79 and no plans to retire for city sports snapper

Hong Nanli stands just 153 centimeters tall and at 79 years old this indefatigable grandmother is almost certainly the oldest working sports photographer in China, if not beyond.

Hong Nanli stands just 153 centimeters (five feet) tall and at 79 years old this indefatigable grandmother is almost certainly the oldest working sports photographer in China, if not beyond.

It makes her a minor celebrity in a profession that is overwhelmingly male and macho and in which many of her peers are less than half her age.

But it is not just her fellow journalists who snap selfies with her at sports matches and press conferences: players and coaches also often seek her out because she cuts such an incongruous figure.

When Shanghai Shenhua beat rival Shanghai SIPG over two legs to win the Chinese FA Cup in November, captain and Colombian international Giovanni Moreno plucked Hong from the sidelines and lifted her high into the air in celebration.

And when NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal was in the city he took a selfie with Hong and posted it on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, writing: “This lady is a legend in Shanghai.”

Hong, who outside work leads an exercise class three times a week, is still working as a freelance photographer more or less full-time — extremely rare in a country where women usually retire before 55.

“I once made a promise that I will work until I am 80,” said Hong, with that milestone creeping up in July. “I’m still wondering what my next plan is. I think, for me, it is impossible to completely give up working.But I sure don’t have the energy now to take photos like I did before,” added Hong.

Sports photography can be a physically demanding job, lugging around heavy equipment and jostling with fellow snappers — often male and always younger and stronger — for a prime spot. Hong was knocked to the ground after the FA Cup final second leg in the rush to snap pictures of the jubilant Shenhua coach Wu Jingui. But she was quickly hauled back to her feet and her fellow photographers tend to look after her, occasionally ushering her into a better position in the press pack because of her small stature.

“Once you are at a sports event, you forget who you are, I feel I am like these youngsters and I am young,” she said.

Hong’s diminutive but sturdy frame is a nod to her early career as a gymnast and in 1959 she became a coach of a Shanghai’s women’s gymnastics team.In 1979 she turned to photography and was employed by the publicity department of the Shanghai sports authorities, later going freelance.

She describes how she saw a young basketball player called Yao Ming coming through the ranks as a gangly teenager in the 1990s and immediately knew that he had the talent, intelligence and heart to be a global star. Hong, who has two adult grandchildren, was there again when Yao announced his retirement in July 2011.

Hong, whose freelance work now mostly features in an airline in-flight magazine, treasures her role in documenting the history of sport in her home city. “I think I am doing something valuable,” she said.

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