The Communist world has made many assaults on cultural pursuits during the past 40 years, but even the expert Russians are impressed—and perhaps alarmed by a crash sports program begun in Red China four years ago. Awesomely mammoth, it may soon vault Chinese athletes into the leading ranks of world sport. Its avowed purpose is to improve the health-and ability to work—of every Chinese citizen. Obviously, should the occasion arise, it would also make better soldiers of them.

Almost every man, woman and child of China's huge 670 million population is touched by the program. In place of the coffee break of the Western world, China has an exercise break twice a day seven days a week. Arm swings and deep knee bends are done to a brisk count barked over a radio loudspeaker. Everywhere people shoot baskets, swim rivers, climb mountains and even participate in delayed-opening parachute jumps.

For the best athletes there is a special, far more intense program designed to produce 40 million physical culturists. Red China's leader, Mao Tse-tung, hopes that by 1967 these athletes will be able to pass the toughest of physical tests. They train in big sports centers that have sprung up all over China, each equipped with a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a track and playing fields. The students below are exercising outside the largest and best equipped of these centers—Peking's athletic academy, started in 1958—and, like most other Chinese, they are doing their two-a-day mass calisthenics. From one Czechoslovakian athlete, Jiri Skobla, who competed in China recently, there comes a warning: "Woe to the world's best athletes when the Chinese sports colossus gets into real stride."

Newest monument to China's drive for athletic supremacy is the Workers Gymnasium in Peking. Rushed to completion in 11 months, the arena in April housed the 26th World Table Tennis Championships, the first such sports event ever held in China. The concrete, glass, marble and granite structure seats 15,000 and rises like a huge cake 120 feet into the air. The extremely partial Chinese, few of whom had heard of table tennis 10 years earlier, wildly applauded every hard smash, urging their teams to defeat Japan and win well-deserved—although expected—world titles.

Young seiners in Fukien Province play volleyball over a fish net stretched between boat masts. Under Chiang Kai-shek volleyball became China's national pastime, and was played in private and public schools, police and army barracks from Peking to Canton. A game requiring little equipment but great agility and superior teamwork, it has continued to grow and prosper under the Communists, and today's dedicated Red Chinese teams are among the world's best.

First Asian woman to hold a world record, China's High Jumper Cheng Feng-yung rests on field with Jolanda Balas of Rumania, who later topped Cheng's mark. After cautious tests of its world sports status, Red China quit major international competition in 1958, ostensibly in protest over recognition of Nationalist China teams. It may forget its pique when it decides it has enough potential winners to conquer the rest of the world, Communist as well as capitalist.

In a Tartarlike charge, women jockeys barrel past domed pavilion on tough plains ponies during the women's 2,000-meter event at the national horse race championships. As in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, Red Chinese women compete in most of the men's sports, even have their own grenade-hurling contests.

Precision parachutists, far removed from the meek and subjugated women of Chinese tradition, pose with flowers after winning the world championship in the 1,000-meter jump, breaking the Russian women's record. Male Chinese sky divers also hold jumping records. Recent visitors to China—a land with few TV sets or movie houses—report astounding enthusiasm for sports. "The main problem of coaches," said one, "is keeping athletes from killing themselves."

The Communists have not censured or discarded folk art. Red China's leaders have fostered participation in their country's oldest forms of athletics along with the new. Here Li Fu-Mei of Shanghai, women's all-round winner in a "traditional sports" contest, performs "The Sword Dance." China's best athletes are accorded the title of Master of Sports and receive top food rations. They devote full time to training but by Communist definition remain "amateurs."