulling out of the Games with an injury.
Since then, the group of four men, who parted ways last year after their contracts ended, have seen the Great Wall, eaten Peking duck, and basked in the Chinese media limelight, including interviews on national TV.
People recognized them at the stadium and on the street, and they quickly settled into their mini-celebrity.
Su gave them all digital cameras to use during their vacation and plans to cull the best pictures for a future art show.
The four men arrived late to an interview Wednesday at their hotel – paid for by Su, along with other travel expenses – after a photo shoot in Tiananmen Square ran long. All were leaving later that day, back to other cities for construction jobs or to their hometowns in the countryside, where the summer harvest is in full swing.
Zhang Yanqun, a materials inspector at the Bird’s Nest who dropped out of primary school to join the “floating population,” plans to return to Beijing and get a construction job once the Olympics moratorium ends.
He’s still giddy with the thrill of his Olympics moment. “I saw so many people … it was so exciting. I think the Bird’s Nest is amazing,” he says.