Last week a correspondent covering the Asian Games in Iran for Tokyo's The Mainichi received an urgent telephone call from his publisher, who demanded to know what was wrong with the powerful Japanese swimming team. "Not much," replied Reporter Yasu-Aki Suda. "It's the food, it's the beds in the village and it's the Chinese. Mostly, it's the Chinese." And so it went in Tehran, as Chairman Mao Tse-tung's shy and smiling athletes kept extending their hands in friendship and, to their increasing embarrassment, repeatedly ended up with fistfuls of medals.
No Chinese amassed a greater embarrassment of riches than woman gymnast Chiang Shao-yi, who won five medals, all of them gold.
"Congratulations," said an American photographer to Chiang's coach, Hsu Jen-chieh. "Now would it be all right if I take a picture of her with all of her medals?"
Hsu beamed approval. "Certainly you can—on the victory stand when they give her her last medal."
September 15, 1974
"No, I mean with all of her medals," said the photographer.
The Chinese coach recoiled. "All of her medals. No, no, no. Not like Spitz. Not like Mark Spitz. With one medal only."
By the end of the sixth day of the Games the Chinese were finding it increasingly difficult to avoid comparison to big winners such as Spitz. The People's Republic of China had won 57 medals, including 16 golds, and it seemed likely that with eight more days of competition and some of China's best events still to come, the harvest had barely begun. Only the Japanese, who have dominated the Asian Games since they began in 1951, had won more medals (97), but Japan had been wiped out in two of its strongest suits: diving and gymnastics. And it had seen the Chinese make inroads in a third, swimming.
The success of the Chinese was stunning for a nation self-exiled from international competition since 1954. That was the year Mao unofficially decided that the rest of the world could play its games with Taiwan and turned the motherland into a vast, private training ground for the 300 million athletes among China's 800 million citizens. Four years later he made it official and withdrew the People's Republic from all international athletic federations. Except for a few exhibition tours after Mao introduced Ping-Pong diplomacy in 1972, the Chinese have competed exclusively among themselves for the past 20 years.
Four years ago when the Iranians were awarded the Asian Games for 1974, they made it clear that they wanted the People's Republic, not Taiwan, to represent China. By an overwhelming margin, the Asian Games Federation agreed, threw out the Taiwanese and invited the mainlanders to replace them. The International Olympic Committee, which has a long history of supporting Chiang Kai-shek at the expense of all the Chinese athletes who do not live on his island, threatened to withdraw its sanction for the Asian Games. Numerous federations said they would boycott the Games and the generalissimo sulked.
Undaunted by the threats, the Iranians began quiet negotiations with IOC members, who finally agreed to approve the Games if the federations of the various sports would go along with the new China policy. After more negotiations, the federations slowly began unloading Taiwan to make room for the People's Republic. FINA, the federation that controls swimming, diving and water polo, proved the toughest group to crack. The mainland Chinese applied for membership, but stipulated that if Taiwan was not ousted from FINA, the federation could forget their application. By a two-vote margin, the 30 members of FINA's executive committee voted to forget it. Following 11th-hour negotiations with FINA President Dr. Harold Henning of the United States, the Chinese dropped the offending clause from their application, and the day before the Asian Games opened approval was granted for them to participate in the water-sports events as nonmembers.
In a small room in the apartment complex assigned to the Chinese in the athletes' village later that same day, Wu Chung-yuan, the man in charge of international relations at the Games for the All-China Sports Federation, said that everyone was happy that FINA had given its blessing, and that nothing had happened to make anyone think that Taiwan was anything more than just an island province off the coast of China. "The Chinese stand on this problem is very clear and well known," said Wu. "There is only one China. That is the People's Republic of China. If anyone schemes to make two Chinas, or one China and one Taiwan, it would be absolutely opposed by our side. Taiwan is in no way a separate entity; it is one of the provinces of China."
The subject then changed from politics to sports and Wu managed to simultaneously smile and look sad when asked about the strength of his country's team. "Not too good, I am afraid," he said. "As you know, this is our first time in the Asian Games, so our knowledge of the standards of the other teams is limited. Many Asian countries have advanced players. Ours are not so advanced. Our purpose is to learn from our Asian friends. We were told that during these competitions we should remember the slogan: friendship first, competition second. In some events, perhaps badminton and table tennis, our teams may be compared with others."
That the Chinese were worthy of comparison to any of their rivals became evident almost immediately after the magnificent ceremony opening the Games. Su Chih-po, a 26-year-old worker in a harvesting-machine factory in Hopeh province, scored 552 points in the 50-meter free pistol event and took the Games' first gold medal. A short time later Su joined Chi Ke-fa and two other teammates in the 50-meter free pistol event and, bang, China had its second gold.
Thirty-seven-year-old Chi is China's national champion, and he felt that he had been done in by the combination of Tehran's hot, dry climate and 5,600-foot altitude. In practice back home in Kansu province he had shot a 573, one point better than the world record. At the Games he could do no better than a 533.
A small, slightly balding man, Chi rubbed his throat, gargled and grinned. "I blame the conditions," he said, "but maybe it is my age that is catching up with me. Of course, gold medals are not important. We are happy to win them, but the results were not the reason for coming here."
It was a theme that would be heard many times in the days that followed, an idea tucked neatly into every interview, as though the Chinese were afraid everyone would forget that their true desire was Yu-i Di-i, Bi-sai, Ti-erh: friendship first, competition second.
"Winning lasts but briefly," said Shih Tien-shu, the team's interpreter. "In China we have a saying: winning or losing is not the important thing. It is the friendship. You can see the results on the scoreboard or hear them on the radio, and then they are gone. But friendship strikes roots in the hearts of people. In China, sports is a very good bridge for people to get to know each other and to improve their health. Some people want to make money out of sports. This is not sportsmanship. It is not sport."
The other Asian competitors must have wished for even more Yu-i and less Bi-sai from the Chinese. Going into the second week of the Games the Chinese men's basketball team was unbeaten, the water polo team was dunking opponents by scores of 10-3 and 17-2, the men's tennis team had lost just one match en route to qualifying for the finals and even the weight lifters, who were given no chance, had gotten a medal or two.
"Actually, we are not very good," said Shen Tsien-chiu, the men's tennis coach. He is a short, stocky man from Shanghai, which is where the best Chinese players come from. In the 1950s Shen played twice at Wimbledon. "Each time I lost in the second round," he said.
"I can't remember," Shen replied with a faint frown. "Oh, yes. I think it was to that Australian player. The lefthander. What's his name? Laver? Rod Laver? Is that it? I can't remember the other one. I just remember I didn't win."
Play began on a court behind him and Shen turned to watch as his No. 2 man, Wang Fu-chang, edged Thailand's Somparn Champisri 7-5, 6-4 in a 3-0 Chinese sweep of the Thais. "We are just now getting used to the altitude here," Shen said. "The ball moves faster than we expect and it is harder to control. We have a long way to go. Our style is not very active. We beat the Iranians yesterday, but even so, I think their style is much better, much more active. And I am very sorry to say we are playing without national champion Hsu Mei-lin. He is at the village, but he has a very heavy cold. I am not only sorry for me, but for the whole team. However, to win is not our purpose. We are here to learn, to make ourselves healthy and to...."
With Hsu sick, No. 3 man Lu Cheng-yi went undefeated in the first three matches and found himself the ace of the Chinese team. He is tall and slender and just turned 18. A tennis player for six years, he works in a Shanghai textile mill and says he feels lucky if he gets to practice three or four times a week. Still, his play in the early rounds made him a strong favorite to win the men's singles, but he frowned when he considered what a gold medal would mean to him. Finally he said: "If I achieve that, it would be a great honor for China. Still I would stay a common man. I don't think it would make any difference in my life. I'll be the same ordinary person."
Chang Jung-hua is China's national women's tennis champion. Twenty-seven and married with no children, she works in a knitting mill. In Shanghai, of course. The thoughts of winning a gold medal did not dismay her at all.
"Just being here is a great event for me," she said. "I think I should try to do my best, but to win a medal is not my purpose. Of course, if I take one, it will be a great honor for me because it will mean I have developed my technique to its fullest. Billie Jean King? Is she the one with the glasses? Yes, I saw a picture of her once in a magazine. We had a film of her and some other players at Wimbledon. I didn't get to see it. It is a pity."
Meanwhile the Japanese were thinking it was a pity that they had left their eight top gymnasts at home to prepare for the world championship next month at Varna, Bulgaria. Led by 27-year-old Chiang Shao-yi, the Chinese women won nine gymnastics medals, including five gold, and they had onlookers wondering what they will do for an encore after they gain international experience. The Chinese men were not nearly as strong but they took nine medals as well, not bad for a bunch of beginners.
"We have worked very hard for a year," Chiang said. She has been a gymnast since she was an 11-year-old primary school student in Yunnan province. Now she is an instructor in her sport at the Physical Culture and Sports Institute in Peking. Gymnastics have always been popular in China, she explained, especially among students, but it has been only during the last 20 years that artistic gymnastics have been widely practiced.
"The main thing is to improve or raise the standard through friendly exchanges," she said. "For instance, we visited the United States last year and we learned a lot from the American players." Quite a lot, it appears. On Tuesday the Chinese men and women won the team titles. The next day Chiang and teammates Ning Hsiao-lin and Hsin Kuei-chiu finished 1-2-3 in the all-round, and two nights later Chiang was brilliant as she won three of four possible gold medals and had an almost perfect 19.35 (out of 20) for her two performances on the floor. The same evening Tsai Huan-tsung won four medals for the men to boost the Chinese gymnasts' total to 18.
Arthur Gander is the president of FIG, the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique. He is a German Swiss who wears baggy pants and has a tendency to pound the table when he speaks. He was once a member of the Swiss national gymnastic team and had been a gym teacher until his retirement. And he was aghast at the expulsion of Taiwan from the Asian Games, but the Chinese gymnasts won him over with their performances.
"There is no event in which they are lagging," Gander said. "They are equally good in all. They have wonderful moves and technique, and a virtuosity and precision that is a rarity even among Japanese men. The trend in gymnastics is toward acrobatics, as demonstrated by Olga Korbut. I'm not a fan of it, but it seems everyone is doing triple saults now, and triple twists, and quadruple twists. The art of gymnastics is suffering. The Chinese show more artistic performances. They are total perfection. To watch them makes your heart laugh."
He found a table nearby and began to pound on it. "I did not expect them to be this good, but they convinced me. A Chinese is a very well-formed human being, better formed than a Japanese, for instance." He pounded some more. "Or a Swiss. That is one advantage. The Chinese men are most beautiful, and the women are better formed than most women from other countries as well."
Because they do not belong to FIG, the Chinese were performing at a disadvantage. As outsiders, they were not able to place a judge on the panel. "There was another thing regarding the rules," said Gander. "Every other team practiced in the big hall where the competitions took, place although it was against the rules. Nobody said anything. The Chinese were the only ones following the rules and practicing in the practice hall. They like to keep in the background."
In swimming the Japanese were still the dominating force, even though the Chinese won 18 medals, including eight in diving. With those victories, China served notice that it is likely to be a formidable foe in the future. A friendly foe, that is.
The women's diving star—insofar as the Chinese will permit anyone to be a star—was Chung Shao-chen, a compact 26-year-old from Kwangtung province, a warm and watery place from which most of the good Chinese swimmers and divers come. She finished just ahead of teammate Sung Yun-tsang to capture a gold medal in the three-meter springboard. Two days later she turned in a stunning, gold-medal-winning performance off the platform.
The men did almost as well in the three-meter springboard, with first place going to Hsieh Tsai-min, a 21-year-old student from Szechwan province who looks like Peter Lorre, and the bronze medal to 16-year-old Liu Sui.
Chinese Diving Coach Liang Po-hsi was all smiles. A 10-time national diving champion, he had done his work well and he agreed to an interview with a woman writer from the New China News Agency, who acted as an interpreter for a Western colleague. The English-speaking reporter asked Liang if he had expected to win that many medals.
"Of course. We came here to win medals." the Chinese writer abruptly answered. "Why are you asking such a question?"
"Oh, I don't know. Why don't you ask him anyway?"
Liang was asked and he did not say that the divers came to Iran to win medals. "For us friendship comes first, competition second," he said. "Whether we get the medals or not, we are very happy we have made many new friends and have met many old friends. We think our men and women have displayed good sportsmanship and also a high level of skill. But we are especially happy that our Iranian friends are very friendly to us and we have practiced together with other Asian divers and we have learned from each other. That is our main harvest. And our aim in developing this event in our country is to build up the health of the people."
Dr. Henning, the FINA president, was asked how well the Chinese swim.
"Up to now, we didn't know," he said. "They have done very well. Certainly not world class by any means, but they have qualified for the finals in every event and in most of them even had two people in the finals. Their strokes are very basic and orthodox. I think they have a good understanding of the strokes, which in time, as they watch other swimmers and learn new techniques, they will carry over into their training and they will improve on their times. Their starts and turns are terrible. Even the diving isn't world class, although they certainly are better than most divers in Asia. They are picking some difficult dives, but the execution isn't what you would expect in world class. They need to watch better swimmers and divers and contact other coaches and swimmers from other countries."
Well, that seems to be what the Chinese had been saying all along. Now that the Asian Games have moved into their second week, into sports the Chinese have already learned well, such as table tennis and badminton, more of those powerful arms will be extended in friendship. It is enough to make their friends shudder.